Release Date: April 11th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Delbert Mann Actors: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, Augusta Ciolli, Joe Mantell, Karen Steele, Jerry Paris
tocky, 34-year-old Martin “Marty” Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) comes from a big family. This is only problematic because all of his siblings, while younger, already have spouses and children. And his pals also seem to have plenty of luck with the ladies, save for best buddy Angie (Joe Mantell), who nevertheless nags him constantly for not wanting to chase after girls during every day off. Marty’s mother, Theresa (Esther Minciotti), with whom he shares a house, can’t stop talking about marriage either, while the line of elderly women at the shop where Marty works (as a butcher) harps on him for his single status. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself!” they exclaim, harshly overstepping boundaries while reinforcing ignorant yet mainstream beliefs.
“Everybody drives me crazy!” It doesn’t help that relatives Thomas (Jerry Paris) and Virginia (Karen Steele) can’t handle Theresa’s widowed sister (Augusta Ciolli), who is dumped upon the Piletti’s home. This poor woman’s purpose in life appears as dwindling as Marty’s hopes of ever finding a suitable female companion.
“I got feelings, you know,” begins Marty during a breakdown at the dinner table after his mother yet again prods him to go out to meet girls. Despite nervousness, excuses, and a defeatist attitude, Marty reluctantly heads to the Stardust Ballroom for what he assumes will be another evening of humiliation. At the same time, a man on a blind date with a real “dog” attempts to bribe Marty to take his girl home for him so that he can slip away with a former girlfriend. Marty turns down the offer, but decides to eavesdrop on the situation, where chemistry teacher Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair), who is described as having charm but lacking on looks, walks out on the insulting realization that she’s being traded. Rather opportunistically, Marty then approaches her for some consoling.
Marty’s certainly no poet, but he’s sympathetic and relatable (or, perhaps, genuinely pitiable). Borgnine is superb in the role, exhibiting believable angst or low spirits at the pestering people around him, while turning into a chatterbox in front of his female counterpart. At first he seems desperate (and then even creepy, with his overbearing nice-guy routines), but his acting is entirely natural. From reminiscing to ruminating to recognizing the reality of his relationships (including within his profession, which he views as one that is looked down upon), there’s no feigning with this performance. Even his disreputable actions possess an authenticity, regardless of their occasionally high degrees of uncomfortableness.
But despite a strong lead, with a nicely uncommon love story at its heart (in many ways propelling against conformity), it’s difficult to get around the film’s intensely specific, cheerless message, continually pushed at the audience and paradoxically resolved only by the titular character falling into the very same relationship he’s unable to obtain at the start. Is there such an existence as that of a permanently single man? Can loneliness always be overcome by perseverance?
“Marty” examines the thought-provoking pressures of society, of Catholicism (or any religion, for that matter), and of Italian families or family structures in general (as interpreted by Paddy Chayefsky, who would win an Oscar for the script) – not only when it comes to being single for lack of a romantic coupling, but also for the roles of mothers who outlive their husbands (and, by extension, perceived maternal duties in life, which transform into selfishness when they deem their usefulness to be diminishing) and single friends who don’t want to be left behind. However, this leaves little time to do much else, particularly with Clara’s character development. Notes on independence and privacy crop up, along with commentary on attractiveness, the influences of friends and what other people think, and standard concepts of masculinity (including restrained conversations about sex), but “Marty” keeps circling back to the contradictory or untrue idea that people should pair up and get married – as a priority over everything else, including careers.
If Marty hadn’t found Clara (or if their romancing doesn’t work out – something conveniently unresolved at the close), this would have been an entirely different take on satisfying widespread societal expectations. By the end (even with an ironic final line), the picture’s sweetness and realism are overrun by the notion that happiness is only derived by romantic love – and that that will always arrive just in the nick of time. Though this low-budgeted, small story was rare for 1955, its lasting power is correspondingly limited.
– Mike Massie