Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a butcher in The Bronx district of New York City who last weekend saw his brother get married to a nice Italian girl, and this has raised the question he always hates to be asked: "When are you getting married?" As a thirty-four-year-old bachelor, the eldest son of a widow (Esther Minciotti) still living with her to look after her, he has heard this all before, yes, he should have settled down with a nice Italian girl of his own by now, but it's a lot more difficult to find love than everyone seems to think. It's Saturday night again, so maybe he and his best pal Angie (Joe Mantell) will paint the town red - or maybe they will stay at home and watch television.
Poor old Marty, or at least poor old Marty in the light of the critical reception he meets these days, for he had the bad luck to be released the same year as Rebel Without a Cause, and not only did Marty win Best Picture at the Oscars (and the Palme d'Or), but Borgnine won the Best Actor Oscar too. James Dean seems the sentimental favourite from a twenty-first century perspective, his heartfelt performance speaking to generation upon generation of mixed-up kids, but looking back, Ernie's performance was no less resonant, he just happened to be essaying the role of a far less cool character, a sad sack well on the way to years of middle-aged disappointment, not some hip teen.
This has led Marty to be reassessed as a quirk of Hollywood's panic over television making inroads into its market in the nineteen-fifties, where everything got bigger, wider, louder and more colourful in an attempt to coax audiences away from their small screens and back to the silver screen. But another aspect of this would be to adapt television properties that had been hits there for movie versions, often using television talent to recreate them, and Marty was the first of those, a work that had originally been a TV play starring Rod Steiger, who was not asked to reprise his role when the producers, who included Burt Lancaster, reasoned audiences would want someone different to enjoy.
Therefore Borgnine, who was making his name as villainous heavies in increasingly major films, was recruited, and walked away with the Oscar as a result. Marty isn't quite looked on with the disdain that The Greatest Show on Earth is for worst Best Picture of the Golden Age, but there were those who looked at it again and decided it was pretty small beer, at best a sweet little sketch that was overpraised, at worst a self-consciously "ordinary" tale that patronised its characters and indeed the audience. Yet for all its admitted posturing as a salt of the earth yarn about folks you could meet on any city street in fifties America, there was nothing aggressive about its feeling for Marty and the woman he finally clicks with, Clara (Betsy Blair, then the blacklisted wife of Gene Kelly), indeed, it was more perceptive than it was given credit for.
Admittedly this would be a hard sell for a blockbuster hit today, more suited for a minor indie movie, but if Moonlight can win an Oscar then Marty could be regarded as its spiritual ancestor, the little film that conquered the world - and Moonlight was by no means universally loved either. What writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann got right as they both returned to the material that won them acclaim on TV, was the sheer Hell the pressure to find a partner can bring, that social judgement that if you are not part of a couple then there must be something lacking in your life, or worse, there must be something wrong with you. What made it all the more poignant for our hero here was that as much as he was resigned to being a bachelor, if the right woman came along he would be delighted to romance her if his love was reciprocated, and when it appears as if that dream may come true, more pressures in the shape of his overbearing mother who reacts jealously or his boorish friends who treat women as conquests, not as human beings as Marty does, serve to potentially sabotage his happiness. No, not an epic to stir the soul, but stirring nonetheless if you responded to its compassion. Music by Roy Webb.
[Eureka present a crisp Blu-ray picture, and extras including the original TV play, interviews with Mann and others connected with it, and a critic's overview of the film.]