Marlon Brando’s fireball masculinity and James Dean’s rugged hipster angst were the vogue of 1950s leading men when burly, gap-toothed Ernest Borgnine lumbered on screen as a gentle lonelyheart in Marty (1955, 1 hr., 30 mins., NR), available now on Amazon Instant Video and later this month in an excellent HD transfer on Blu-ray. Marty is a Bronx butcher who lives with his mother and has given up on love: ”Girls made me feel like I was a bug.” But he drags himself to the Stardust Ballroom one Saturday night and meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a mousy schoolteacher nursing the injury of her latest brush-off. These two wounded veterans of the dating game spend the evening together, each half-expecting the other to cut and run. They part without even a kiss, but alive with the buzz of a new beginning.
Like its protagonist, Marty is soft in the middle. Based on a 1953 teleplay starring Rod Steiger, the film’s script, from satirist-in-waiting Paddy Chayefsky (Network), feels overcalculated, and Delbert Mann’s direction is pedestrian. Yet the movie’s elegiac tone and its heart for the underdog still echo six decades later. Marty and Clara are godparents to a jumble of unglamorous but cute schlubs, including James Gandolfini in last year’s splendid Enough Said. In Marty’s last scene, the hero screams, ”She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man!” But it’s no longer a wail of self-pity. It’s triumphant. The secret to Marty’s success — it was a box office smash and won Oscars for Best Picture and Actor — is its unorthodox warmth. We don’t cheer at the end simply because a clumsy guy finds romance with a shy girl. We cheer because we’re all clumsy and shy and romantic too. B+