Sunday 26 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Marty" (1955)

Marty witnesses the first stirrings of a new American realism, in a cramped Bronx apartment, where portly, unprepossessing, unmarried 34-year-old butcher boy Marty Piletti lives with his Italian immigrant mother. Delbert Mann's film introduced to the screen not just a new face (Ernest Borgnine, in practically the only lead role of a long career more commonly defined by supporting work), but a new type of face - podgy, jowly, greasy, sweaty - and in the process asking viewers whether we thought anybody other than a mother could love it. Marty is a nice, ordinary guy, garrulous yet sensitive: he wounds easily, and for long stretches there's almost nothing here for Borgnine to withhold from the audience. The type who gives up too much on a first date, there's little mystery about him; a self-acknowledged Catholic, his blurted monologues to ditched wallflower Clara (Betsy Blair) are another form of confession.

Yet the film establishes a style of naturalistic micro-acting that was later to be taken up (by, admittedly, sexier performers) in the likes of Before Sunrise: the leads are people edging their way towards a connection of some small kind, trying to convince themselves to follow up a rare chance to have come their way in life. If it doesn't possess the scale of the movie greats that followed - Rebel Without a Cause, a trailblazer, was but months away - and some of Mann's direction now looks ordinary indeed, the film does still possess a weird consoling effect, and you can see why it might be revived every Valentine's Day and New Year's for the benefit of those lonely hearts who just feel more comfortable in the dark of the cinema: its courtship rituals may have dated and disappeared, but the very real pain it observes, born of solitude and the fear of rejection, remains a constant.

Marty is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.

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