Director: Delbert Mann
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky
Based on a Story by: Paddy Chayefsky
Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, Augusta Ciolli, Joe Mantell
Country: USA
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1955
BBFC Certificate: U

Some believe Delbert Mann’s feature film adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay Marty (which Mann also directed) was made as a tax write-off by producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, as they presumed it would lose money. It’s hard to argue with that suggestion when you consider this small, intimate drama with no big-name stars was made in 1950s Hollywood where lavish musicals and lengthy period epics were all the rage. However, against all expectations, 1955’s Marty was an incredible success. Not only did it make $3 million in the US alone (which was a decent amount back then, particularly given the film only cost $343,000), but it achieved a phenomenal level of critical success at the time. It’s one of only two films to have ever won both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palm d’Or (Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend being the other). It took home numerous other prizes and critics lapped it up too.

The film helped usher in a period of smaller, more realistic dramas in the US (in amongst the epics of course) so was quite influential too. Over the years however, Marty has faded a little in our memories and in the eyes of many critics. It’s thought of as a little over sentimental now and independent filmmakers have taken intimate drama to new levels since then. The film’s achievements and qualities deserve to be remembered though and Eureka have helped in this endeavour by releasing Marty on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, as part of their wonderful Masters of Cinema series. I hadn’t seen it before, so gave it a whirl to see what all the fuss was about.

Marty tells the simple story of a butcher, the titular Marty (Ernest Borgnine), who is in his mid-thirties and still single. Back then that was quite unusual and, as such, he is constantly harangued by his mother, neighbours and customers about why he hasn’t found himself a wife. It’s not that Marty hasn’t been trying. He goes out regularly with his single friends, but whilst they boast about their success with younger, more promiscuous types, Marty tends to get the brush off. Besides, he’s tired of chasing after a quick night of fun and wants to settle down, but being shy, plain-looking, chubby and not very well off, he’s not what you’d call the ‘catch of the day’. Just when he’s about given up though, he witnesses a man treat his blind date horribly and steps in to comfort the woman. Her name is Clara (Betsy Blair), and she too is approaching middle age and unlucky in love. Over the course of the night, the two hit it off, but just when things are looking bright for the pair, Marty’s mother and his friends try to talk him out of taking the relationship further. His mother is suddenly afraid a wife will cause him to dump her (thanks to the moaning of her sister) and Marty’s friends think Clara is a ‘dog’ and he should carry on cruising for chicks and goofing off like they’ve been doing the past 10 years or so. Will Marty go along with them or finally take a stand and choose his own path?

I liked this a lot. It helped that I could relate to the character. OK, so I was married by 28, but I was single throughout my teenage years and time at university so can feel the pain of loneliness and crippling shyness. This gets that across most effectively too, without resorting to a lot of melodrama. Yes Marty does blow his top a couple of times with a passionate outburst, but I mean literally a couple of times and these two speeches are short and heartfelt.

Helping the low key drama work is a pair of terrific central performances. I’ve always liked Ernest Borgnine, but know him best for his supporting roles, particularly in his later years when he took on any old job and would crop up in all sorts of straight to video nonsense. I knew him first from the cheesy 80s TV series Airwolf in fact. It’s great to see him carry a film here. His performance is wonderfully nuanced and he makes his character immensely likeable. Betsy Blair, although not in it quite as much as Borgnine, does a fantastic job too. Shy and nervous, but portraying an inner strength Marty lacks, her character is his perfect match.

The actors had a great script by Paddy Chayefsky to work from too. I know him best for his showier work in Network, but here he crafts something subtle and touching that keeps you in suspense as to the outcome until the last minute.

It’s not perfect though. There is a fair amount of sentimentality and some aspects have dated perhaps. Italian American stereotypes rear their heads and the treatment of women at times is pretty atrocious. The latter point isn’t made light of though and it’s part of the cause for Marty’s frustration at the rut he’s in with his friends at the start of the film. Once you get past any issues that age the film though, you find yourself with a refreshingly low key and intimate gem from the era. Sweet, heartfelt and beautifully performed, it’s as much a pleasure to watch now as it must have been then.

Marty is out on 30th April on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The audio and picture quality are decent. There’s a little damage, but only in a couple of brief shots. For the most part it’s a solid transfer.

Extra features include:

– A new video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
- Original trailer presented by Burt Lancaster
- Marty (1953) The original teleplay broadcast on NBC in 1953, also directed by Delbert Mann and starring Rod Steiger in the title role
- Archival interviews with Delbert Mann and the cast of the original teleplay (Rod Steiger, Nancy Marchand and Betsy Palmer)

Neil Sinyard’s piece is informative and the archival interviews are worth a look too, although they’re only short. The teleplay is a wonderful addition, providing an alternative truncated and differently cast version of the film that’s interesting to see.

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