The first Palme D’Or winner, Marty, is also one of the most modest

The first Palme D’Or winner, Marty, is also one of the most modest

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Marty (1955)
When embarking on a long-term project as daunting as, say, writing about every film that’s ever taken top honors at Cannes, it helps to ease yourself—and perhaps your prospective readers—into the long voyage ahead. Maybe that’s why, as I recently perused a list of more than 80 films that have won the festival’s highest award, my eyes kept drifting back to a modest Hollywood drama about a lonely schlub, his wallflower date, and the endless evening they spend getting to know each other. Unlike many of its fellow Cannes winners, Marty is not a capital-A art movie. It’s a warm, perceptive crowd-pleaser—an underdog story designed to lift spirits, not push the boundaries of the medium. Yet, to a certain extent, that accessibility makes it an ideal inaugural subject for this feature. Instead of diving headlong into the bonkers surrealism of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana or the suffocating bleakness of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon—two other movies that will be covered in this space down the road—why not kick things off with something more inviting?

There are several reasons to lead with Marty. For starters, it’s technically the first winner of the Palme D’Or, the festival’s first-place prize. (Before ’55—and again from 1964 to 1974—the Grand Prix was handed out instead.) It’s also one of only two films, the other being Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, to win the big one at Cannes and the Oscars. In truth, Marty is an unorthodox choice for both awards; like the lovable lug for which it’s named, the film sticks out. Still the shortest Best Picture winner in history, Delbert Mann’s 94-minute character-study stands in sharp contrast to the epics and lavish musicals the Academy otherwise honored during the ’50s (and before, and after). Cannes, meanwhile, tends to favor bolder, more director-driven works. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his capsule review, Marty has “never been popular with auteurists.”

But then, it’s always been plenty popular elsewhere. Made for only $350,000, which was a modest budget even for the time, the movie ended up grossing about $2 million domestically. That’s especially impressive given that Americans were basically paying to see a padded-out version of a story they had watched for free on television just two years earlier. Paddy Chayefsky, the “kitchen sink” playwright who later penned Network, adapted for the big screen his own 1953 teleplay, about a thirtysomething, Italian-American butcher living in the Bronx with his mother. The richly sketched working-class milieu and poignant depiction of romantic disillusionment won the film many devotees. (One of them, a contestant on the rigged ’50s game show Twenty One, was deeply embarrassed to be forced to incorrectly answer that On The Waterfront, not Marty, had won Best Picture for 1955. See Robert Redford’s Quiz Show—or the actual clip.)

That relatability may have played a key role in the movie’s success. How many viewers saw a little of themselves in its eponymous hero, an ordinary man with ordinary problems? Marty is short and stocky, good-natured but socially awkward, and perpetually unlucky in love. “I’ve been been lookin’ for a girl every Saturday night of my life,” he tells a friend, articulating the resignation that comes from spending years in the trenches of singledom. As a depiction of the dating scene, and all its disappointments and cruelties, Marty has scarcely aged a day. You can see traces of its DNA in many later lonely-dude American indies, films as wildly different as Swingers and Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse.  

That this perennial bachelor earns the audience’s empathy, not its pity, is thanks largely to the man playing him: Ernest Borgnine, the late character actor and unlikely romantic lead, who cut his teeth portraying villains and scoundrels. Borgnine scored the part when Rod Steiger, who starred in the earlier version but didn’t want to be roped into a studio contract, turned it down. Having never seen the teleplay, I can’t say which performance is stronger, but it’s hard to imagine anyone besting the delicate balance of weariness and optimism Borgnine achieves here. He too won an Oscar, overcoming stiff competition from Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, and James Dean (who died a few months before the ceremony).

In the second act, at a dance hall on one of those dreaded Saturday nights, Marty’s dry spell ends. A callous playboy tries to pawn off his supposedly homely date on him; Marty finds the woman, a shy schoolteacher played by Betsy Blair, crying on the roof. The two hit it off, and spend the rest of the night dancing, wandering the city, and talking candidly of their shortcomings, physical and otherwise. (Never mind that Blair is much too pretty to be considered a “dog,” as both her blind date and Marty’s friends call her.) It’s during this talky stretch, in which the film becomes a kind of proto Before Sunrise, that Chayefsky is able to put his talent for loose, lively dialogue to good use. Marty is often thought of as his movie—a triumph of writing, not directing. Yet Mann makes some strong, subtle choices of his own. (He won a Best Director Oscar, becoming the first filmmaker to score that award with a debut.) Watch the scene in which Blair’s caddish blind date gives her the brush-off. It unfolds entirely from Marty’s perspective, during a long take in which he watches from the sidelines as she suffers, then processes, the humiliation.

Mann also earns points by filming against actual Bronx locations, which gives the film an intoxicating urban flavor. Like too few movies about city life, it establishes its sense of place without relying on iconic landmarks. This is a New York movie for people tired of seeing the same side of New York on film.

The worst that can really be said about Marty is that it’s sentimental, especially during an ending that hinges on a rather abrupt declaration of conviction. Yet there’s also a bittersweetness here that the film’s detractors rarely acknowledge. As Chayefsky shrewdly illustrates, our lives are often shaped by the prejudices and expectations of others. One of the reasons Marty keeps getting back out there, even after he’s all but given up on the idea of meeting anyone, is that the community looks down on a bachelor of his age. Yet once he’s found someone he really likes, he almost lets the girl go because his family and friends don’t approve of her. 

Then there’s the film’s beefed-up subplot, in which Marty’s mother (Esther Minciotti) asks his aunt (Augusta Ciolli) to come live with them, in order to give the latter’s son and new wife more privacy in their own home. Though these scenes sometimes feel like a distraction, they also lend the movie another dimension of melancholia. By Chayefsky’s estimation, life is defined by stations of dissatisfaction; Marty’s relatives, who have achieved the domestic “bliss” that eludes him, are dealing with problems of their own. Marriages are hard work. Parents are eventually abandoned by their children. True contentment is as hard to find as a soul mate. Upbeat though it is, Chayefsky’s ending is not a happily-ever-after punctuation. It’s a happy-for-now ellipsis, a brief respite from unhappiness. Had the writer ever penned a Marty 2, it’d probably have featured Borgnine and Blair as harried parents, trying to tap back into that magic feeling they felt one warm Saturday night ages earlier.

Did it deserve to win? Marty is a fine film, and an unusually smart and sensitive Hollywood love story, but is it a worthy choice for the very first Palme D’Or? It’s certainly more enduring than the other American films in competition that year, including the Otto Preminger musical Carmen Jones, and Elia Kazan’s East Of Eden. The auteurist pick would probably be Kenji Mizoguchi’s Chikamatsu Monogatari, though few would likely argue for it as the Japanese filmmaker’s strongest work. From what I’ve seen of the other competition titles, only Rififi, a French noir from the blacklisted American director Jules Dassin, seems worthier of Cannes glory. Given the choice between Chayefsky’s charming chatter and Dassin’s glorious, wordless centerpiece—perhaps the greatest heist sequence in all of cinema—I give the edge to silence. Sorry, Marty.

Next up: Rosetta (1999)