The New Old Movie Review: ‘Marty’ (1955)

‘Marty’ beautifully illustrates the virtue of friendship.

Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in ‘Marty’
Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in ‘Marty’ (photo: Wikimedia Commons / United Artists)

St. Thomas Aquinas writes that knowledge comes through the senses. But while the senses help us comprehend reality, reality is not limited to the senses.

If a man sees a woman, for instance, he might deem her outward appearance more-or-less pretty. But a wise man knows something else of infinitely greater depth: the woman is created in the image and likeness of God. Her soul in the state of grace has an indwelling of the Holy Trinity. If the man could somehow see her soul in that glorious state, he would be overwhelmed with splendor.

It is a terrible blindness to exclude our vision to only what the corporeal eye can see. Sadly, our society — which mocks the notion of immateriality — often demands that we do just that.

But what if we could go beyond the physical? What if a man could see a woman, in some sense, as God sees her? What if he, for the first time, began to recognize true beauty?

Enter Marty Piletti.

We are introduced to 34-year-old Marty on a Saturday while he is working at a butcher shop in The Bronx. Marty (played by Ernest Borgnine) has seen his five younger brothers and sisters marry and move on. But Marty still lives with his mother in the Piletti family house — a fact that no one is happy about. Marty’s mother constantly urges him to find a wife. Even his customers nag, “When you gonna get married, Marty?”

Little do they understand, Marty wants to get married; at least, he used to desire marriage. But women don’t seem to have any interest in him — a disinterest that has scarred him. Marty understands their reticence, as Marty views himself as a “fat, little man. A fat, ugly man.” And he believes that women see him the same way. Marty’s ready to give up on women entirely. (In fact, we later discover how close Marty has come to giving up on life altogether.)

Though he initially protests, Marty begrudgingly promises his mother he will go to a local dance club that night: the famed Stardust Ballroom. At the club, Marty sees that a woman has just been rejected by her date — a scoundrel who refuses to even drive her home. Marty walks over to comfort the woman, named Clara, but instead of a typical handshake, Clara’s introduction to Marty comes in the form of crying on his shoulder. We get the sense that Clara has desperately needed a shoulder to cry on for many long years, and Marty’s shoulder proves uniquely suited for that task.

As Marty and Clara get to know each other, they realize they have lived parallel lives. Both have been repeatedly rejected for a perceived lack of beauty, yet both have responded with kindness. Marty observes, “All my brothers, my brothers-in-law, they’re always telling me what a good-hearted guy I am. You don’t get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough, you get to be a real professor of pain.”

As they pour their hearts and souls out to one another in the next few hours, they find themselves smiling and laughing. We discover their Catholic faith is central to their lives. And Marty begins to see something other men have somehow missed: the transcendental beauty of Clara. He tells her, “You got a real nice face, you know? Really a nice face.” Once Marty sees Clara’s soul, he can see her true face.

Marty promises to call her the next day, yet his mother and his friends assure him that Clara is not right for him. She’s not Italian enough in the eyes of his mother; she’s not pretty enough in the eyes of his friends. Marty listens to their objections, perhaps too much.

So Marty has a decision to make.

I’ve seen Marty at least a dozen times, and every time I view it, I want to give this movie a hug. Arriving in theaters in 1955, this was the first movie my mom and dad saw together on a date, and that only adds to my affection for this wonderful film. I hope many Catholic families will enjoy Marty, as well as provide a springboard for some meaningful discussions about virtue.

Marty beautifully illustrates the virtue of friendship. Marty thinks he has “friends” among his bachelor companions, but they are fellows who drink too much, womanize, and spend their time reading trashy novels. These are neither qualities nor components of friendship. As Aristotle observed, “Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue.” It was not his male companions, but Clara who proves to be his true friend.

Marty also recognizes the magnitude of friendship in marriage. Marty observes:

You know how I figure? Two people get married and are gonna live together 40 or 50 years, so it’s gotta be more than whether they're just good-looking or not. Now you tell me you think you’re not so good-looking. Well, my father was a real ugly man, but my mother adored him. She told me how she used to get so miserable sometimes — like everybody, you know? And, and she says my father always tried to understand. I used to see them sometimes when I was a kid sittin’ in the living room talkin’ and talkin’. And I used to adore my old man because he was always so kind. That's one of the most beautiful things I have in my life — the way my father and mother were.

The friendship between a husband and wife makes a lifelong impact on their children. It’s a shame we don’t emphasize that truth enough.

Aristotle assures us that truth is “the mind’s conformity with reality.” If we deem a woman beautiful for her high cheekbones and physical stature, we may be recognizing something real. But truth demands so much more. Transcendental truth reflects transcendental beauty.

St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians expresses that our vision of God in this life is only a tiny peek — as though our view of God is like seeing Him through a dimly-lit mirror. But that’s a telling expression, because mirrors also reflect us — you and me. We each bear the likeness of God — a unique and irreplaceable reflection of God — but often, we only see each other through that dim mirror. Marty urges us to look more deeply at each other — to see God in the faces of others.

It is often said that “Love is blind.” Nonsense. Love sees what the willfully blind cannot.