A fat, ugly man and a dog – hardly the basis for a hit movie; except, of course, if the fat, ugly man is Ernest Borgnine and the movie is Delbert Mann’s sublime, Marty (1955); a sumptuous, character-driven tour de force for Borgnine and the perfectly cast, Betsy Blair as ‘the dog’ – Clara. I have a natural affinity for dogs; also for the awkward guy who just can’t seem to find Miss Right…or in Marty Piletti’s case – even, Miss Right Now. Paddy Cheyefsky’s screenplay – expanded from his own 1953 teleplay – is a masterful concoction of old world prejudices and new-fangled apprehensions; the younger generation, brought up on the congested lower east side and let loose to sink or swim on their own accord, while endlessly being put upon by their elders who, ostensibly, just want what is best for them.
I saw Marty for the first time in 1983 on late night TV and recall the experience fondly – laid up with a merciless cold, a bright shiny nose and a box of half-used Kleenex. Even in this deplorable state, I instantly fell in love with Borgnine’s tenderly appealing, joyously obtuse and self-professed ‘fat ugly man’; secretly yearning for the glamor and excitement of a new romance – but discerning and intelligent enough to recognize that his was a mug only a mother could unconditionally love; unless, of course, the girl also happened to be a shy and retiring wallflower.
Paddy Cheyefsky’s infinite wisdom as a writer manages to coax the audience from their own narrow-mindedness about romance. Why is it when we think of two people falling passionately in love we tend to see only Mr. and Mrs. America of any year playing these parts, rhapsodically waxing and waning to the strains of hearts and flowers? Hollywood is, of course, partly to blame; also the romance novel from generations past and present. Perfect pairs thrust into imperfect situations that turn out all right in the end. It’s hardly life but obviously, it satisfies a certain class of wish fulfillment. But Cheyefsky – not necessarily a handsome man, himself (sorry, Paddy) – perhaps, intuitively understands that the copyright on l’amour is not the exclusive domain of these supreme beings from the world of the anatomically gifted. Perhaps, merely coming from the realm of the anatomically correct will suffice. And it does, poignantly and with immense satisfaction and sincerity in Marty.
Here is a tale to inspire anyone in search of that special someone. Borgnine’s empathetic pug is a mixed bag of lovable charm and befuddled frustration; a man who’s seen too much of life’s selfish rejections and remains utterly paralyzed by his own anxieties where women are concerned. There is a moment in Marty, where Borgnine’s capacious capon nervously tucks himself in a corner of his mother’s front parlor to telephone a girl, Mary Feeney, he met several weeks before at the RKO Chester movie house; cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle’s camera slowly dollying in on a close-up as Marty becomes quietly ashamed of his own desperation to procure a second date with this woman who can barely remember the circumstances of their first ‘cute meet’ – much less the specifics – like his name; a wounded futility painted across Borgnine’s slumped brow and panged visage; his eyes shut tight, presumably, to blot out the tears. In a performance that quite easily breaks the heart as readily as it elevates the soul, Ernest Borgnine gives us an intelligent reading of this solitary, simple bachelor, yearning to have someone – anyone – notice him.
Many today will forget Marty – the movie – was preceded by Marty; the TV episode; a 48-minute installment of NBC’s Philco-Goodyear Playhouse series, later expanded to a 60-minute broadcast costarring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand. The ‘golden age of television’ was a fertile proving ground for such writers as Paddy Chayefsky, and Marty – despite having little to no impact on the small tube, caught the eye of Burt Lancaster; the newly formed Hecht-Lancaster production company looking for new ideas to make into feature movies. In expanding his one-act drama, Chayefsky was to brilliantly parallel Marty’s unassuming girl trouble with a newly created subplot involving family woes brewing over at his more handsome cousin, Tommy’s (Jerry Paris) apartment; Tommy’s mother, Marty’s Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) getting in the way of Tommy’s domestic happiness with his own wife, Virginia (Karen Steele) and their newborn. Whereas the TV drama exclusively focused on Marty’s quest for happiness, the movie approached the microcosm of Marty’s quixotic affliction from a much broader canvas; one depicting men and women at varying stages in their evolution from sparing romantics to long-haul soul mates.
