I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as pure a cinematic expression of joy as the look on Marty’s face after he drops Clara off at her apartment and realizes he’s just had the best time of his life talking with this girl. Maybe Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain after he drops Debbie Reynolds off at her apartment…you get the idea. But let’s back up.
Marty is a 35-year-old bachelor whose friends and family are after him to get married, but he’s got Ernest Borgnine’s face, so he can’t seem to drum up much interest no matter how nice he is (and he is genuinely nice, not the “nice guy” type who isn’t really nice at all)…until he meets Clara, who’s also rather homely. It would be easy to write this off as “two ugly people finally find other ugly people and settle,” but it’s so much more than that. Granted, it is a bit on the simplistic side in terms of message, but it’s so charming and Borgnine and Betsy Blair are so charismatic that I didn’t care about that.
Marty is one of the few Best Picture winners I’ve never gotten around to seeing, partially because “ugly guy finds ugly girl” doesn’t sound like a particularly interesting plot. It’s a lot funnier than I was expecting, and a lot lighter. What I really didn’t expect was to identify with the main characters quite so much – I’ve never thought of myself as particularly attractive, and also never had much luck in love until I met my now-husband, at age 29. I’ve had that awkward should-we-kiss-now moment, and that electric “I think this is the one” moment, and I had them at very similar stages in life to these two.
It’s also filled with some great supporting characters, like Marty’s mother Teresa (Esther Minciotti), who at first is all about Marty getting married, then realizes thanks to a subplot involving her sister that when sons get married, mom kind of gets replaced by the new wife and suddenly tries to discourage him. It was interesting to see Jerry Paris, who I’ve previously only seen as the neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, in a more dramatic but equally loud-mouthed role. Betsy Blair doesn’t get quite enough to do as Clara, but she has a few good moments and the story is mostly about Marty anyway – I’d like to see the Clara companion piece.
Their date is like a microcosm of the beginning of relationship – tentative at first, then Marty turns into a chatterbox while she smiles softly at the words pouring out of this former wallflower. But she gets her chance, too, laughing and telling her stories at the diner, then intimacy grows as they take a turn by his home. She even gets to meet his mother in this accelerated timeframe (unconsciously bolstering Teresa’s fears of being pushed out by a potential new daughter-in-law). It may only be one night, but in terms of character-building and romance-building, it’s pretty amazingly written and performed. Borgnine won an Oscar for this role, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s also better-shot than I expected, with high contrast lighting glorifying the city at night, slow but deliberate camera movements making the most of the actors performances, and composition showing us exactly what we need to see to establish character beats and relationship shifts.
The film is kind of interesting from a historical viewpoint – it’s clearly a product of its time in terms of the expectations of marriage, the mentions of Mickey Spillane and the single guys’ admiration of “how he handles women” (I haven’t read a lot of Spillane, but it sounds like a precursor to Bond’s sexual domination), and the necessity of men making all the movies – Clara waits for Marty to call her, for example, rather than just call him up. Marty’s decision to pursue Clara because he enjoys being with her even though his buddies call her “a dog” seems obvious yet is meant to be revelatory – but how strong is peer pressure even now? How many groups of men just assume they should get any girl they want? Marty’s heartfelt desire for love and yet acceptance of rejection marks him out as one of the good guys, and he really is – that’s why we care so much when he has a chance.
At the same time, the film marks a new kind of filmmaking in 1955 – focused on working class characters living ordinary lives, no glamour, no heroics, not even any “spirit of the downtrodden” as you’d find in something like The Grapes of Wrath. But it isn’t pure kitchen sink drama, either – it’s very written, and despite the strong Italian-American New York accents, these characters wouldn’t talk like they do here, and I really enjoy this type of slightly heightened writing in mostly realist films.
Stats and stuff…
directed by Delbert Mann, screenplay by Paddy Chayefksy
starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, Joe Mantelli, Jerry Paris, Karen Steele
I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Marty entered my chart:
Marty > Beetlejuice
Marty > The Thirteenth Floor
Marty > Ben-Hur
Marty < Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Marty > Blue Valentine
Marty < Stranger on the Third Floor
Marty < My Cousin Vinny
Marty > American Beauty
Marty > Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Marty > The 39 Steps
Marty > The Master
Marty > The Squid and the Whale
Final ranking #309 out of 3584 films on my chart (91st percentile)
It is now my #1 Delbert Mann film, my #1 Ernest Borgnine film, my #22 Romantic Drama, my #19 Best Picture Winner, and my #7 film of 1955.
Marty was recommended by Greg Dorr, a friend from the Flickcharters Group on Facebook. Averaging together this #309 ranking with my #486 ranking of his other film, The Visitor, Greg gets an average ranking of #397.
A few quotes…
Everybody, basically: [to Marty] “You oughta be ashamed of yourself. When are you gonna get married?”
Angie: “What do you feel like doing tonight?”
Marty: “I dunno. What do you feel like doing?”
Marty: “I’ve been looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life. I’m 34 years old. I’m tired of looking. Don’t you think I want to get married? Everybody’s always saying why don’t you get married. I want to get married!”
Marty: “Sooner or later there comes a point in a man’s life that he’s got to face some facts. And one fact is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.”
Marty: “You get kicked around often enough you get to be a real professor of pain.”
Marty: “Dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.”
Teresa: “I like to visit you, Catherine, because you always have such cheery news.”
Marty: “I didn’t want to be a butcher.”
Clara: “There’s nothing wrong with being a butcher.”
Aunt Catherine: “College girls are one step from the street, I tell you. My son’s girl, she does the typewriter? One step from the street.”
Marty: “You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog, and 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 and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we have a party on New Year’s, I’ve got a date for that party. You don’t like her, that’s too bad!”
A few more screenshots…