by TRUDY RING ~ posted October 25th, 2017
I have a not-so-strange love for this movie.
It’s a classic of film noir that adheres to some conventions of the genre but turns others on their head. It has a riveting story and excellent performances, not only from the four leads but from numerous memorable supporting players.
The plot turns on a murder that happens early in the film. It opens in 1928 in a small city called Iverstown, somewhere in the eastern or midwestern U.S.; the only specific location reference is that it’s somewhere east of Chicago. A wealthy but miserable teenage girl named Martha Ivers is getting ready to run away from home with Sam Masterson, her attractive boyfriend from the poor side of town, who’s come to fetch her on a stormy night.
“Home” is a mansion where the orphaned Martha lives with her domineering aunt, identified in the script only as Miss Ivers, who owns the town’s biggest factory and has never forgiven Martha’s mother for marrying a mere millhand named Smith; she’s had Martha’s name legally changed to Ivers. Martha doesn’t manage to run away with Sam that night, but she does something else that will set the course for the rest of her life. Miss Ivers despises Martha’s pet cat, and when she encounters it on the mansion’s majestic staircase, she beats it savagely with her cane. But Martha grabs the cane from her and hits her over the head with it, and Miss Ivers tumbles down the stairs to her death. Martha’s status-seeking tutor, Mr. O’Neil, and his son, Walter, pretend to believe Martha’s story that Miss Ivers was killed by an intruder who ran out the open door, although Walter knows the truth. Martha is bound to them from then on. Meanwhile Sam has vanished. Eighteen years later, Sam returns to Iverstown, literally by accident—while driving across the country, he’s distracted by a sign for his old hometown, and wrecks his car. He pulls into an Iverstown garage for repairs, then meets a beautiful but lonely young woman,
Antonia “Toni” Marachek, who’s sitting on the steps of Sam’s former family home. Toni’s set to leave town that night, but she turns in her bus ticket and joins forces with Sam, and they check into adjoining hotel rooms. But the next day she’s arrested for breaking parole—she just got out of jail on a theft conviction, and she was paroled on the condition that she return to her hometown, Ridgeville. Sam has found out the local district attorney is now none other than Walter O’Neil, so he decides to appeal to Walter to get Toni freed. He’s also found out that Walter’s now married to Martha, all grown up into gorgeous Barbara Stanwyck; Martha now runs a greatly expanded Ivers factory and essentially runs the city. Walter’s a drunken weakling, and Martha’s glad to see her old beau, who’s matured into a very appealing man—but she and Walter are both worried about what Sam knows about that murder 18 years ago, and they suspect he has blackmail on his mind.The cat-and-mouse game that ensues will keep you guessing till the end, but it’s hardly the only pleasure of this movie. First off, the leads. Stanwyck is terrific as usual; I avoid calling this one of her greatest performances only because they were all so great, it’s nearly impossible to rate one over the other. But Martha is certainly one of her greatest roles—probably second only to the deliciously evil Phyllis Dietrichson of “Double Indemnity.” She got a richly deserved Oscar nomination for “Double Indemnity” and really should have won; she deserved at least a nomination for “Martha Ivers,” but it wasn’t forthcoming.
Van Heflin, though, is the film’s revelation. He was a fairly big star of his time and even got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing an unexpectedly sympathetic gangster in “Johnny Eager” (1941). But he never reached the heights of, say, Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut here as Walter O’Neil. Heflin’s performance as Sam, however, shows that with more roles like this, he could have. Heflin apparently never thought much of his looks, but he can certainly be described as ruggedly handsome, and as Sam, a tough professional gambler and war hero, he’s incredibly sexy and masculine; he practically exudes virility. Douglas shows that he had the talent it takes to become a major star, although Walter’s far from the sexy tough guys—more the Sam Masterson types—that made his name. Rounding out the four leads is Lizabeth Scott as Toni, in only her second film. With her blond beauty and husky voice, in addition to her acting talent, she was perfect for noir roles, and she graced many a noir, including “Dead Reckoning” and “Too Late for Tears,” the latter giving her what was probably her best part. One of the pleasures of “Martha Ivers” is the complexity of the four main characters.
