The rest of the world has fallen away. 1:00:00 into Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955), all that exists is a pair of tentative lovers. On the left is the title character, a self-described “fat, ugly man” played by the late Ernest Borgnine; on the right is Clara (Betsy Blair), a frumpy, introverted schoolteacher. They’ve just shared a first kiss, the climax of their first date, and this is its immediate aftermath: they’re basking in the glow of an embryonic relationship and the mere chance that it could end their mutual loneliness.
This dark sitting room is the incubator for their romance, their sanctuary away from the pressures of friends and family. Seconds later, Marty’s mom will barge in and flip on a light, but for now their seclusion allows them to exchange small talk, which swells into bigger talk (like “What are you doin’ New Year’s Eve?”), which blossoms into physical affection. As they perform their awkward, ritualized dance around the room, the camera closes in on them and the shot tightens till it’s just their faces and a glimmer from the dining room light.
The moment is sublimely intimate. But that’s no surprise, since Marty is built from minuscule gestures and behavioral details like this. Its plot is just rudimentary boy-meets-girl stuff; the real focus is on Marty’s milieu—his working-class Italian neighborhood in the Bronx—and his aching solitude. It’s a self-consciously small, aesthetically sparse movie that shares more in common with TV dramas (where Mann got his start) or postwar theater than the CinemaScope excesses that dominated 1950s cinema.
And the key to Marty’s realism is the relationship between Marty and Clara. The hesitations, the tacit negotiations, and the couple’s emphatic plainness. Blair, with her lack of makeup and avoidance of eye contact, looks like anything but a movie star, and Borgnine is anything but a traditional romantic lead. Here, he acts with the same coarseness that made him such an effective heavy in westerns and war movies, but this time he’s also sweet and vulnerable, concealing his insecurities beneath a flood of chatter.
Neither character feels contrived or piled with artifice. They feel like real, average people suffering from longing and shame. People who need. Their roundabout conversation, their kiss, and the seconds after as Marty nuzzles against Clara’s hair… these all feel like experiences anyone could have. They’re only meager talismans against profound, lasting sadness. But they portend a relationship, right on the cusp of existence, that could ward off the sadness forever.