Sunday, July 17, 2011

MARTY (1955)


By choosing MARTY for best picture of 1954, the Academy rewarded what it easily one of the least glamorous best picture winners ever; it's a modest, low budget, black and white romantic drama with blue collar characters, no big stars and a mere 90 minute running time.  Yet, despite (or maybe because of) its unassuming nature, it remains a touching and worthwhile film that holds up well decades later.

Before it  was  a movie, MARTY  was a television episode of the same name on "The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse", broadcast in 1953.  Hollywood producer Harold Hecht enjoyed it and thought there was a movie in it, but it took some convincing to get writer Paddy Chayefsky to agree to it, since he feared that it would be commercialized by Hollywood; Hecht offered to have Chayefsky involved in the entire process of the film, and hired Delbert Mann, who had directed the original TV episode, to also direct the film, and Chayefsky relented (along with being the writer of the film, he would be credited as an associate producer).  Originally the writer and director wanted Rod Steiger, who had played the lead in the television version, to reprise the role, but he refused.  When Ernest Borgnine's name came up, they were at first unsure; up to that point in his career he was known mainly for playing the brutal sadist Sgt. Judson in 1953's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and the idea of him playing a goodhearted man in a lead role seemed unlikely.  But Borgnine's  audition for the role convinced them, and he would go on to win a best actor Oscar for it. 
At one point during the film's shooting, due to mismanagement by Hecht and co producer Burt Lancaster (yes, the movie star), funds dried up, and the film was only completed when a deal was struck with United Artists.  After its completion, the studio was unsure what to do with it, and it was dumped in theaters with little promotion, but strong reviews (including one by famed columnist Walter Winchell) and word of mouth would eventually turn it into a hit, and it wound up returning over three million dollars on a budget of under half a million.

Esther Minciotti and Ernest Borgnine

MARTY tells the story of Marty Piletti (Borgnine) a sweet, heavy, thirty four year old Italian butcher who is unmarried and still lives with his mother.  He has resigned himself to a life of loneliness, but, one night, after reluctantly going to a  dance hall with his friend Angie (Joe Matell), he meets a schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair), who has been abandoned by the man who brought her there.  The two of them spend hours together talking, and an immediate connection is formed.  After taking her home, Marty promises to call her the next day, but reconsiders when Angie and Marty's mother (Augusta Ciolli) voice their disapproval of her.  But he can't stop thinking about her, and finally does call her, even telling Angie that he may want to marry her sometime soon.
In keeping with the blue collar nature of its characters, much of the film was shot on location in Brooklyn in real bars and dance halls, and director Mann often fills the frame with crowds of people to show the hectic nature of big city life.   Chayefsky's Oscar winning script is heavy on dialogue and simple situations (not a surprise given its TV origins), but that's not a problem since his dialogue is straightforward, believable, and never dull.  And he makes sure that his characters are neither too perfect or too horrible, like Marty's mother who is sometimes overbearing, but means well.

The film really hangs on Borgnine's performance, and he is marvelous, practically radiating patience and sweetness as he suffers through the indignities of his life: having women in the butcher shop berate him for not being married,  or having to beg for a date with an uninterested woman on the phone.  And there is fine romantic chemistry between him and Blair's Clara; we completely believe that these two lonely people can be drawn to each other so quickly, and that they would be so open to each other within hours of meeting (Marty even admits to her that he has at times considered suicide).  It's charming the way that Borgnine talks too fast after first meeting Clara, or the way that he joyfully swings on stop sign after saying goodnight to her.  Blair is also very good, especially in the scene where she sits alone and cries when she thinks Marty will never call her; the fact that Blair underplays the moment and doesn't go for obvious sympathy actually makes it all the more moving.

Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine

The film's main flaw is that in the transition from fifty one minute television show to ninety minute film, there is some obvious padding: scenes with Angie searching for Marty are pointless, and too much time is spent on a subplot involving Marty's aunt (Augusta Ciolli).  I also object to the idea that Betsy Blair is plain, even if she has a (purposely?) unattractive hairstyle and matronly clothes, she is far from the unattractive woman that the characters in the film describe her as.  But these are minor points in what is a mostly successful film.


While I love the fact that the Academy awarded a low budget sleeper like MARTY, and I obviously enjoy the film, I think there were other films released that year that made more of an impact, such as Nicholas Ray's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.  Still, MARTY certainly isn't a poor choice.