Last year when I first launched my trek through the DVDs for all of the films that won the Oscar Best Picture award, the Fifties provided one of the worst-represented decades. About a year later, the Fifties still lags behind most of the other eras. We still have nothing from the Twenties, and only three of the titles from the Thirties have made it to DVD. Actually, it’s been a while since any movement took place for that decade; 1934’s It Happened One Night was that period’s last release, and it came out about 18 months ago.
While we still need to get four more movies from the Fifties, that decade has come a long way over the last 12 months. In that period, we’ve received DVDs of an additional three movies. First of these was 1958’s The Bridge On the River Kwai in November 2000, and 1959’s Ben-Hur followed last March. In June 2001, we got the most recent addition to the collection, 1955’s Marty.
After the broad epics found in those last two flicks, Marty marks a change of pace, and it’s probably the quietest and most intimate of the Best Picture winners from the Fifties. The story focuses mainly on one Saturday in the life of Marty Pilletti (Ernest Borgnine), a robust young man with the world at his feet! Okay, that last part was a complete lie, but I’ve read plot synopses that indicate Marty’s approaching middle age, and since both the character and I are 34, I’m having my own little “getting old” crisis about this.
In truth, Marty’s a lonely, fairly unattractive butcher who lives with his mother (Esther Minciotti). He lives a dull life, though he seems to be well-liked by many in his Bronx neighborhood. A younger brother just got married, and everyone pesters Marty to meet a woman and settle down. Actually, it’s not quite everyone, as his male friends don’t seem all that eager to leave their partying existences. They’re really schmucks as well, but they appear unwilling or unable to grow up and move on with their lives.
Anyway, accompanied by his slightly-more-suave (but not by much) friend Angie (Joe Mantell), Marty heads to a dance hall to try to meet women. He’s not terribly excited about this trip, as he already was shot down by a prospective date earlier in the day, but his mother eggs him on so he gives it a shot. Inevitably, his approaches to women at the joint are rebuffed, and he continues to sadly stand alone as everyone else seems to have a good time.
Into this picture steps Clara (Betsy Blair). She’s been set up with an acquaintance of a friend, but he’s none too excited about her; he finds Clara to be exceedingly unattractive, and since he only has one Saturday a month off from work, he refuses to be saddled with this “dog”. The situation exacerbates when he meets a babe he knows, and he tries to get out of his date with Clara.
In that vein, he offers Marty $5 to pretend to be a friend and to take her off his hands. Marty declines the proposal, but another guy gets recruited. However, when this dude sees Clara, he backs out of the deal. Clara’s date simply leaves her anyway, and good-guy Marty steps in to console her.
From there love starts to bloom. The two spend the evening together and clearly connect on many levels. However, Marty is frequently pressured to ditch Clara, and he has trouble standing up to friends and family, even though he obviously falls for her. A subplot complicates matters. Marty’s cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) live with Tommy’s mother Catarina (Augusta Ciolli). The apartment isn’t big enough for the three of them, and the two women often clash. As such, Tommy tries to get Marty and his mom to take in Catarina since they have a decent-sized house. During visits together, Catarina and Mrs. Pilletti gossip and discuss the actions of Tommy and Virginia. Obviously Catarina is displeased by the turn of events, and her statements start to scare Mrs. Pilletti. She worries that Marty might treat her the same way, especially when she finds out he’s met Clara.
The last act of the film really follows Marty’s attempts to deal with the pressures placed on him by family and friends. Those are the scenes during which his character is tested and we see what kind of man he really is. Everyone thinks of Marty as a nice guy, and clearly that tender and caring side is what attracts Clara to him, but will he be able to resist the nattering of others and do what he feels to be right?
I’ll leave that conclusion for you to discover on your own, though knowledge of the ending may be somewhat irrelevant. By that I mean Marty likely works just as well when you know how it’ll conclude; this character-based drama doesn’t rely on plot twists or story techniques to maintain your interest.
Instead, the film worked because of the basic human drama it offers. It presented a nicely incisive and honest look at some less than exciting people and involves rather banal events that become more important due to the circumstances. Honestly, all we saw in Marty was a Saturday night during which a guy and a girl met. After the movie ended, did we have any idea where their lives would lead? Not really, but the actions seemed significant nonetheless.
Part of the reason Marty related specifically to the bland nature of so much of the film. Its most famous scene showed Marty and Angie as they simply asked each other what they wanted to do that evening. These aren’t rocket scientists, and they’re not going to do anything important or even especially interesting. However, the tale seemed surprisingly fascinating.
Paddy Chayefsky’s script adapted his own TV play, and the movie presented a lot of curiously witty dialogue. It was fun to watch Catarina and Mrs. Pilletti as they gossiped about others, and lots of potentially drab interactions seemed to be quite witty and entertaining. The script provided day-to-day life in such a truthful way that it became strangely compelling.
It also succinctly conveyed the hypocrisy we often view in normal life. Everyone thinks they know what you should do, but when you take their advice, they may feel threatened and act to sabotage your desires. For years, people have told Marty to get himself a girl; now that he has a glimmer of hope in that department, all those close to him want nothing other than to kill the budding relationship. These aren’t shown as bad people, but we see how our insecurities can lead us to hurt the ones we love. Change is good, but it’s also painful, and who among us hasn’t worried that a friend or relative’s new relationship wouldn’t disrupt our own bonds? Marty delves to the heart of those fears.