On the side of youth are Marty’s younger siblings (whom we never see, but are endlessly talked about as having found love partners in the prime of their youth – one of them just nineteen years old). It’s a savage fact Marty has had to face once too often: at thirty-four, he’ll never be love’s young dream for any woman. In this middle act is, of course, Marty and Clara; also Tommy and Virginia, and Marty’s small entourage of lovelorn male friends; including Angie (Joe Mantell) and Ralph (Frank Sutton); guys hung up on centerfold pin-ups or glued to their comic pages and the slick, arrogant writing style of Mickey Spillane. None has a clue how to go about getting a girl to like them. The sages of this piece aren’t any more prolific: Marty’s Aunt Catherine, bitter over being pawned off on Marty and her widowed sister, and Marty’s mum, Theresa Piletti (the utterly charming Esther Minciotti), turning from misguided encouragement to grave concern after Catherine contaminates her outlook with implications the same thing will happen to her if Marty ever finds himself the right girl.
Evidently, Marty – the movie – struck a cross-generational/intercontinental chord with audiences; becoming only the second movie in history to win both the Best Picture Oscar and the even more distinguished, Palme d’Or. Today, it remains as fresh and vital as ever, perhaps because in the seventy odd years since its debut not all that much has changed between men and women. They still love, laugh, bicker and fight; unearthing old wounds that tear them apart, but rediscovering new reasons to stay together, despite their differences in temperament. There’s a perennially renewable quality to Ernest Borgnine’s performance too; the every man of any year – just a working stiff with the smallest of daydreams: to be satisfied in life and in love. What a jubilant and endearing teddy bear of a man!
After Roy Webb’s ebullient main title overture, our story descends from a view of a crowded street in the Bronx to the inside of a cramped butcher shop; thirty-six hours in the life of this thirty-four year old burly meat cutter. Marty Piletti is constantly being criticized by friends of his mother who have already cruelly labeled him a starry-eyed loser. It’s such a shame too that a closed mind is frequently accompanied by open mouths with absolutely no compunction about sharing their callous opinions as to what is wrong with his life. Marty bites his tongue and keeps taking it on the nose. He has to. After all, he’s a good Catholic boy.
After work, Marty hooks up with his pals at a nearby café - the favorite watering hole where single young men shoot the breeze about women, sports and other male pursuits. Marty’s best pal, Angie is frustrated by their ritual Saturday night stalemate – wasting time on street corners or going to Marty’s place to watch television. Angie suggests he and Marty try to get reacquainted with a pair of girls they picked up inside the RKO Chester a few weeks back. Marty is disinterested, remembering Mary Feeney as a heavyset woman who didn’t really take an interest in him even then. Angie lies to Marty – claiming Mary was decidedly ready to move beyond first base. Only, she left Marty holding the bat. He refused to swing it and Mary didn’t press the point.
Angie next suggests he and Marty go down to 72nd Street – presumably a favorite haunt for guys looking to get lucky with flashy/trash girls – or perhaps, they could take another crack at the Stardust Ballroom – a cavernous nightclub where singles meet. Neither option appeals to Marty. His lack of enthusiasm thoroughly frustrates Angie. In the meantime, Tommy and Virginia pay a call on Aunt Theresa. Virginia outlines the couple’s sorrow and constant irritations living with Tommy’s mother, Theresa’s sister - Catherine. Tommy wonders whether Catherine wouldn’t be happier living with Theresa and Marty instead. Theresa agrees, but only if Marty is willing. In short order, Marty also agrees to let Catherine move in. He tries to tap Tommy for some sound investment advice about buying his boss’ butcher shop. But Virginia is running this show – and Tommy – must hurry home with her before the babysitter’s time elapses. Tommy does promise Marty to have a look over his plans for the butcher shop on Sunday - after Catherine has already moved in with them.
