Released by: Eureka Entertainment
Directed by: Delbert Mann
Starring: Ernest Borgnine & Betsy Blair
Run Time: 90 minutes
You know a Marty. I guarantee it. Sixty three years since Delbert Mann’s picture became one of the breakout hits of 1955, and you still know a Marty. That slightly overweight guy in the club, standing on the sidelines with his beer watching slicker, more confident men pick up the attractive young women. Would he be as kindly and sweet natured as Ernest Borgnine’s titular character? Who knows? But you know a Marty, or you knew one at some point. Which is why this film, unexpectedly, resonates across the decades.
Originally a TV play from the great Paddy Chayefsky, who would later go down in greater legend for his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1976’s powerful satire Network, Marty was also originally directed by Mann in that same broadcast from 1953, which is included on Eureka Entertainment’s new revival of the picture on DVD & BluRay – starring a young Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand rather than Borgnine and Betsy Blair in the cinematic version. The script, nonetheless, remains much the same; set over one day, Marty is a heartfelt examination of loneliness in sprawling post-war New York City, with a disenfranchised generation of men and women struggling against the social constraints of expectation when it comes to their gender roles.
Borgnine won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Marty (the film itself also won Best Picture) and it feels earned; his performance is wonderful. Marty is a good man, a kind soul, but someone frustrated by what he conceives to be his lack of looks, his low social status job (as a butcher), and the pressures of his ageing Italian, traditional mother (played by Esther Minciotti, who also appeared in Mann’s TV play in the same role) and family to get married, or his gang of thirty-something, single buddies who still want him to be in the ballrooms every Saturday night looking for girls. Borgnine infuses Marty with a naturalism, a complex range of emotions in regards to all of these influences, which engenders him almost immediately to the audience.
As film scholar Neil Sinyard discusses in one of Eureka’s extras unpicking Marty and adding contextual knowledge, Marty was likened by many as an American version of Italian neo-realism, and given around the same time we had pictures such as On the Waterfront with naturalistic, Method actors such as Marlon Brando, or even powerful TV plays with character actors doing incredible work such as 1957’s 12 Angry Men, this makes sense. Chayefsky’s writing fits alongside contemporaries such as Reginald Rose (or Rod Serling, as Sinyard points out) in how it manages to be about real people in real, grounded situations; these aren’t the dashing romantic fantasies of Golden Age Hollywood. Borgnine or Blair are never going to be pin-ups.
That, however, is precisely the point. Marty eschews the traditional archetype of the Clark Gable romantic lead in favour of the earthy, very human and fallible Borgnine, touching on ideas about life and love which genuinely ring true over half a century later. Modern society still has a judgement problem about single men and women of ‘a certain age’; Marty is 34, while Blair’s Clara is 29, and certainly in the 1950’s questions would have been raised as to why they weren’t ‘off the shelf’ by then.
Chayefsky’s screenplay is crueller to Clara in this regard than Marty; his friends referring to her as ‘a dog’ because she doesn’t fit the conventional type of beauty they would consider a ‘score’. Marty in many ways is hardest on himself and that’s what further makes him human; Borgnine lends him such a self-effacing honesty in the performance that while the treatment of Clara by everyone around him is horrid, you still understand why Marty would anguish about pursuing his chance encounter with her. Mann’s film is very much concerned with image, appearance and expectations.
Unusually for a romantic story, the focus is less on the relationship between the two potential lovers and more on Marty as a man in how he approaches his future; a mother who wants the expected norm of a wife and child for her son but who fears the change that will bring, and the natural adult loss of her bond with her last remaining child at home; Marty’s cousin and his wife with a young baby struggling with each other because of being unable to get any privacy while living with his mother; and his cadre of buddy boys, none of them horrible men necessarily but none ready to take that plunge into domesticity and upward mobility Marty faces with Clara and the prospect of buying the butchers shop. That’s the other point rippling under Chayefsky’s script: class.
Marty is Italian-American working class, despite living in a spacious home which still holds the lingering spectre of his long-deceased father, but Clara is educated, a college girl. They come from two different worlds; we even see this in the brief snapshot of Clara’s home life with her visibly affluent parents in a modern home. Marty has doubts about whether he should take the plunge in buying the shop, even despite having ideas about how he could develop it into a bigger business, and it all comes down to expectations and aspirations. Who should he be? What do people expect him to be? What *could* he be?
That’s where Marty finds it’s hope as a picture because it suggests Marty will break out of the traditional American paradigm; he may well marry the college girl or go from shop worker to self made business man. It’s a less cynical and more positive view of a man’s destiny in America than Chayefsky would later write, perhaps because America still believed the mythical, societal ‘Dream’ could still be attained. He most likely wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have written Marty in the same way twenty years later.
And yet Marty in a strange way feels timeless. Perhaps not from an aesthetic sense, with a setting firmly rooted in 50’s New York, but thematically and in terms of social expectations and gender roles, it remains surprisingly relevant. Mann’s unobtrusive yet solid direction allows Chayefsky’s honest, naturalistic dialogue, filled with sweet wit and earned comedy, to shine through and hit home with many of the ideas that made Marty a hit, both critically and commercially.
This BluRay release, while sadly lacking any direct commentary from the stars, writer and director themselves (Mann only cropping up briefly on a five minute segment about the 1953 TV play), nonetheless provides interesting context and knowledge which will enhance your experience of the picture. It isn’t particularly a film that shines and glows in the BluRay transition, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s what’s inside that matters. A sentiment that could lie at the heart of everything Marty is trying to say.
A film that deserves to be rediscovered because you may well recognise a lot about yourself in dear old Marty.
- 1080p presentation
- Uncompressed LPCM audio
- New video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
- Original teleplay broadcast on NBC from 1953 in full
- Archival interviews with Delbert Mann and the cast of the original teleplay.
- Original trailer presented by Burt Lancaster.
Marty is now available on DVD/BluRay from Eureka Entertainment.