Delbert Mann: More Than Marty (1955)

Marty (1955) PosterWhen Delbert Mann, the director who won an Oscar® for Marty (1955) died last month on November 11th, his obituaries tended to emphasize two items from his career. The film of writer Paddy Chayevsky‘s story Marty (1955), which highlighted the hopes and sorrows of an everyday guy, played eloquently by Ernest Borgnine, and the incident in 1968 when Mann’s made-for-tv movie, “Heidi” pre-empted the end of a nail-biting NY Jets-Oakland Raiders game on television. The Raiders, won the game, 43 to 32, with two last minute touchdowns unseen by the vast, royally ticked offed American audience, who had to comfort themselves with the sight of the score superimposed over Clara’s dramatic learning-to-walk-again scene in “Heidi”.

Marty, the Chayevsky teleplay that Mann had brought to the screen, (at the playwright’s insistence), would, in retrospect, document the plight of a self-described “ugly little man” who has spent his life “looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life,” but it would also mark the beginning of the successful migration of talented tv directors such as Mann, John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet to the movies. Unlike Frankenheimer and Lumet, whose energetic work would entertain and illuminate the movies for decades, the reserved Delbert Mann took a less well traveled, more meditative path in his career, more comfortable examining the strengths and weaknesses of the human heart on a smaller scale. Lacking the technical brilliance of much of Frankenheimer‘s films and the topical pertinence of Lumet‘s still vibrant films, several of the late director’s best, most deeply felt films seem to have been overshadowed by Marty. The little feature was an unexpected popular hit that touched a chord with a broad audience, gave Ernest Borgnine a career beyond his villainous roles, and hurtled Mann into Hollywood’s success-obsessed orbit.

Delbert Mann, directing

For a time, after Marty became a surprise popular and critical hit, (rumor has it that Hecht, Hill and Lancaster‘s production company originally thought of the feature as nice tax write-off), the director’s understated, craftsman-like style of filmmaking found some favor in the commercial moviemaking atmosphere of ’50s Hollywood, where overblown cinematic gigantism generally ruled the day.

Even Ernest Borgnine wondered if his director would “go Hollywood.” Once asked why he hadn’t used Borgnine in his theatrical films since Marty, Mann reportedly said: “I didn’t want to spoil perfection.” When he learned of this comment, Mr. Borgnine wondered aloud, “Can you imagine that? What a tribute to me, and what a tribute to the picture. He was that kind of a fella.” To his friends Mr. Mann was “the quietest, most wonderful guy,” who rarely needed or chose to raise his voice on a set. As Borgnine said after his death, Mann “was the kind of director that you get home at night and say to yourself, ‘Gee, I gave a pretty good performance’ without realizing that he was the guy that got it out of you.”

Having cut his teeth on theatrical productions and live broadcasts in the pioneering years now recalled as “The Golden Age of Television,” the director had attended the Yale Drama School after a stint as a bomber pilot in World War II. Mann‘s style of working helped transfer TV techniques to the film world, (for better and worse). His quietly disciplined approach to working was very appealing to executives in the studios when they learned that Mann had shot Marty in only 16 days, with a mere three days for retakes. Features generally took 45 days to make at the time, and the gargantuan epics that were thought necessary to lure people from their homes and back to theatres, This compared with 45 days for typical features of that time, with the schedules for epic pictures often running far beyond that. Delbert Mann, receiving his Oscar for Marty

However, the economic style and bare bones visuals he favored have long since fallen out of fashion among moviemakers and critics. Even more significantly, the introspective nature of the stories that he told, creating a blueprint of loneliness and longing that he outlined in his films, is apparently one theme that most commercial filmmakers choose to ignore today. No less a commentator than the eminent David Thomson dismissed his work as “facile”…”and flawed by sentimentality” while admitting grudgingly that, on occasion, as in Mann’s second collaboration with Chayevsky, The Bachelor Party (1957), (analyzed in detail by my fellow Morlock HighHurdler here ), his work was “beautifully acted and with an accurate sense of American middle-class anxiety”.Paperback tie-in for the film of Bachelor Party (1957)

While the attitudes and social fabric depicted in his films may have frayed and changed–in some cases for the better–the qualities in Mr. Mann‘s best work that make these the kind of films that actors and audiences may still cherish are waiting to be rediscovered. The sincerity, dignity and earnestness with which characters and their problems are delineated may no longer be au courant, but they were clearly closer to the director’s dramatic instincts. Unfortunately, most likely for arcane reasons to do with studio rights, economics, and the belief that these films are of little interest to 21st century audiences, few of his dramatic movies have been aired in recent years and fewer still are available on dvd or even vhs.

