Dir. Delbert Mann
Oscars: Best Picture (Harold Hecht), Best Director (Delbert Mann), Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky)
Other Nominees: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing; Mister Roberts; Picnic; The Rose Tattoo
Marty is a film of such small scale, of such small ambitions, that it is hard to imagine such a film winning critical acclaim or even much popular attention in today’s world of big budgets and high stakes. Indeed, such was the attitude at Warner Bros. at the time of the film’s production, as it was produced largely as a low-budget tax write-off. Regardless, Marty went on to great financial success at many times its studio investment, and took the country by surprise with its simple, naïve charm. The film is largely unremarkable but for the moral conundrum of its titular character, played with dim-witted spark by Ernest Borgnine, who faces questions of worth and identity in as posed to him by those in his good meaning, but close-minded, community.
The film takes place in 1950s Bronx, in an Italian Catholic immigrant community, where largest import is placed on family, tradition, establishing a normative culture, and fitting in. Marty is a 34 year old butcher who is unmarried, who faces great social pressure to change that fact, though every effort he makes to find a girlfriend comes up fruitless. When he meets schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair) at a social, the two immediately bond over their insecurities, their mutual desire for a better life, and their worries about ever truly fitting in. The two spend a wonderful date night together, though later Marty’s mother (Esther Minciotti) and friend Angie (Joe Mantell) try to dissuade him of his new amour, though their reasons are more for fear of losing their friend and keeping Marty on the leash they want him on than a true judgment on Clara’s character. Clara, of course, is without fault: a gentle, kind, moral character whose sole purpose is to accelerate the male protagonist’s journey to revelation. Marty, then, is left to ponder: do I deserve better? Is better possible? Is “better” even a fair judgment to apply to another human?
Marty is more a character study than anything else: a study of a man who is moral, hardworking, decent, plain, normal, and thoroughly American seeking virtue in a world of false facades and judgmental attitudes. To mirror him, Clara is the same: a pure sole hoping to find another but instead seeing only a scramble of dead ends. Marty’s dilemma brings to mind that of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey: he has a descent heart and no worldly traits to recommend him, but that does not mean that he is not deserving of love, for though his virtue is limited almost to happy ignorance, his capacity and need for understand remains unchanged.
The film is short, only 90 minutes (the shortest runtime of a Best Picture winner), but its goals are so simple that it even feels the need to stretch out its few plot points to cover its entire runtime. There is nothing profound about Marty in subject or execution, and its simple structure and thoroughly average film-making aptitude indicate the mass-producing studio system that birthed it. Still, the film has great heart, which likely is what has led to its popularity, both in its time and the years since. You will neither feel like you have gained or lost anything in watching Marty, though you may possibly see the world with slightly kinder eyes, for a moment, at least.