Friday, January 15, 2010
Review – Marty
January 16, 2010
Marty – U.S., 1955
If we are not like Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) in some way, we most likely know someone who is – someone who is shy, insecure about his looks, unsuccessful in love and relationships, unsure whether to stay in the game or simply accept a life of bachelorhood. At 34, Marty is the subject of conversations he’d rather not be having. In the first scene, he is pestered at his job at a meat market by two consecutive customers because he remains unmarried while his younger brothers and sisters have all tied the knot. And it’s not as if these customers politely inquire about his marital status, get an answer, and drop the conversation. Instead, these two older ladies keep the conversation going, adding their own personal observations concerning the horror and tragedy of such an occurrence as a man in his thirties not being married. It’s just not normal, they seem to be saying.
One woman who shares these two customers’ concerns over Marty’s perpetual single status is his mother, Theresa (Esther Minciotti). She’s so concerned about it in fact that she takes the unusual step of asking her nephew Thomas (Jerry Paris) where Marty can meet a nice girl. Thomas suggests a local dance hall called the Stardust Ballroom because, as Thomas puts it, “It’s loaded with tomatoes.” It’s a line his mother will later repeat verbatim to a somewhat surprised Marty. Mothers simply aren’t supposed to talk like that. Marty eventually goes to this magical place supposedly replete with beautiful single women just itching to meet the man of their dreams and settle down. His good friend Angie (Joe Mantell) finds a dance partner rather easily after using the somewhat crude sounding line, “What do you say? Wanna dance?” as an introduction. Marty is not so lucky, for the woman he asks dismisses his efforts with a rather cold, “I don’t feel like dancing yet.”
The Stardust Ballroom itself is extremely interesting to dissect. There, surrounding a large dance floor, men stand on one side staring critically at the women standing across the room from them. Apart from sizing up the women, assessing their appearance and body shape, they appear to be calculating the odds of the women they see being fun and adventurous. Apparently, the majority of men who frequent the Stardust Ballroom are not looking for Mrs. Right; they’re looking for Mrs. Right Now. And many of the women there know this and are perfectly fine with it. It’s 1955 after all, and many of the social taboos that existed for previous generations of women have fallen. Women work, smoke, and get drunk. In addition, many of them go out with men they have just met and wouldn’t mind never meeting again. Watching the film, I got the sense that some of them think they are entitled to all of the things that men are willing to do for them. If they want to take them to a movie or buy them gifts, that’s fine. If they want to go back to someone’s apartment and get drunk, that’s fine as well. What matters most is having a good time, even if that instance of transitory happiness ultimately leads nowhere. As least it was fun while it lasted.
At the Stardust Ballroom, Marty eventually meets a young school teacher named Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair). Their meeting is the result of some rather unchivalrous behavior by Clara’s date and some rather extraordinarily gallant behavior on Marty’s part. Soon they find themselves talking the night away about things they have likely not even told their closest friends. They discover, as all kindred spirits do in films such as these, that they have much in common and that they understand each other in a very deep way. As their feelings begin to grow, they naturally have some awkward moments. Nervousness sets in, things go a little too fast at times, and they find themselves somewhere that perhaps it isn’t proper that they be – after all, they only just met a few hours ago. Each of these moments is dealt with in a realistic way, and none of their conversations feels forced. Rather, they seem like natural topics for two people just getting to know each other.
Writer Paddy Chavefsky could have limited Marty to simply being about two sympathetic characters that meet and begin to like each other, like the later film Before Sunrise. I have no doubt that such a film would also have worked very well. To his credit, Chavefsky elected to make Marty about much more. Chavefsky’s scripts hints as such things as post-traumatic stress disorder, post-war disillusionment, and the way friendships can occasionally become repressive and inhibiting. It also broaches the subject of loneliness in later life, many older people’s sense that society no longer has a use for them, and the bitter desolation that they feel as a result of this. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film involves a conversation between Theresa and her sister Catherine (Augusta Ciolli). In it, Catherine bemoans the growing uselessness she feels. Her son has grown up, her husband has died, and she and her daughter-in-law Virginia (Karen Steele) have reached a critical point in their relationship, the later having recently grown so angry at Catherine that she threw a bottle of milk against a kitchen wall in a fit of frustration. Now Thomas and Virginia have asked Theresa if Catherine can live with her and Marty. “These are terrible years,” Catherine tells Theresa. She has a point, and Catherine’s morose assessment of her own life begins to have an effect of Theresa. Perhaps, she begins to think, it would be better if Marty didn’t marry. It’s not an opinion that she has abandoned by the end of the film.
Marty, directed by Delbert Mann, remains a great film. However, it is not a film with a conclusive ending. By the end of the film, Marty and Theresa still have a lot of things that they need to talk about, Thomas and Virginia’s marriage has entered a tough stage, and Marty’s long-time friendship with Angie has changed, perhaps permanently. Nevertheless, these loose ends seem entirely appropriate. What is most important is that change, both positive and negative, has taken place. Marty is a stronger person because of the events that have transpired, and there is hope for both he and Clara. The rest of their story, at that of the characters that surround them, can be left to our overly optimistic imaginations. (on DVD)
*Marty won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year in 1955. Ernest Borgnine took home the statue for Best Actor, and Delbert Mann won Best Director.