Thursday, February 16, 2012

Marty (1955)

Sean had the presence of mind to record Marty (1955) last week, an ultimately moving film I didn't know but now love. It stars Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. The latter had early success in musical theatre, during which time she met and married Gene Kelly. She continued on the stage, working for William Saroyan among others, before transitioning into film in the late 1940s. She almost lost her career-defining role in Marty due to her involvement with Communism and the investigation by HUAC. Husband Kelly threatened to pull out of his film It's Always Fair Weather if she was denied the part. Once Blair and Kelly split, she married Czech-born British film critic and director Karel Reisz. He was embedded in Britain's Free Cinema documentary movement and went on to become a central figure in the British New Wave. His feature debut Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) typifies social realist filmmaking of the period, a mode associated with British cinema to this day. Marty possesses many of the genre's qualities - including depicting life as lived by average people - but precedes Reisz's seminal picture by five years.

Marty's story takes place over 24 hours and concerns a corpulent, still single, thoroughly decent 34-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his Italian Mother. When it opens, he's preparing cuts of meat for neighbourhood customers who impertinently demand to know when he'll marry since all of his siblings have successfully partnered up and moved out. After work, he goes to the local bar and sits with his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell). They acknowledge that they could spend the evening inside drinking beers and watching Hit Parade or take another stab at meeting women. At home, his mother pesters him to go dancing until the otherwise patient, loving Marty, inflamed by frustration, yells that it's pointless and dispiriting to continue to try, that he's a fat, ugly man, and that he'll probably never marry. She successfully goads him, however, and he and Angie head out to the Stardust Ballroom. Blair's character Clara arrives with a friend who has paired her with a crass blind date. He's turned off by her plainness and coincidentally promises Marty five dollars if he'll pretend to like her and take her home. He refuses the money but his sympathy is ignited. He witnesses Clara crying, holds her in an embrace, and assures her she's not a "dog," terminology used liberally by his rough friends whose collective, juvenile vision of women is culled from Mickey Spillane and girly magazines rather than actual contact. Marty evinces a distinct lack of belief in romance, especially amongst the younger crowd whose dating approach is shallow, cold and strategic. Despite their acceptance that marriage is the inevitable endpoint, they presume it to mean a loss of selfhood and an end to fun. But in the midst of this, Marty and Clara hit it off and broach intimacy in spite of their friends. They spend the rest of the evening together dancing, talking animatedly, and walking around the city streets. Each noticeably teeters between excitement at finding long-sought companionship and apprehension that the other might not feel similarly.

Marty was directed by Delbert Mann and written by Paddy Chayefsky. In its previous life it was a television drama created in 1953 by the same authors but with a different cast. Both Mann and Chayefsky had a background in stage work with Mann graduating from Yale's drama school. During a stint in Nashville community theatre, he met Fred Coe who would go on to work for Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. His department employed such notable filmmakers as Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, and the television version of Marty was produced under its auspices. Techniques used on the stage translated well to television at the time since everything was live and the cameras were massive and couldn't be moved. For example, the television edition's ballroom scene comprised a static shot and everyone was choreographed to move past the lens or look towards it at precise moments. Mann later said that both renditions of Marty were inspired by the ballroom at the Abbey Hotel in New York City, where single people gathered to find dates. Chayefsky felt it was a suitable setting in which to explore the complexities of romance, a subject usually treated too simplistically. "There is far more exciting drama in the reasons why a man gets married than in why he murders someone." A burgeoning love affair between two ordinary people could supply the topic with sufficient fuel.

Unraveling the intricacies of romance and marriage is not limited to the central pair. In fact, Marty emerges as a kind of ethnographic document, a portrait of a particular moment in time, due to its representation of women and the ways marriage, motherhood, and old age affect them. The film evidences a culture in transition. Surrounding Marty and Clara are the aforementioned confused, rough friends, Marty's mother Mrs. Piletti (Esther Minciotti), his Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli), her son Tommy (Jerry Paris), and Tommy's wife Virginia (Karen Steele). Tommy and Virginia come to Mrs. Piletti in distress because widowed Catherine, who lives with them, constantly criticizes Virginia's parenting and housekeeping skills. Virginia argues that she requires privacy and the right to raise her children according to her own standards. Mrs. Piletti, also widowed, convinces Catherine to move in with her and Marty. During Catherine's first evening at the Piletti house, the two women discuss how narrow a woman's life becomes when her husband dies and her children have grown. Without someone to provide for, her days are marked by a lack of purpose. It's a remarkable scene for its frankness and prioritization of older women's points of view. They're probably only in their fifties, but presumed redundancy has made them prematurely old. The passage is also lovely for granting Catherine dimension. It's easy to find sympathy for Virginia since she deserves to run her own household and, in their scenes, Catherine behaves like a harping, reproving mother-in-law. But by allowing us to see that her hostility is born of disappointment and a fear of change, Mann and Chayefsky show Catherine considerable compassion.

With the conflict and regret in Marty's family, it's possible his avoidance of marriage is due as much to apprehension as lack of opportunity. Reasons for marrying are shown to be primarily social, but the charm of Marty lies with the suggestion, through the central couple's example, that relationships can involve mutual admiration and a commitment to the other's betterment. Betsy Blair's Clara is on the fence between being independent - she teaches High School Chemistry - and just another unwed, sheltered daughter still living with her parents. She's offered an opportunity to teach at a new, suburban school which would require her to move from home. Marty tells her she's capable and deserves the heightened responsibility. Similarly, Marty's employer invites him to buy the butcher shop because he wants to retire. Clara assures him butchery is a noble profession and he's smart enough to run his own business. At the end of their night, Marty brings Clara to his house where they encounter his Mother. She bemoans Virginia's selfishness and aligns with Catherine. Though she urges Marty to marry, Mrs. Piletti has absorbed her sister's concern for redundancy. Composed, Clara argues that Catherine ought to accept her stage of life by developing new interests. She treats Mrs. Piletti respectfully, but not by forsaking her confidence or her opinion.

Beyond delineating Marty's particular circumstance, the film portrays the lifestyle and social mores of an entire neighbourhood. (All exterior shots are actual Bronx locations, which lends the movie another degree of veracity.) This simultaneity of the specific and the general is complimented by other instances of doubling, like the shared presences of the mundane and the beautiful, and the simple and the complex. Marty and Clara's refusal to accept commonly held beliefs about who to choose as a partner and the gender roles they ought to play are bolstering, not least because they prove that limiting conventions have the potential to budge. The beginning of their romance looks easy. But at the film's end, Marty is found at the bar still persuaded by the values of his peers and his parent. He fails to call Clara right away as he'd promised. His hesitation reveals the difficulty of altering accepted tradition. It can take generations to evolve toward new modes of conduct. Still, after admonishing his critical friends, Marty enters the phone booth and picks up the receiver. The film doesn't convey the result of his actions. It's satisfied to end with the thrill of an independent, self-gratifying act that has repercussions far beyond Marty's purview.

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