The “good” characters, Sam and Toni, aren’t completely good, and the“bad” ones, Martha and Walter, are, well, pretty bad, but you can understand how they got that way. Now, morally compromised characters are common in film noir, but the complexity is particularly pronounced here. Sam is nominally the movie’s hero, but making your living at gambling, while not necessarily immoral, is not exactly going to get you invited to join the Rotary Club or the Jaycees. And he has a police record—even was charged with murder once, but successfully pleaded self-defense. Toni is no wide-eyed ingenue.
She’s done that stretch in prison and appears to have had plenty of experience with men, mostly the wrong ones. She wins the audience’s sympathy, but she betrays Sam at one point in a most shocking manner; he shows what a good soul he has by forgiving her. Noir films are sometimes rightly criticized for featuring madonna-whore stereotypes of women, but “Martha Ivers” isn’t guilty of that particular sin.Martha, while as amoral as Phyllis Dietrichson, is more sympathetic than Phyllis because we get her backstory. First she suffered under the tyranny of her aunt; then Walter’s father, determined for his son to have a place in high society, took over Martha’s life. Walter became a victim of his ambitious, controlling father as well, bound in a loveless marriage to Martha. No wonder he drinks to excess. But while they’re unhappy, they’re determined to maintain their dominance of Iverstown and will do anything to keep the truth about Miss Ivers’s murder from being revealed. Another thing that’s notable about “Martha Ivers” is its authentic small-city, not smalltown, atmosphere. Most films in the classic era were set either in major cities like New York or Los Angeles or imaginary small towns, either quaint or bucolic. But Iverstown is industrialized; the Ivers factory employs 30,000 people. The city is big enough to have some good restaurants and lively nightclubs; it’s not as tawdry as Pottersville but has a lot more going on than Bedford Falls. I’ve been in lots of cities like it, especially when growing up in the Midwest, and it’s a type of city you don’t see portrayed in film all that often.
Other joys of the film include the many excellent supporting players. Judith Anderson is wonderfully icy as Miss Ivers; she doesn’t get much screen time, but Anderson makes any film she’s in a little better. She’s as memorable here as she was playing Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” or Ann Treadwell in “Laura.” Roman Bohnen very good as Walter’s father; classic movie fans will recognize him as a different kind of father, Dana Andrews’s poor but proud dad, in another 1946 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and as the ranch hand Candy in the 1939 version of “Of Mice and Men.” The teen players are varied, but all have movie connections. Probably the strongest actor among them is Darryl Hickman as the young Sam. He was much in demand as a youth and later became a respected acting teacher.
Perhaps his best-known role is that of Danny Harland, the younger brother of Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who arouses the jealousy—didn’t everyone?—of Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) in 1945’s “Leave Her to Heaven.” Mickey Kuhn, who does a creditable job as young Walter, was Beau Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind” and turned up in a small role in another major Vivien Leigh film, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Janis Wilson, as the young Martha, is adequate. She retired from acting early on, but movie buffs will know her from “Now, Voyager,” where she played Tina Durrance, the troubled daughter of Jerry (Paul Henreid), and appeared in another Stanwyck starrer, “My Reputation.”
And speaking of movie connections, Ann Doran, who plays Walter’s secretary and has a good scene flirting with Sam, went on to be James Dean’s mother in “Rebel Without a Cause.” From the behind-the-scenes talent, there’s able direction by Lewis Milestone, wonderfully dramatic music by Miklós Rózsa, and the glorious costumes of Edith Head, particularly those worn by Stanwyck. Jack Patrick, who wrote the original story under the title “Love Lies Bleeding,” scored the film’s only Oscar nomination; that year the writing categories were Original Story, Original Screenplay, and Screenplay. He lost to the high-toned British novelist Clemence Dane, who wrote the original story for “Vacation from Marriage,” starring Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr. Robert Rossen, who would go on to write and direct “All the King’s Men” and “The Hustler” turned Patrick’s story into a screenplay, with help from an uncredited Robert Riskin, who worked with Frank Capra on several films, including “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Meet John Doe.” Fine work all around.
And the title? Probably just something that producer Hal B. Wallis and Paramount thought would sell tickets, although it could refer to Martha’s love for Sam, perhaps as a symbol of her youth and the possibility of a different kind of life. At any rate, there’s much to love about “The Strange of Martha Ivers.”
You can catch “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” on TCM’s Noir Alley Sunday, October 29, at 10 a.m. Eastern, hosted by Eddie Muller. Whether this is your first or umpteenth viewing, tune in.
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