Later that evening, over dinner, Theresa presses Marty on his plans for the evening. On Tommy’s advice she makes a pitch for Marty to put on his nice blue suit and go down to the Stardust Ballroom where there are ‘a lot of tomatoes’. Marty is momentarily amused by his mother’s lack of match-making prowess. But he becomes increasingly perturbed when she refuses to let up on her plan to marry him off to the first available girl who takes even a passing interest. “Ma,” Marty explains, “Sooner or later, there comes a point in a man's life when he's gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain't got it. I chased after enough girls in my life. I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don't wanna get hurt no more. I just called up a girl this afternoon, and I got a real brushoff, boy! I figured I was past the point of being hurt - but that hurt; some stupid woman who I didn't even want to call up. She gave me the brush. No, Ma, I don't wanna go to Stardust Ballroom because all that ever happened to me there was girls made me feel like I was a bug. I got feelings, you know. I had enough pain…Ma, leave me alone. Whaddaya want from me? I'm miserable enough as it is.”
Nevertheless, to please his ma, Marty does indeed put on his blue suit and go to the Stardust Ballroom with Angie, who wastes no time picking up a mildly attractive woman chatting with a group of friends. However, when Marty attempts a similar introduction he is given a not-so-polite brushoff. Not to worry; for in another part of the ballroom, homely schoolmarm, Clara Snyder is about to be dumped by her blind date, Herbie (Alan Wells). Although nothing special to look at, Herbie fancies himself a real lady’s man. Clara? She’s a dog. So, Herbie offers Marty five bucks if he’ll pretend to be an old army pal and offer to escort Clara home. Disgusted by Herbie’s heartlessness, Marty begs off the payment, but decides to pursue Clara on his own after he quietly observes her break down in tears and bolt for the relative isolation of the rooftop balcony.
Approaching from behind, Marty sympathetically inquires whether Clara would like to dance. She instinctively turns to him, tearstained and pressing her face against his lapels; Marty aversely embracing her for a long quiet moment or two. Afterwards, Marty and Clara take a spin around the dance floor, discovering they have much in common. “See,” Marty confidently declares, “Dogs like us, we ain't such dogs as we think we are. All my brothers and brothers-in-laws tell me what a good-hearted guy I am. You don't get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough, you become a professor of pain.” Clara is charmed by Marty’s frankness, even though he runs on and on about his life and family; a motor-mouth whose own nervousness is sincere, heartwarming and most telling about the breadth of his own social ineptness and loneliness.
Marty and Clara spend one magical evening together, visiting a cozy little diner and laughing over drinks; Marty offering to take Clara home after they make a pit stop for some money at his house. As Theresa has gone to visit Catherine at Tommy’s, Marty and Clara are momentarily alone. Marty makes an attempt to kiss his date – a little action to seal the deal. She resists; but only because she is caught unaware by what to do, gingerly coaxing Marty from his wounded pride by telling him she would very much like to see him again.
At Tommy’s apartment, Catherine bitterly decries the evils of getting old. “These are the worst years, I tell you,” she laments to Theresa, and forewarning, “It's going to happen to you. I'm afraid to look in a mirror. I'm afraid I'm gonna see an old lady with white hair, just like the old ladies in the park with little bundles and black shawls waiting for the coffin…These are terrible years, Theresa, terrible years... It's gonna happen to you…It's a curse to be a widow, a curse! What are you gonna do if Marty gets married? What are you gonna do?”
Theresa is easily provoked by Catherine’s omen, reconsidering her desire for Marty to find a girl and settle down. Hence, when she comes home and finds Marty keeping company with Clara, Theresa’s first reaction is one of fearful apprehension. Although she remains cautious in expressing her feelings at that moment, the next afternoon, after Catherine again suggests Marty will do the same as Tommy has done to her, Theresa attempts to mimic her sister’s own prejudices against Virginia, now directed at Clara – a girl she barely knows. “College girls are one step from the streets,” Theresa tells Marty on the steps of their church, Marty hiding how much his mother’s words have wounded him.
At the bus stop, Marty and Clara briefly encounter Angie, who is decidedly sore at Marty for having stood him up at the Stardust. Marty is embarrassed by Angie’s behavior, apologizing for it before escorting Clara home. But Clara confides in her parents (James Bell and Doris Kemper) what a marvelous evening she’s had. Later the next afternoon, Marty gets together with Angie and Ralph in his living room; the boys planning another dull evening together – hanging out on 72nd Street in the hopes of picking up some girls for a casual fling.
