Background: Born to poor Belorussian immigrants, Issur Danielovitch changed his name to the very Anglo-Saxon Kirk Doughlas and became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, raising his voice and flaring his nostrils in a series of performances that straddle the line between hamminess and greatness. Before he was Vincent van Gogh or Spartacus, Douglas debuted as the fourth-billed actor in this adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick’s Oscar-nominated story. Released in July, the film – directed by two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone – was entered into the second Cannes Film Festival.
Plot Introduction: In 1928, teenager Martha Ivers decides to run away with local boy Sam Masterson in an attempt to escape her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson.) Tattled on by goodie-two-shoes Walter O’Neil, the two are picked up by the police and returned to the Ivers mansion where Martha gets into a heated argument with her aunt. During the confrontation, Martha accidentally pushes her aunt down a stairwell, killing her. Walter’s father covers up the incident; Sam leaves town on a train.
Flash forward to 1946, where Sam (Van Heflin) is now a disillusioned World War II veteran, drifting his way around country. A card accident leads him to his old hometown, where industrial magnate Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and district attorney Walter (Douglas) are a married couple who hold political and economic power over the whole town. Sam’s return shakes up the lives of Mr. and Mrs. O’Neil: Walter fears that the new arrival will blackmail him and his wife whereas Martha seeks to rekindle her old relationship with Sam. Meanwhile, Sam begins a relationship with the troubled Antonia “Toni” Maracek (Lizabeth Scott); these tangled relationships lead to jealousy and, eventually, death.
My Thoughts: Although it’s often described as film noir, I don’t think that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers really fits into that category. It contains few of the genre’s archetypes, offering neither big city sleaze nor chiaroscuro lighting nor cynical private eyes. (Scott and Stanwyck are both pretty good femmes fatale, however.) Instead, this is a prime example of studio era melodrama, with perhaps a few noir elements here and there. I’ll admit that this isn’t my favorite genre; I much prefer character driven stories as opposed to plot device-driven stories. I could easily criticize the script – by longtime Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin and future The Hustler (1961) director Robert Rossen – for relying too much on coincidence: Walter and Sam just happen to be there the night Martha’s aunt died, Sam’s fender-bender just happens to occur right outside Iverstown.
That, however, would be kind of unfair. The real issuer for a review of a film like this isn’t whether it uses genre conventions but rather how it uses them. The presence of Judith Anderson almost reprising her famous role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) points in a very specific direction: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers aspires to be that kind of movie, a quasi-gothic romance about the dark secrets of stately homes. Just listen to Miklos Rosza’s lust strings, which clearly belong to old-school Hollywood melodrama. On that level, the film works pretty well.
My two biggest complaints are much more superficial. First, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a bad, clunky, overwrought title. I think that the original short story title, “Love Lies Bleeding,” would have been much better. (Maybe I’m just thinking of the Elton John song.) Second, I feel like, in this context, the Ivers family should live in a palatatial, Victorian- or Edwardian-style house on a hill. I know that’s a total cliche, but I feel like this film is so cliched already that it might as well embrace it and give us a creepy mansion. Instead, the sets are completely generic and would have worked equally well in a romantic comedy.
As basically a love triangle (rectangle? square?) , your enjoyment of this movie is entirely dependent on whether you like the characters. The focal point, Van Heflin’s Sam, is kind of an archetypical figure in noir-ish cinema; this is the third 1946 film I’ve seen that involves a drifter revealing the insecurities of a major and eventually leading to its violent downfall. It’s a compelling through-line, and I’ve seen it done extremely well with John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’m not too familiar with Van Heflin – I know him as the homesteader in Shane (1953) and that’s about it – but he does a decent job here. His character is different than Garfield’s because, despite being an itinerant gambler, Sam Masterson is basically a standup guy, more the character that exposes evil than the one that causes it. That makes him a good point-of-view protagonist.
After Sam returns to Iverstown, the first person he connects to is Toni, the least fleshed-out of the four main characters. Although Lizabeth Scott is almost a dead ringer for Lauren Bacall (someone I’ll be talking about very soon), she doesn’t really have the former Mrs. Bogart’s screen presence. While she makes for an okay femme fatale, the character is simply not compelling because the script tells us almost nothing about her, not even the reason why she was in jail. Again, she’s another stock character.
To be honest, the relationship between Sam and Toni never really grabbed me; I found Walter and Martha’s relationship much more compelling. It’s with them that the store becomes more character-driven, which is a definite plus. I like the idea of two characters having a traumatic experience in their formative years and reacting to it in opposite ways. Kirk Douglas makes his debuts in a very un-Kirk Douglas role: Walter O’Neil is a spineless alcoholic, a man completely dominated by his wife. He could have played this character in several different ways, but Douglas wisely decides to play to his strengths by emphasizing Walter’s passive-aggressive nastiness. Walter is a very conflicted character, a respected public figure who turns to the bottle because his private life is a mess. Douglas’ best scene comes near the end, where he confronts Van Heflin and describes him as all his wife’s infidelities “rolled into one.” The actor perfectly captures the emotional turmoil of a man whose long-repressed anger finally erupts. If I do give out Oscar-style awards at the end of this project, I’ll have to consider Douglas for Best Supporting Actor.
Barbara Stanwyck, who plays his wife, would also be a strong contender for a fictitious award. After the critical and commercial success of Double Indemnity (1944), it makes sense that Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor would cast her in a somewhat similar role. In fact, I wonder if that was the reason for the making of this film. Anyway, Stanwyck plays the title character in much the same way – I’ve yet to see a review that doesn’t describe her as “steely – as she did in that Billy Wilder film, bringing the same cold intensity. Like Douglas, the script gives her a lot to work with: Martha Ivers is torn between escaping her life with Sam and becoming a mirror image of her controlling aunt. It’s a good role and she makes the most of it.
I was torn on whether or not to recommend The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, weighing the mostly good performances against the mostly unexceptional script. The ending, however, pushed the film over the line for me, as it was something I would not have expected from a Production Code-era Hollywood film. If that sounds interesting to you, you can watch or download this now-public domain film at the Internet Archive.