Dir. Delbert Mann. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti
Usually one should shy away from calling a movie “universal,” but there really is something universal in Marty: give people what they tell you they want, and they’ll complain about not getting enough. In Act I, Marty (Borgnine), an amiable and well-meaning butcher on the cusp of thirty-five, is unmarried and it’s killing everyone. His mother (Minciotti) is heartbroken that her eldest son is unmarried when all of his siblings are. In one early scene, a pair of consecutive customers come up to the counter, order their meat, and ask about Marty’s younger brother. He’s just been married. And when are you going to get married? they ask. Your brothers and sisters all married and you still single? “You oughta be ashamed of yourself.” That seems like a heck of a thing to say to a guy you buy steak from, but it’s the kind of raw overstatement which occasionally walks, not unwelcome, into the movie. Nobody hides it—nobody says “You’ll find the right girl” in a condescending tone, say—and in a movie like this one, which is succinct and rejects needless complication, it’s the right tone to set. Marty is, in the mid-’50s, living at home with Ma without any prospects to move on.
In Act II, Marty happens across a woman who says she’s 29, but no one believes her. (Betsy Blair was in her early thirties during the shoot.) She’s a chemistry teacher, living with her parents in another part of the city. Rapidly her presence earns Marty the ire of just about everyone, even when he’s being thrown at her. Her blind date, whose Ave Maria is “I only get one Saturday off a month,” sees her and immediately looks for ways to cast her off on some other guy. He finds Marty, offers to pay him five bucks to pretend he’s an old Army buddy and take Clara off his hands, but Marty is a little too innocent to buy into the plan. From there, when Marty, saying that a couple of “dogs” like them aren’t so bad as they think they are, falls for her, the world caves in. Marty’s best friend, Angie (Joe Mantell), is mad that Marty abandoned him at the desert of the the Stardust Ballroom, although this is empirically the most interesting thing to happen to either one of those men ever. Marty’s mother, egged on by her bitter sister, Catherine (Augustine Ciolli), starts to worry about what will become of her if Marty were actually to leave home. She’s not Italian, she complains before Mass. She’s too old. Clara made one of those modern comments about women looking for something new to do in lieu of cooking and cleaning for children—as much as anything, it’s the source of Mrs. Piletti’s ire. Marty’s friends, drunk on Mickey Spillane and animal magnetism, dismiss Clara as a real dog and dream of the tomatoes who, surely, they imagine, will become bruschetta for these blue-collar guys without taste or aim. Yet Marty finds himself, despite the best night of his life—a chaste affair which is truly intimate in its breathlessly personal conversation—going out with the guys, listening to Ma. Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay doesn’t have half the life of the one he made for Network, but he evinces his keen eye for the foibles of the hoi polloi. A hundred years ago, a butcher like Marty would have been married long ago, Catherine would live with her son and daughter-in-law until she died, and Clara would have been an old maid schoolmarm for sure. Chayefsky traces the implosion of an old way of life and charts a new one for Marty and Clara, although Marty has to fight everyone and everything he knows just to get himself in the phone booth.
Marty is to date the shortest movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and its tight by any standard run time (maybe seconds over an hour and a half) is a testament to its making. Delbert Mann shot the move, retakes in all, in less than three weeks. He and Chayefsky were both television vets—Marty was Chayefsky’s teleplay before it was his feature film—and it has the neat, lean feel of the best of Golden Age television. Its cast members were discount darlings, culled from the blacklist or TV or, in Borgnine’s case, being stabbed to death by Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Yet all the same it’s a marvelously made movie, never appearing cheap for its thriftiness. Much of the credit must belong to Joseph LaShelle, who works the dark edges of New York City with the same kind of suave realism that informs Laura and The Apartment. Marty meets Clara on a balcony where the two of them are wreathed in shadow. It’s hardly romantic, least of all because the two of them are falling back into what’s been an unbreakable cycle whenever they put themselves out there. She knows she’s been given the brush not once but twice in minutes; he’s having a slightly better night, but his afternoon and evening have been a series of scoldings and tears. (He cries easily, poor fella.) Somehow, too, it seems right that the two of them, neither one handsome, should run into each other where looks matter less. Marty is sort of tubby in his suit, no matter which suit he puts on. Clara appears without makeup in her early scenes, but tosses some on once she and Marty have been out for a little while. It’s reminiscent of Julia from 1984 when she does the same thing, albeit Julia has the sex appeal and the cluelessness to make that something like appealing. Clara wings her eyeliner and puts lipstick on and she looks like she came from Versailles circa 1789. Even later in the night, it appears to have disappeared; perhaps she thought better of it. Certainly it’s not her—Blair plays Betsy like a woman who really is in her twenties, and who has a line of dialogue about teaching which struck me as being at least as true as any other I’d ever heard in a movie. She calls her students “kids,” and never “students,” and there’s a kindness in her voice as she thinks about them with that precise diction which puts Dead Poets Society and whatever other ed movies people like to shame.
You keep expecting the story to get a little acidic as it goes on, and it really never hits that point. Twice it appears like something really bad will happen, but in both cases Marty makes the right decision. In one scene, Marty is still out with Clara when he’s called over to a car by his buddy Ralph (Frank Sutton), who has the teeth of a British cartoon character and the manner of a drunk preteen. He has a couple of girls in the car, “guaranteed” to swing, he says. Want in? Marty, although we are momentarily afraid that he will give in to temptation, does the right thing: he returns to Clara. More painful in the moment is the last stretch of the movie, which gives us a little time to imagine that Clara, sitting on her couch and watching TV with her parents, having waited hours for the call Marty promised to make, will wait in vain. Marty is shaken to his senses when one of the guys suggesting a drive to Union City for a burlesque, and his response is revelatory. I must be out of my mind! he says. I just had a great night with a nice girl and I’m here with you schlubs instead! It’s a well-earned cheer, one of those painfully rare movie elements, and Borgnine genuinely sells it. Young Borgnine may look like discount Churchill but he brings a serious honesty to the movie which is essential to its mood. In one long monologue directed at Blair, Borgnine never overemphasizes words like “understand” and “adored” and “kind,” but they jump out of the speakers because of his sincerity. We must never believe that any of this story is ironic any more than we would believe Cinderella ironic, for otherwise the magic would pass away.