Angie tells Marty he thinks Clara is a dog. When Marty confides in Angie his mother doesn’t seem to like her either, Ralph and the other guys attempt to back up the notion Marty is too good for Clara – and this, despite the fact none of them have actually met her! In the meantime, Clara sits quietly in her living room, tears streaming down her face, watching Ed Sullivan with her parents, fully dressed for a night on the town Marty had initially promised her, but now seems to have played out like a very cruel joke indeed.
Back at the café Marty comes to his own realization; only he can make up his mind what’s right for him. And Clara is as right as the rain. She’s all that matters. “You don't like her,” he tells Angie with begrudging confidence, “My mother don't like her. So she's a dog. So I'm a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees. I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad!” The moment and the movie end with Marty racing to the nearest booth to telephone Clara and beg for her forgiveness.
Marty is a sweetheart of a picture made from the unlikeliest of sources; a television drama. In more recent times, it has become so fashionable for one media to riff off another we forget in 1955 the concept was virtually a non-starter. TV was beneath the movies, just as the movies were considered a step below live theater on Broadway. Mercifully, none of this bourgeois condescension affected or afflicted Marty’s production. On a relatively minuscule budget of $360,000, Marty – an intimate little story – went on to gross over $5 million – and this in an era of splashy historical epics, sprawling westerns and big-budgeted musical extravaganzas. The film also made a star of Ernest Borgnine, whose early career had concentrated on a lot of nondescript television work and the occasional movie role, always cast as the belligerent and/or oafish heavy. Marty proved even in the absence of conventional good looks, Borgnine had more than enough charisma to be considered as a leading man in the right vehicle.
So much of the film is beholding to Ernest Borgnine’s affecting performance, movie reviews often forget to celebrate the other stellar bit players in this ensemble; chiefly Betsy Blair – the faultlessly adoring foil for our boisterous Marty. Blair is a master of subtly. Watch her expressions naturally amend from stung dignity to self-pity and then, quite unexpectedly, morph into an inner reverence and strength of character as she comforts Marty in his living room. There’s a stroke of genius to Blair’s ever-evolving presence; on the surface just a shy girl who knows she has more to offer than a kiss or a few tears – ever so prudent in the way she elevates and compliments Borgnine’s more flashy role.
The other personality to consider herein is Esther Minciotti as the robust Italian mama; an exultant blend of deft comedy and old world ornamentation – at times gentle, then nattering, but always with her heart affixed firmly to her sleeve. Ma Piletti only wants what’s best for her boy. That she allows this altruism to momentarily be corrupted by her sister’s acrimonious influence is somewhat of a disappointment for the audience and a definite letdown for our beefy butcher. But Theresa will never become her sister’s ape. “Where you go, rain go,” Theresa tells Catherine in a moment of clarity, “Someday you gonna smile and we gonna have a big holiday!”
It looks like ‘someday’ will have to do for Marty, because Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray is a disaster. Where to begin? First off, it isn’t widescreen. Marty was made just as the Cinemascope revolution was taking hold. Although Cinemascope would remain the patented property of 2oth Century-Fox, the other studios were nevertheless shooting – or at least masking – their movies to adopt either a 1.66:1, 1.78:1 or 1.85:1 aspect ratio. But by 1955, 1.33:1 was definitely out! Alas, standard Academy ratio is exactly what we get here.
Worse, this is obviously the same tired old print master used for the old MGM/UA Home Video DVD from 2000!!! The B&W image is riddled with age-related dirt, scratches and other damage. Film grain is never accurately reproduced. Some shots are relatively clean, but most others are murky, dull and thick with exaggerated grain levels. Night scenes suffer from a loss of fine detail. Contrast throughout this presentation is variable. Overall image clarity is just passable. Noticeable speckling persists and optical dissolves are severely out of focus. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine an uglier presentation than this. Given Kino Lorber’s exemplary work done on Witness for the Prosecution and Separate Tables I had very high expectations for Marty. No Best Picture winner should look this awful! It’s tantamount to sacrilege.
The DTS 2.0 mono suffices for this primarily dialogue-driven movie, although it mutes Roy Webb’s orchestral contributions. I’ve seen reviews for Marty rating it’s overall quality as 3 out of 5 stars. I can’t see how any self-respecting DVD/Blu-ray critic would be this generous. If this were a term paper I’d give it an ‘F’ – and I don’t mean for ‘fantastic’! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)