Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is 34 years old, works as a butcher’s assistant and lives with his Italian mother (Esther Minciotti) in their family home in New York. All day long his customers tell him he should be ashamed of himself for not being married yet, a sentiment which is compounded by the fact that all five of his brothers and sisters, some of whom are younger than Marty, are married. Every Saturday night has been spent looking for that special someone with his friend Angie (Joe Mantell), and every attempt at finding love ends in failure, so Marty has called time on the game, and given up his search, believing himself too ugly, fat and small to ever attract a girl.There are actors in this world who I’ll watch in anything, and whenever they crop up they automatically improve the quality of that film immeasurably. For me, an actor near the top of that pile is Ernest Borgnine, regardless of how few of his movies I’ve actually seen (currently I’ve watched 13 of his 207 acting credits, with a few more to go from the 1001 List as well). So when I discovered that the guy not only appeared in, but was the star of and won an Oscar for Best Actor in a movie that appeared on the 1001 List, I immediately couldn’t wait to watch it, so added it to my Most Anticipated List at the start of the year. It’s taken me a little while to get to, but now I’ve seen it and I’m going to tell you what I thought about it, because that’s the kind of thing I do on this website.
Like I said, Borgnine won the Best Actor Oscar for his work here, and I have no problem with that whatsoever, especially because I haven’t seen any of the other nominees for the award from 1956. I’m used to Borgnine playing tough, macho, brutish characters in the likes of The Poseidon Adventure or The Wild Bunch, or as insane, cackling support in Escape From New York, but here he’s a much more tender, sympathetic, human creation, a down on his luck schlub continually dealt an unlucky hand. His Marty is nothing but a good guy, he just lacks the self confidence and good looks he believe are required to find the love of his life, and as such has resigned himself to a life of solitude and living with his mother. Every customer at the butcher shop he works in tells him he should be ashamed of himself for not being married yet, but it isn’t as though he hasn’t been trying, and his mother persists in finally pairing of her last single child. Marty’s pal Angie is similarly unlucky, but remains optimistic on the matter, as do their other friends at the bar, all of whom fixate on looks over personality, so when Marty is able to see past the apparent hideousness of Clara (Betsy Blair), a girl whose date has deemed her not worthy of his time and casts her aside in a wholly despicable manner, it seems Marty has finally found the girl for him. All he needs to do now is not blow it.
This is a small, intimate, quiet family drama, with the expected moments of arguing and comedy that balance everything out. What keeps it grounded are the believable characters who edge only slightly into stereotypical behaviour – the over-bearing, controlling mother and her even more Machiavellian sister, for example – and the realistic, homespun dilemmas they are put in. What really sets it above my expectations, however, was the symmetry. At the start, Marty is almost completely set against the idea of continuing his search for love, and it is the persuasion of everyone else that gets him to even leave the house. His cousin, his mother and his friends are all pushing him to get out there and get his end away. By the end, however, Marty has become the sole driving force in the pursuit for his own happiness. He’s finally discovered what he’s been dreaming of for so long, and now everyone else, for various reasons of their own, seems dead set against it, and it’s up to Marty to, for the first time in his life, stand up for what he personally thinks he should do.
I empathised a lot with the Marty character, and not just his many failed attempts in romance (something I gratefully no longer have to struggle for, but had I watched this film six years ago, before I met my partner, it would have been an entirely different matter). No, I saw myself in Marty’s failure to think for himself, and to almost blindly follow the instructions and ways of life laid out before him without question, and that’s something I need to work on. I’m aware of the irony that I need something to tell me to stop doing what I’m told to do, but that’s the way it is.
Would I have liked this film if it didn’t star Ernest Borgnine? Probably, but to a lesser extent, or at least it would have taken me a little longer to get to it. As it stands, I really liked this film. I was concerned for a while that it wasn’t going to act properly, by which I mean how it should end in my head, but fortunately it did, so hurrah for that.
Choose Film 8/10