In 1956, an unassuming little black-and-white film about an uncomely butcher took off with four Academy Awards, including best actor, best screenplay, best director and best picture, along with being the first American film to win the Golden Palm at Cannes. Pretty good for a movie that only took 18 days to shoot. This Friday and Saturday, the Redford Theatre will be flashing the 1955 sleeper, Marty, on the big screen, starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. If you’ve never seen it, take this opportunity to view a true classic in the theater’s “old-school” setting.
Marty (Borgnine) weighs and cuts meat for customers he knows by name. In everyday shop banter he goes over his whole family — who’s married to whom — including the recent marriage of his kid brother Nicky, which he calls “a very nice affair.” One after another, his “practically family” customers berate him with: “Marty, you should be ashamed of yourself” “What’s the matter with you?” “When are you gonna get married, Marty?”
Marty Pilletti is a 34-year-old bachelor, which is practically a sin if you’re a Catholic-Italian, and no one will let him forget it, including his mother (Esther Minciotti), who suggests he go dancing at the Stardust Ballroom because she heard it’s “loaded with tomatoes.” But Marty’s tired of weekend nights filled with heartache and tries to stifle his mother’s aggressive suggestions by admitting to the world, “I’m just a fat little man, a fat ugly man.”
At the time, Borgnine’s rough exterior usually landed him heavy-handed villainous roles, such as the sadistic stockade sergeant, “Fatso” Judson, in From Here to Eternity (1953), or the “always looking for a fight” Bart Lonergan in Johnny Guitar (1954) who was even mean to horses. But the soft-hearted meat man turned out to be the role of a lifetime for Borgnine. It allowed him to transform his round-fisted face into the scrunched-up, innocently confused features of a child or the aged, heartbroken bulbous mug of a face that fits in fine next to a side of beef, but exists far from society’s streamlined ideal. Borgnine so perfectly fit the essence of the character he ran off with an Academy Award.
Director Delbert Mann is no stranger at eliciting amazing performances from his stars. David Niven won best actor for his stellar performance in Mann’s Separate Tables (1958), and if you’ve ever seen Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959) with Frederic March and Kim Novak, you know that this guy can pull the heart out of an actor if he wants to. All three movies masterfully accomplish the rough task of having to balance personal desires and happiness with social appearances.
Marty is one of those straightforward, no-frills films that shoots directly to the dead-true point. Paddy Chayefsky’s award-winning screenplay embodies a universal and timeless allegory through 1950s working-class vernacular and mundane concerns.
As they sit around in their usual coffee-shop haunt, Marty’s buddy Angie asks, “What do you feel like doing tonight?” Marty answers, “I don’t know Angie; what do you feel like doing?” They go back and forth with this empty phrase and its refrain to show time passing in a symphony of everyday conversation, simply and perfectly written. And inside this timeless tale of pain, Marty is the archetypical hero, battling feelings of inadequacy as everyone pours their expectations and fears on top of him.
When he calls a girl he met about a month earlier for a date, she doesn’t remember him. To jog her memory, he describes himself as “the stocky one, the heavy-set guy,” until she remembers. Then we proceed to watch the rejection unfold on his expression. He asks, “What are you doing Saturday night?” then closes his eyes trying to shield himself from a pain he’s felt many, many times before, asking, “Well, what about the Saturday after that?” because he knows what’s happening well before the conversation is finished. By the time he hangs up the phone, none of us ever wants to date again.
Marty is a good guy with a good heart because, “You get kicked around long enough, you get to be a real professor of pain.” He knows it. He just has to keep from forgetting as the world around him chases its own “idealistic” tail.
Showing exclusively at the Redford Theatre (17360 Lahser, Detroit) Friday and Saturday, June 28 and 29 at 8 p.m. (organ overture 7:30 p.m.) with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. (organ overture 1:30 p.m.) For informaton, call 313-531-4407.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].