One film that does occasionally pop up on TCM and is available on vhs is Paddy Chayevsky’s The Bachelor Party (1957), which explored urban loneliness and disaffection through the tension and self-loathing of its not so quietly desperate ensemble cast, depicted while on a pre-wedding toot in NYC. The cast included good performances from, among others, Don Murray, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall and Carolyn Jones, (who received an Oscar nomination for her small role as a quintessential ’50s kook—a part that the good actress may have found herself in one too many times). Though there is a dated quality to some of the attitudes toward women and even the pursuit of illicit glimpses of sex has been eclipsed by modern technology, the unpleasant undertone in this film and Chayevsky‘s scathing insight into the lengths that human beings will go to avoid solitude—and being alone with one’s thoughts— may still have value, and is probably more pertinent than ever.

Fredric March & Kim Novak in Middle of the Night Unfortunately, better Delbert Mann movies that might be well worth resurrecting are too often forgotten. One of these is the last collaboration between Paddy Chayevsky and Mann on film, in the fondly remembered (by me at least), Middle of the Night (1959). A dark May-December love story, it features very moving performances by Frederic March in one of the actor’s best late career high points, and the underrated Kim Novak. These two lost people, at the opposite ends of life who find themselves drawn to one another despite everything, are a fine example of a realistic attempt to tell a small scale story without villains or improbable solutions.
This story, filmed in the New York city area, shows two needy people who are surrounded with people who are laying odds against the success of their improbable union. It is nevertheless a timeless story that intensifies thanks in part to the powerful work of a great supporting cast, including Martin Balsam and Glenda Farrell. The dark nature of the work and the questioning of the viability of any marriage may have put off the public at the time of the film’s release, but the validity of these questions and the performances deserves to be rediscovered.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), adapted from William Inge‘s prize winning play and featuring a marvelous ensemble cast headed by a troubled married couple played by Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire, was not a success when first released. It’s a domestic story dealing with money, prejudice, economic upheaval, unfaithfulness, and familial problems in a complex Mid-Western group, which included Eve Arden, (in one of her best performances as a talkative, unhappily married woman), Frank Overton, (as her unfortunate spouse) and Angela Lansbury, (who turns in a finely rendered performance as a tenderhearted adulteress with sympathy and some sound advice for McGuire).The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1961) Dealing with the fears of facing everyday life and the corrosive nature of our bitterness when we blame one another for our disappointments, it is an adult story that does not offer simplistic answers for the plight of its Midwesterners, only a chance to try again. This film, which has been out of circulation for too long, may be among Mann‘s best.

In addition to these movies, a wider audience may exist for one of the handful of great performances from Tony Curtis captured by Mann in The Outsider (1961), a movie about the real life tormented war hero of Iwo Jima and Native American Ira Hayes. Perhaps even more interesting following Clint Eastwood’s brilliant film of 2006 about the same period and people, Flags of Our Fathers, Mann’s biography depicts the disintegration of Hayes’ life after he is elevated to heroic status by the military and civilian public during World War II. This movie, while decidedly downbeat, is among a handful of American movies that up until that time, addressed the issue of the plight of the American Indian effectively and honestly showing the combination of prejudice and self-hatred, complicated by the aftereffects of combat, on one vulnerable, brave human being.Tony Curtis & James Franciscus in The Outsider

Happily, there is one seemingly forgotten yet emotionally powerful Delbert Mann movie from this period of his career that it might be easier to revisit since it is available on dvd today. Having been far too young to grasp the themes of the story when I first saw this movie, I’m glad that I stumbled across a dvd of it within the last month. As I recalled it originally, I had shrugged off the Delbert Mann adaptation of Desire Under the Elms (1958) when I first saw it years ago. I had felt that the youthful Anthony Perkins, in his fourth movie, was too callow and slight to be effective opposite a youthfully robust Sophia Loren at the time. I believed that the strapping Sophia, who becomes Perkins’ lover in this tragedy, looked as though she might snap the willowy Tony in two when she embraced him, but my reacquaintance with the film compelled me to look at this story from a more adult perspective.
Desire Under the Elms
Adapted by Irwin Shaw from Eugene O’Neill‘s classically themed play, Desire Under the Elms was savaged by critics upon release. Some, such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, tended to dismiss the movie for straying from O’Neill’s original play, (casting international rising star Sophia Loren in the role of New Englander Burl Ives‘ third wife) and for less than spectacular black and white visuals, (despite having Paramount’s VistaVision process to work with on the movie). Seeing it on a relatively small screen via home video in a widescreen format, the spare film seems to be startlingly dramatic and visually is always interesting without being showy. Every shot photographed by Daniel Fapp is framed beautifully, and the diagonals and shadows of the interior of the New England farmhouse where the majority of the story is told, are beautifully evoked by art directors Joseph Johnson and Hal Pereira. The very lack of color in the film actually helps you to “feel” the cold seeping through the walls of the farmhouse, and the dark corners of the house, where, in the words of the bullish father played by Ives, “something lurks just out of sight”. That line makes it sound like a horror movie, right?

