Starring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Judith Anderson, Roman Bohnen
Surprising. Dramatic. Suspenseful.
How many classic Hollywood films can you say that you didn’t know where it was going by the end of the first scene? The Strange Love of Martha Ivers kept me guessing all the way through. Not because of any great mystery or some revelatory plot twist, but by its unique structure, its host of compelling characters, each flawed, and its blending of genres and styles. Part film noir, part melodrama, the film begins with its main characters as unhappy children. Martha is a young, orphaned girl raised by her cruel but wealthy Aunt Ivers (Anderson made a rich career out of perfecting these ice queen roles). Martha has a crush on the town delinquent, Sam Masterson, and asks him to take her away, far from their small, claustrophobic town lorded over by her Aunt. While Martha pines for Sam, another young boy, the meek Walter O’Neil pines for Martha. Loyal and infatuated, Walter covers for Martha as often is required. As the first act plays out, Walter’s loyalty is pushed to the limit but doesn’t break, as he witnesses Martha striking her Aunt, causing her to tumble down some stairs and die. Martha claims innocence, Walter corroborates, and Sam makes his way out of town by himself.
The film picks up some twenty years later. Sam, now played by Van Heflin, is a drifter and a gambler with an extensive criminal and war record; a classic antihero. Like the movie itself, Sam is capable of surprising you, whether that means rising to an occasion or letting you down. He arrives back in his hometown by accident and hopes to leave as soon as possible. Waiting on a car repair, he meets a troubled young woman, Toni Marachek (played by the film producer, Hal Wallis’ infatuation, Lizabeth Scott). She shows an interest in him, and Sam, being only human, reciprocates. Toni is gorgeous and is set up as the film’s femme fatale (trouble). She, too, has a criminal record and is soon hauled off to jail for violating parole. Sam finds out that old, meek Walter O’Neil (played by Kirk Douglas) is now the town’s D.A, and sets out to persuade his “old friend” to help. He also finds out that Walter ended up marrying Martha (played by Barbara Stanwyck). The rest of the drama unfolds in a surprising, bold, exclamatory fashion. The femme fatales, blackmail, murder, and antiheroes mark the film as noir, and the over-done performances, alcoholic tantrums, thunderous musical score, and family secrets point towards melodrama.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers works as a tribute to both styles. It’s also a big, elaborate production (A-list stars, director, and producer) as opposed to many of the noirs of its era. Its best quality, however, is its distinct characters, each tremendously flawed and inconsistent. Sam is a brute and a cad, Walter is insecure and a drunk, and as for the women, it’s best just to watch the movie and find out for yourself. Kirk Douglas makes his entrance into film with a bang, leaving the biggest impression out of the cast. Lizabeth Scott was a highly criticized actress in her day, and, to be fair, you could reasonably call her performances inanimate; wooden. I enjoy her presence and what she brings to the screen, especially in the role of “dream girl,” which she is usually given. It’s a fantasy, an unrealistic role in the first place, and her one-dimensional, distant performances make her presence seem out of place, out of time, and timeless. She doesn’t seem real, and I say it adds something to the roles. It’s a pleasure to watch rather than being awkward.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-