Ernest Borgnine is butcher Marty, a simple guy in his 30s for whom love seems to have passed by. Then he meets shy Clara (Betsy Blair) and a relationship begins. However, Marty meets resistance in the form of his selfish and frightened mother (Esther Minciotti) who is worried she’s going to be neglected. Already feeling neglected is Marty’s pal Angie (Joe Mantell). Why can’t people just let Marty be happy and fall in love like he deserves?
What a nice movie. You can’t help but like this one, it won’t let you dislike it. I know some will say this 1955 Delbert Mann (“Separate Tables”, “That Touch of Mink”) directed film version of the teleplay seems like such a simple, small film to have won the Best Picture Oscar that year. I suppose I can understand that viewpoint, and it’s certainly far from a perfect film. However, this is a heart-warming film, sweet star vehicle for the Oscar-winning Ernest Borgnine. No matter its flaws, the central premise and lead character’s pursuit of love resonates wholly and completely. Here’s a genuine feel-good movie where you probably won’t even notice the flaws the first time around because you’re too invested in Marty to care about any of that. You just want to see this guy get what he so richly and achingly deserves.
The same year he played the stockade bully in “From Here to Eternity”, long-time supporting tough guy Ernest Borgnine got to be the lead role in this sensitive portrait of a lonely middle-aged butcher who realises he wants more out of his life. He wants someone to love, and someone to love him, but for the longest time his work got in the way and that was that. I can understand that. I can understand giving up after a while, but now all of a sudden at age 34 he decides it’s time to try again and put himself out there before it’s too late. Borgnine- possibly never better- is perfect in the role, an easily relatable, rough-around-the-edges big softie of a man. Your heart aches for him in scenes like the one where he rings up a girl he kinda sorta met a couple of months ago to ask her out on a date. It’s a very sad scene and Borgnine (in a role first played in a TV movie by Rod Steiger) plays it pitch-perfectly. His best moments are probably the few where he actually speaks more softly and reveals the big teddy bear he is on the inside, beyond the chatty, salt-of-the-earth exterior. Betsy Blair’s school teacher Clara is the perfect match for Marty in her relative opposite to him. Although I’d argue she’s nowhere near the ‘plain-looking’ girl she’s meant to be playing, Blair plays this quiet, mousy girl otherwise exactly. Both are socially awkward, but he talks when nervous and she’s the opposite. It actually works, not just for them but for the audience (It’s a little Rocky-Adrian at times, actually). Blair’s best scene actually doesn’t feature Marty, but it does involve him in some way: It’s the scene where Clara comes home from a night with Marty and tells her parents about it. She’s beaming, and her parents are wonderfully supportive. The film’s best scenes really do focus on this love/relationship aspect.
The film has two flaws, and neither is terribly small. They prevent the film from being great instead of just being greatly enjoyable. The first of these is the character of Marty’s Italian stereotype…er...I mean Marty’s Italian mother. Played by Esther Minciotti, I find the Italian mother stereotype (and the virtually indistinguishable ‘Nonna’/Grandmother stereotype) teeth-grinding irritation to begin with, but here the Minciotti character (and to an extent, all the other elderly people in the film) is insufferably rude to Marty. They nag him constantly and deride him for being single and 34 years-old, which is clearly not helpful. However, Minciotti’s character really does take the cake. She’s unrealistically impressionable, rude, and impossibly selfish to a degree that I just wasn’t buying it. At least when Marty’s best friend Angie starts to feel left out and neglected, it hits to a truth that even I’m aware of. I’ve known guys like Angie who feel spurned when their best mate finds a girl and seemingly wants to spend all their time with her instead of him. However, the whole thing with the mother comes off as nothing more than scripted conflict. She’s a selfish cow and her presence stops the film from being even better than it is. To be honest, I think the film’s other flaw directly impacts the supporting characters: Length. The film is simply too short to properly flesh out the supporting characters beyond unhelpful, unsympathetic stereotypes, save for Joe Mantell’s Angie. On the plus side, it’s been very nicely shot in B&W by Joseph LaShelle (“River of No Return”, “The Apartment”), and the music score by Roy Webb (“Cat People”, “Notorious”) is nice, too.
The rather repetitive dialogue may indicate whether some of you will love or resist this film. However, I loved the dialogue and thoroughly enjoyed the film. Adapted by Paddy Chayefsky (“Paint Your Wagon”, “Network”) from his own TV movie script, this is a nice, sweet and simple film about two nice, sweet, simple characters who find each other but face obstacles in their quest for love with one another. Borgnine is simply perfect, the thin supporting characters not so much. Director Mann’s debut behind the camera, he’d go on to mostly a career in TV movies through ‘til the 1980s.