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Marty (1955)

Marty (Ernest Borgnine) is a bachelor butcher living in the Bronx with his mother, Theresa (Esther Minciotti). He meets and falls in love with a plain schoolteacher, Clara (Betsy Blair), much to the disappointment of his friends and family.

The film won Best Picture, Best Actor for Borgnine, Best Director for Delbert Mann (his directorial debut!), and Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. It was also the fourth American film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.

Grace Kelly presents Ernest Borgnine with his Best Actor Award at the 28th Annual Academy Awards.

I liked the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, when Marty is still very shy and unsure about his place in the world. We see him working at his job and interacting with his mother and best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), and it all feels very natural. Marty feels lost and stuck in his humdrum life; as he wanders around New York City, it feels very immersive as the audience sees real places in The Bronx. It makes Marty seem even smaller, amongst the crowds and looming buildings. I like that they chose to film on actual locations because that was not very common in Old Hollywood films. I watched this on the Blu-Ray version, and it looks great – the black and white is very crisp and feels slightly modern.

Marty and Angie go to the Stardust Ballroom to try and pick up some girls, though Marty is not having much success. We can really feel his painful awkwardness in this scene, something that is very relatable. Borgnine’s performance, while not my favorite, is good and it was interesting to see him play a more down to earth character. He embodies Marty naturally, bringing all of his strange quirks to life.

Marty eventually meets Clara, who came to dance with a mean date who abandons her for another girl. Marty and Clara end up spending all night with each other, dancing and talking for hours.

Sometimes I consider myself to be a hopeless romantic and other times I’m very cynical about the idea of love. Marty made me feel more like the latter, which was probably not the angle it was going for. It reminded me slightly of Before Sunrise, another romance film set over a 24-hour period, based mostly around the interactions between the two main characters. However, with Marty, I didn’t like or connect with the characters enough to really care about their relationship. It felt very rushed and unnatural.

Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair

The acting felt stiff and awkward, resulting in little to no chemistry between Borgnine and Blair. Maybe it didn’t help that we really only learn about Marty, Clara is kind of just there as a person to bounce dialogue off of.

In fact, most of the female characters in this film are portrayed to be ugly, annoying, or just plain stupid. Clara is constantly referred to as a “dog,” even to her face by Marty himself. Instead of the movie critiquing the way men treat and talk about women as if they are objects or things to be ogled at, the movie itself is doing that. There’s a difference between showing that characters are being misogynistic, and the filmmakers doing that. To me, it came off as the director and writer were coming down on women for some reason.

Marty is a pretty nice guy who seems to respect women until Clara dodges a kiss from him at one point on their date. He bursts out in a fit of rage, upset that she has rejected his advances. This is kind of a turning point in the movie; we see that maybe Marty isn’t really that great of a guy. He continues to sit idly by while his mother and friends continuously hound on his girlfriend, and he even considers breaking up with Clara just because they hate her so much.

I understand that Marty has very low self-esteem, and is used to people telling him what to do, but he takes that anger out on Clara – a woman he basically just met. It also feels like we’re supposed to like Marty because he does the bare minimum and is not a total louse, like his friends. That’s not really enough of a reason to root for his character and Clara to be together.

The movie also has a side plot of Marty’s aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) moving in with him and his mother because she is annoying her son (Jerry Paris) and his wife (Karen Steele), who are having marriage problems of their own. Marty was based on a live television production of the same name in 1953, and this part of the story was added on just for the film. It definitely feels that way. It’s kind of pointless and doesn’t serve much of a purpose to the story, outside of another way to hate on the female characters.

Esther Minciotti, Karen Steele, and Jerry Paris in an early scene from Marty.

Despite the fact that the movie is only 90 minutes long, it drags on for a long time in the second half and did not hold my attention after Marty and Clara’s date. The story felt so disjointed and the characters were uneven in their philosophies and personalities. We don’t even learn that much about Clara, and it seems we’re to believe that she and Marty are soulmates.

However, Roy Webb’s score is nice and fits the mood of the film very well. It’s romantic yet slightly melancholy, and never distracts from what is happening onscreen.

When the film opened in summer of 1955, it did extremely well with critics and audiences alike. I can see why people may have enjoyed it back then, but most of the elements do not hold up today, especially the gender roles and some of the dialogue.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

audrey cornell View All

Audrey is a self-proclaimed film buff who loves to watch, read, and write about movies. Her passions include queer & feminist studies, watching obscure 80s/90s and Old Hollywood films, and discovering new music. She also writes for Scribe Magazine. Check out her podcast about actors who died young!

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