US (1955) Dir. Delbert Mann
What is it with Italian mothers and their sons? They want them to get married and have a family of their own but don’t want them to have a life of their own. I suppose this isn’t exclusive to Italian families but for the sake of the titular singleton of this Oscar winning film it is, though we should be thankful this Italian family is nothing like the Corleones.
34-year old Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a popular, hard working, loyal butcher but his awkwardness around women means he is still single, while his younger brothers and sisters are all married, some with children. If he is not getting it from his customers, Marty is being harangued by his mother Theresa (Esther Minciotti) for not having found a wife.
One night, whilst out with his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) at a dance club, Marty is offered five dollars to take a “dog” off the hands of a disingenuous playboy. Seeing the girl due to be dumped, plain schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair) Marty asks her to dance and hits it off with her. But whilst Marty thinks he may have finally found the one, his friends and family are less enthusiastic about Clara.
Marty might seem like your average, gentle “boy meets girl” romantic drama from post war Hollywood, but it actually carries a lot of weight in its subtext, regarding prejudice, changes in family values, peer pressure and chauvinism. Originally written for a TV play that aired two years earlier, Paddy Chayefsky’s story is set in a world that is on the cusp of the rock & roll explosion when the young were determined to find their own identities.
That Marty and his friends are all around the same age and not rebellious teens dates the scenario of freewheeling men still hampered by their mothers somewhat, despite the core premise being built around the idea of a thirty-something man being a disgrace for being single. We’ve come such a long way in this respect that being unmarried at this age is hardly a crime anymore.
As suggested earlier, the significance of the principal players all being Italian-Americans passes for cultural exploration in 1950’s Hollywood, and surprisingly doesn’t adhere to the spaghetti eating stereotypes with Chico Marx like accents either. With no patriarch in sight, the head of the household is the mother, and they have been brought up believing a mother’s role is to cook and clean for their kids to the end.
Via a subplot involving Marty’s cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his mother, Theresa’s sister Catherina (Augusta Ciolli) this is explored in some detail, and doesn’t paint either of them in much of a good light. Tommy and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) have just had a baby but Catherine keep interfering, driving Virginia up the wall, but Tommy takes his mother’s side instead, creating a further wedge between them.
It is implied here Italians take their filial piety very seriously and the rest of us don’t, explaining why Theresa tries to encourage Marty to find a nice Italian girl when Clara suggests children are entitled to live their own lives once they fly the coop and mother’s should be able to do the same. Another handy reminder this was the 1950s and how much progress we’ve made since then.
Clara endures a lot worse ignominy courtesy of Angie and Marty’s other friends, quick to dismiss her unassuming looks to Marty’s face, referring to her as a “dog”, whilst Angie blanks her when they first meet, since Marty scored he didn’t. Elsewhere, Marty is invited to join some of the others for a party with some up for it nurses, his mate telling him to ditch Clara for a sure thing, something that sadly hasn’t changed over time.
Being a product of the comparatively tame 50’s means the bite behind such scenes only leaves some seep marks whereas has this been made today, the vitriol would be deeply uncomfortable and draw plenty of blood. Not that it isn’t appalling enough under such restrained circumstances but it does posit Marty as the good guy he is, respectful and not burdened by superficiality.
This makes Marty sound too good to be true, but in reality, as genuine as he is, Marty is also naïve, lacking in self-esteem and susceptible to peer pressure and his male urges. Having spent a pleasant evening with Clara, he almost blows it by clumsily going in for a kiss which she rejects, and he takes badly and shows signs of frustration. Oddly enough, as annoyed as we should be with Marty for this we also sympathise with him for making a mess of something due to his inexperience.
Within the context of the story, Clara is little more than the means to an end, but what an end. Certainly it is abrupt and left wide open for us to draw our own conclusions, but the vey gist of the whole story comes down to the impassioned speech Marty delivers ahead of this optimistic denouement. It’s neither preachy, sentimental, or reductive but it is accurate, truthful, and precise, hitting the bullseye with every beat.
Given when Marty was made, director Delbert Mann harnesses a distant reflection of Italian cinema’s neo-realism of the same period, in the film’s rawness and the pervasive honesty of the characters, whether we agree with them or not. Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for playing Marty and well deserved it was, bringing out the layers of pathos and insecurity hidden behind his chubby smile and warm personality in creating a somewhat inspirational everyman hero.
Running a brisk 90-minutes, Marty may be a sprint but it is rich in texture, found in the prickly personalities of the cast, the louche telling of the everyday situations they are caught in and the hope it engenders. Don’t let the age or runtime fool you, this is no fluff piece and its themes are still vital today.