Some of the credit for the success of Marty fell at the feet of its actors. Borgnine earned an Oscar for his work, and while I’m not totally sure I felt it was a great performance, it was still quite solid. At times, Borgnine came across as excessively theatrical and broad; for example, a fairly early argument with his mother appeared too “staged”. However, he nicely delivered the soul of the character. Borgnine allowed us to see the hurt and pain experienced by Marty, but he also made sure we witnessed his more positive side. Ultimately, it was a fairly rich and winning performance.
Better still was Blair as Clara. She seemed appropriately shy and wounded herself, and she kept her act more subdued than did Borgnine. As such, Clara came across as more of a real human being throughout the piece; she didn’t show the slightly artificial elements seen in Borgnine’s performance.
My only complaint about Blair relates to something that wasn’t her fault. She manifested a serious case of “Hollywood Skank Syndrome”. Movies love to provide “ugly” characters who are played by fairly attractive actresses. While Blair wasn’t gorgeous, and Clara clearly needed a new hairstyle and a makeover, I thought she still seemed pretty cute. However, throughout the movie we repeatedly are told how physically repulsive she is; characters constantly refer to her as a “dog”. Although some of this seems to have occurred to better communicate the insecurities of Marty’s intimates - they slam her to keep him for themselves - it remains clear that we’re supposed to think that Clara was truly hideous.
Sorry - I didn’t buy it. Borgnine’s a pretty unappealing man; I wouldn’t go so far as to call him ugly, but he’s pretty bland and lumpy. Blair, on the other hand, was just plain; otherwise she seemed to be fairly pretty. This didn’t harm her excellent performance, but it made the movie a bit less believable at times.
Speaking of physical appearances, I have to give credit to the person who located Minciotti. She was a decent actress, but more importantly, she looked a lot like Borgnine. I can’t recall the last time I saw such a resemblance between two supposedly-related characters; at times I thought I was watching Ernie in drag!
Although parts of it seem rather dated, and others falter at times, as a whole I really enjoyed Marty. This was a clever, insightful and realistic look at the lives of some “losers”. Ultimately, I thought it has held up nicely over the years, and it offers a compelling little character piece.
Marty appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. At times, the picture looked fairly good, but a high number of concerns marred it and ultimately made it appear less than positive.
Sharpness usually seemed acceptably crisp and detailed. However, quite a few scenes came across as mildly fuzzy and soft. These tendencies mainly affected wider shots, but they also cropped up on some closer angles as well. Focus wasn’t a consistent problem, but it became moderately muddled at times.
Moiré effects and jagged edges were happily absent, a development that I found to be especially pleasant since the movie included a fair number of objects that would usually inspire those problems. For instance, a few women wore dotted dresses, and those outfits can cause a shimmering effect. That didn’t occur here, as the clothes patterns remained tight and solid.
Unfortunately, print flaws did mar much of the film. At times, the image seemed to be fairly clean, but the vast majority of it displayed a variety of defects. Much of the movie showed light to moderate grain, and various small speckles and grit cropped up throughout the flick. In addition, scratches, blotches, lines, hairs, nicks, and various forms of debris often appeared. Yes, some scenes looked pretty good, but others faltered badly; for instance, the scene in which Marty and Clara chat at the coffee shop was a total mess.
Black levels generally seemed acceptably rich and accurate, but contrast was more problematic. Some scenes looked too bright, especially those that took place in Marty’s dining room. Those shots consistently displayed too much light; some elements appeared adequately lit, but others were somewhat pale. Shadow detail was affected by this concern; low-light situations generally came across adequately, but the excessive brightness rendered them somewhat unappealing. Ultimately, Marty narrowly avoided a rating in “D” territory, but enough of the film looked reasonably positive to merit a “C-“. Still, the image was problematic and it provided a disappointment.
Also flawed was the monaural soundtrack of Marty. For the most part, many of its elements seemed acceptable for the era. Dialogue came across as somewhat reedy and shrill during most of the movie, but I felt the lines remained intelligible, and they could occasionally appear decently natural. Some weak looping occurred during street scenes; the speech still sounded clear, but lip-synching was off. Music seemed similarly thin and mildly strident, but it retained acceptable fidelity for its age, and the score showed no signs of significant distortion. Effects were a minor aspect of the mix, and they fell in line with the other portions of the track as the displayed flat but decent dynamics.
Based on these elements, Marty deserved at least a “C+” and could have made it to a decent “B-“. However, the track showed an excessive amount of noise. A faint hum manifested itself throughout the movie, and popping and other forms of background concerns also marred the presentation. No, I don’t expect old movies like this to sound perfectly clean, but I’ve seen enough films from this era to know that Marty was an unusually messy track.
Finally, Marty lacked any significant extras. All we find is the film’s theatrical trailer. Actually, this was a mildly interesting piece just because it was “hosted” by actor Burt Lancaster. He produced the flick, and I guess the marketing folks felt his star power would enhance the box office prospects of the movie. Anyway, that’s all we get.
I remain appalled at the fact so many Best Picture winners have received such weak treatment on DVD, and Marty was a lackluster product across the board. The movie itself seemed quite interesting and stimulating, as the combination of a strong script and fine acting made Marty a winning package. Unfortunately, the DVD offered fair to poor picture and sound plus no significant extras. I liked the movie enough to recommend it along those lines, but I can’t strongly endorse this flawed DVD.