Film Title: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Film Noir
- Barbara Stanwyck
- Van Heflin
- Lizabeth Scott
- Kirk Douglas
Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin – what could possibly go wrong? If you’re part of the audience, you’re safe. But inside this twisted tale, things do go wrong…beautifully wrong. We’re not able to tell from the title alone what evils await. We do know, however, that when the word “strange” is part of it, something is surely amiss. In order to fully understand, we must go back to the beginning.
Iverstown, 1928. Three friends. The first is Martha Ivers, a girl whose aunt is a stern curmudgeon of a woman. She is Martha’s guardian and hardly allows her to live outside of their huge mansion. As one might assume, the town is indeed named after the aunt. She owns just about everything in it. Martha cannot stand to live under her aunt’s dictatorship and tries to run away with her friend Sam Masterson. Sam is a rebellious troublemaker who thrives on taking chances and smirking in the face of authority. The escape attempt fails, just as the previous ones had. The aunt (played by Judith Anderson) has enough money and influence to have eyes and ears all over town, so Martha’s efforts are always futile. When Martha is brought back to the mansion by the police, her aunt orders her upstairs. Another man also comes in with the police, announcing that his young son, Walter O’Neil, was actually the one responsible for finding Martha. Mrs. Ivers rewards Walter with ice cream, purposely ignoring his father’s subtle hints for monetary gratitude. While upstairs in her room, Martha is joined by Walter, who insists that his father put him up to squealing on her. They hear a knock on the bedroom window, Walter opens it to let Sam in, who convinces Martha to make a second attempt at running away while the adults are downstairs. Sam sneaks down to the living room and hides as Martha’s aunt starts upstairs. Martha and Walter greet the aunt halfway and a screaming match ensues. Walter stands and watches in fear. At her rope’s end, Martha grabs her aunt’s cane and hits her with it, sending her tumbling down the long flight of stairs and killing her. Walter’s father appears after the incident and asks what happened. Martha naturally lies about it and Walter backs up her story. The secret of her aunt’s death is now hidden among the three friends.
Fast forward years ahead. The three are now adults and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), as her aunt’s sole heir, has inherited all of her assets. She is married to Walter (Kirk Douglas), now the District Attorney in Iverstown. Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) resurfaces in town by accident, literally, when his car swerves off the road and he has to take it to the shop in Iverstown for repair. In the auto shop hangs a political poster: Walter O’Neil for District Attorney. Sam laughs at the irony of the scared little kid he once knew running the whole town. After dropping his car off, Sam meets Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who is waiting on her front steps for a cab to take her to the bus station. The two begin talking and quickly become friendly over a cigarette. Toni decides against leaving town and they go to a motel together….separate rooms. The next morning Sam is awakened by the police coming in and asking questions about Toni. He gives them little information, but learns that she’s been taken to jail for parole violation. He decides to visit his old childhood friend Walter. Surely the District Attorney could pull the right strings for Toni’s release. Walter greets Sam with suspicion, and believes that his motive for coming back to town is to extort money from him and his rich wife Martha. After all, Sam does know the secret of Martha’s aunt and could easily bring it to light. Martha on the other hand is delighted to see Sam. The lust in her eyes for him is blatant, to the point where she is struggling to contain herself with her husband in the room. Walter notices this, and hates Sam because of it. Could she have married Walter simply because Sam was not around? Is Sam really back in town for blackmail? Which of the three of them is the true villain? What is the strange love of Martha Ivers about and why is there so much hostility between three childhood friends?
It becomes difficult when reviewing a film like this to hold back on giving things away. There are so many twists and turns that a simple plot overview just isn’t effective enough. The audience needs a reason to see the film if they haven’t. Rest assured that nothing has been given away here, and there is much more suspense and thrill to be experienced. This is a brilliant film noir that takes some of the most talented actors and actresses, and throws them into a royal rumble with no one gaining the upper hand. Barbara Stanwyck is a legend in her own right, having done previous films such as Baby Face (1933) and Double Indemnity (1944). She has an uncanny ability to portray callousness in a way that is extremely subtle, yet forceful enough to strike fear in people. A Hollywood critic once gave her the title of “the greatest actress of all time”. If this movie was a catalyst for such an honor, it would have little room for dispute. Stanwyck plays the same get-what-you-want-at-any-cost woman she played in Baby Face, albeit a more respectable one this time around – maybe. Kirk Douglas was impeccable as Walter O’Neil. This being Douglas’ debut film, his natural talent must have picked up where experience had not yet set in. He plays O’Neil as a tortured soul, whose drinking problem stems from his feelings of inadequacy. As a District Attorney, his life is now the complete opposite of his younger days. He is in a position of power instead of a state of helplessness. He walks on the thin line between gloating and crying. When he is acting as a strong and unbreakable man, one gets the feeling that it’s merely a shaky covering on the cracked interior of his true self. Douglas’ would follow this with Out of the Past, another film noir where he stars opposite Robert Mitchum. These two films launched him into becoming the icon we know today. Van Heflin did a superior job playing Sam Masterson. As an adult, Sam had all but abandoned the ways of his defiant youth. Except for a little gambling here and there, he grew into a responsible man. He seemed to have little time for games, which is why he worked so well in this film. This is a plot full of games and trickery. Sam walked into a web he underestimated. That outer conflict was the yin to Douglas’ yang. With the two male leads dealing with their demons, both inner and outer, all that remains is the counterbalance. Lizabeth Scott was one such balance. She gave us Toni Marachek as a woman who regretted her bad decisions in life. Her only longing was to be free from her past and move on. Scott became a bit of a noir veteran herself, having starred in Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart and Too Late For Tears after this movie. Her innocence as Toni provided the contrast to Sam’s roughness, and together they were the mirror image of Martha and Walter.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was released on DVD in 2005 by Paramount. While the transfer is solid, it’s a bit disappointing that no bonus features were included. There are many points of interest that deserve extra attention. A featurette on how Kirk Douglas landed this role, having been relatively unknown would have been great. Also, a documentary on Stanwyck and how her roles flourished and/or suffered after starring in Double Indemnity would have added even more to this disc. These two examples are not even the tip of the iceberg. So much could have made this disc into a collector’s item. The bare bones release is likely due to the film’s spot on the priority list. While this is a staple to lovers of Film Noir, in the grand scheme, it doesn’t compete with the more celebrated films that are guaranteed sellers. Hopefully, this movie will get another release with bonus features!
When speaking of having skeletons, this film needs a walk-in closet. This is the perfect example of how some secrets never remain buried, and how some friendships are formed simply from obligation. As mentioned, this is a noir highlight, but even that is a bit restricting as it limits this to an audience that thrives on right versus wrong. This movie is better suited for all lovers of great acting. The cast is a cinematic dream, and the plot is a road of unforeseen curves. This, like many other films of suspense, needs a good storm raging outside and low lighting. Whether you’re a fan of Stanwyck, Douglas, Heflin or Scott, or if you just like to throw yourself into a world of madness and come out unscathed – see this movie!
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