In a sense it is, for O’Neill‘s story outlines the misshapen human heart of a youth fed on bitterness by a mother (Ann Seymour) and a miserly Ives, who is more of a slavedriver than a father to Anthony Perkins, as his son, Eben. Perkins, whose acting is mercifully devoid of his nervous mannerisms, is the embodiment of Eugene O’Neill‘s description of Eben as “twenty-five, tall and sinewy. His face is well-formed, good-looking, but its expression is resentful and defensive. His defiant, dark eyes remind one of a wild animal’s in captivity. Each day is a cage in which he finds himself trapped but inwardly unsubdued. There is a fierce repressed vitality about him.” The young man grows up to be both greedy to own his father’s farm and starved for tenderness. As his older half-brothers (Frank Overton & Pernell Roberts) point out to him after he’s arranged for them to leave the farm, thus disinheriting them, Perkins is very much like his father.

Burl Ives with his bride, Sophia Loren in Desire Under the Elms (1957)When Burl Ives arrives home, after a trip away from his beloved, rocky New England land, he is accompanied by a woman described in O’Neill‘s original play as “buxom [and] full of vitality. Her round face is pretty but marred by its rather gross sensuality. There is strength and obstinacy in her jaw, a hard determination in her eyes, and about her whole personality the same unsettled, untamed, desperate quality which is so apparent in Eben.” While the filmmakers made her younger to suit Sophia Loren‘s stage of life, and made her a desperate Italian immigrant longing for a home of her own, at any cost, it is the warmth, sensuality and strength of Loren‘s characterization that makes her character quite believable.

Perkins & Loren draw together despite her marriage to his fatherInevitably, Perkins and Loren are drawn closer together, but in the desire of all three characters to control their separate destinies, they each find that fate and the passions that control their lives dooms and manipulates them throughout the intensely tragic story. Loren is especially good in the later scenes in which she attempts to correct her life’s balance, restoring her former love through a desperate act that proves her love and dooms her as well the other characters–in part because it forces all of them to a greater self-knowledge. Loren and Perkins would co-star in a later, poorer film, Anatole Litvak’s Five Miles to Midnight, but this film gave them the opportunity to explore characters with a greater depth and brought out qualities that would often be neglected in their more cinematically dazzling roles. It is a pleasure to recall their early seriousness toward their craft in this film.

Burt Lancaster & Rita Hayworth, a central pair in Terence Rattigan's Separate TablesEventually, Delbert Mann would find himself directing such highly commercial, big budget films as Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, the fluffy comic movies exploiting the public’s belief in Doris Day and Rock Hudson as a couple in Lover Come Back, and a joyless film that may have contributed to Cary Grant‘s decision to retire, That Touch of Mink. Even stranger for a director who often employed gray listed individuals from the McCarthy era in front of and behind the camera was his work on A Gathering of Eagles in the early 1960s. A military soap opera and action drama about the Strategic Air Command that was said to have been made at the behest of the controversial cold warrior, Gen. Curtis LeMay, it starred Rock Hudson again.Jane Eyre (1970) with George C. Scott & Susannah York

Many of these more audience-pleasing films proved profitable, but eventually they prompted Mann to return to the television medium, where he was often occupied with adaptations of classic novels such as Jane Eyre (which was very effective with George C. Scott & Susannah York), and All Quiet on the Western Front (with Richard Thomas as Paul Baumer in Erich Maria Remarque’s story). I hope that Mr. Mann‘s work beyond Marty will find a new audience again. As Delbert Mann explained at the time of his return to the small screen, “I missed the excitement and concentration that live TV gave us in the old days. I was able to achieve the artistic freedom [there that] I can’t get in films.”

Delbert Mann‘s career may not have changed cinema, but the “well made film” that was the hallmark of his work deserves to be seen. I think it might be appreciated again.

4 Responses Delbert Mann: More Than Marty (1955)
Posted By Joe aka Mongo : December 6, 2007 9:46 pm

Moira, thanks for shedding some light on the the career of underrated director Delbert Mann. He certainly weaved his magic through a few of my favorite films including "Seperate Tables",  "Middle of the Night" , "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs",  "The Bachelor Party" and of course "Marty" . I have yet to see "The Outsider" with Tony Curtis.Mr. Mann's work deserves to be seen. May he rest in peace.

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : December 6, 2007 9:46 pm

Moira, thanks for shedding some light on the the career of underrated director Delbert Mann. He certainly weaved his magic through a few of my favorite films including "Seperate Tables",  "Middle of the Night" , "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs",  "The Bachelor Party" and of course "Marty" . I have yet to see "The Outsider" with Tony Curtis.Mr. Mann's work deserves to be seen. May he rest in peace.

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : November 13, 2008 10:28 am

[...] forgotten by Warner Brothers company that made it and the general public. Though TCM has aired the Delbert Mann adaptation of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in the past, this movie,  [...]

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : November 13, 2008 10:28 am

[...] forgotten by Warner Brothers company that made it and the general public. Though TCM has aired the Delbert Mann adaptation of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in the past, this movie,  [...]

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