After Ernest Borgnine sadly passed away earlier this month, I realised that there were very few of his movies I had actually seen. Trying to remedy that sorry situation, I immediately added today’s picture to my Lovefilm rental list. Tomorrow I’ll have another one for you.
There’s hope for us all.
34-year-old Marty Piletti, an overweight butcher from The Bronx, has just about resigned himself to bachelorhood despite the nagging from his mother, his married siblings, even his customers. After being talked into visiting a dance hall in Manhattan, he meets Clara. Clara is 29 and rather plain and she too has almost given up on meeting that special someone. They spend the evening together and find themselves beginning to fall in love. Interfering Italian widows ensue.
What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over by people a thousand times more eloquent than me? Nothing new, I’m sure. This is the sweetest, most affecting love story I think I have ever seen. It was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, as an expansion of his own teleplay from 1953, and directed by Delbert Mann. It won four Oscars in 1956, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (Chayefsky’s first of three) and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine, and I think it’s wonderful.
Borgnine’s Marty is a fairly typical Chayefsky hero: a second-generation immigrant; a middle-class tradesman struggling with loneliness and the expectations of his family and friends. Chayefsky had a gift for capturing realism in his writing, using things like overlapping dialogue and seemingly inconsequential conversations that told you so much about his characters without you even realising it was happening. Nobody wrote dialogue like Paddy Chayefsky. Only he could write a scene where a man talks about his thoughts of suicide while on a first date and make it a bonding experience.
Probably the nearest equivalent nowadays in terms of both the quality of his work and his prestige would be Aaron Sorkin, who even name-checked the man quite heavily in the pilot episode of Studio 60. Now I’m a huge Sorkin fan, but he can get mighty preachy and idealistic – even tipping over into outright snobbery and derision from time to time – while Chayefsky was more human, more relatable. When he got political (such as in his two other Oscar-winning screenplays for The Hospital and Network) it was with needle-sharp satire, whereas Sorkin prefers the blunt-force approach. Despite their stylistic differences, if you don’t know Chayefsky but you like The West Wing or The Newsroom, then you owe it to yourself to dive in to Chayefsky’s work whole-heartedly.
Of course no film succeeds on just the script alone, even one by this writer. Delbert Mann did a beautiful job capturing the atmosphere of both Saturday afternoon in Marty’s Bronx neighbourhood, and Saturday night in the bustle of downtown Manhattan. He’s not afraid to move the camera around either. Two moments in particular stand out: the slow zoom in on Marty’s face when he calls Mary Feeny for a date near the start of the film, the way he closes his eyes in resignation (with a little despair for good measure) just as the camera gets in tight; and when Marty first sees Clara at the Stardust Ballroom, our view is over his shoulder as he watches her original blind date silently try to fob her off on someone else so that he can catch up with another girl. Shots like these help to establish our kinship with Marty, building the connection so that when the ending comes it will be even more cathartic.
None of this works without Ernest Borgnine though. He thoroughly deserved all the awards he won for this part. The combination of his vulnerability and inherent goodness make for an unusual but deserving romantic lead. And Betsy Blair matches him every step as Clara. By the end of their evening, you want the two of them to be together forever. I can’t help but wonder what might have been though. Blair was apparently going to be passed over for the part because of her Communist sympathies until her husband, a well-known fella by the name of Gene Kelly, threatened to pull out of his next film unless she was cast. All I can say is this: nepotism rules.
If you have any kind of soul, and you haven’t seen this film before, you really, really should get a copy. But if you’re still not sold, have a look at the world’s best ever trailer. Take it away, Burt…