Director: Lewis Milestone
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Barbara Stanwyck became the unofficial queen of noir in 1944 with her fiendish portrayal of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in perhaps the greatest noir of them all, Double Indemnity. In an effort to make lightning strike twice, Hal Wallis Productions cast Stanwyck in the title role of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a noir whose story is mighty strange itself.
The tale begins in 1928, during young Martha Ivers Smith’s (Janis Smith) fourth attempt to run away from her rich, but domineering aunt (Dame Judith Anderson). She hides in a boxcar while her trusted friend Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) gets food, but the police hear Sam whistle to Martha to let him back in the boxcar, find them, and return Martha to her home. Waiting with Mrs. Ivers is the opportunistic Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen) and his son Walter (Mickey Kuhn), who try to curry favor by intimating that Walter tipped off the police where they could find Martha.
Walter, who is smitten with Martha, follows her upstairs after she has had a shouting match with her aunt, and assures her he told the police nothing. Just then, Sam appears at the window and asks Martha to leave town with him that night. She starts to gather a few things to take with her, including her cat, but it escapes her room and runs down the stairs. Sam goes after it, but hides when Mrs. Ivers emerges from the den and starts up the stairs to check on Martha. Encountering the cat, she starts to beat it with her cane. Martha, enraged, grabs the cane and strikes her on the head. She falls to the bottom of the stairs and dies. Walter, as a witness to the entire incident, becomes the pawn in his greedy father’s scheme to lay hands on Martha’s newly acquired fortune, essentially through blackmail. The O’Neils move in, and Mr. O’Neil takes over Martha’s affairs and eventually marries her off to Walter.
Eighteen years later, Sam (Van Heflin) has a fender bender just outside Iverstown and must remain in his old hometown while the car is repaired. He meets a beautiful blonde named Toni (Lizabeth Scott) at a boarding house, and she becomes part of a complicated double triangle, with Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his first starring role), Sam, and Martha hatching dirty tricks and changing alliances, all for the sake of loves spawned in childhood.
I had my doubts about the film when a sort of quirky music accompanied the meeting of Sam and Toni. Suddenly, I was in the middle of Love Finds Andy Hardy, with corny language and set-ups that made me wonder if these two were going to fall into each other’s arms or into each other’s sandboxes. A very bizarre scene in their adjoining hotel rooms with shared bath has Toni sitting on Sam’s bed with two Gideon bibles in front of her while Sam quotes scripture to her (a portend of 1950s straitlaced America, perhaps?). Fortunately, once Stanwyck comes on the scene, the film darkens considerably.
Kirk Douglas has all his quirks in place at this early stage in his career. He looks great with Stanwyck and has an aura of danger about him that makes him a strangely suitable choice for Walter, a man capable of anything for the woman he loves. Van Heflin has a lot of crackling dialogue and as much presence as Douglas, making the rivalry truly interesting. Martha, of course, must choose the man her heart desired when she was a child, but we see that her capacity to truly love is impaired. She tries to manipulate Sam just as she has manipulated Walter, and she is as self-justifying as a sociopath would be. Lizabeth Scott has a thankless role as blonde dynamite that never gets to explode. She mainly sits around the hotel room and waits. Nonetheless, she is very lovely as she does it.
While The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a pale imitation of Double Indemnity, it still manages to be an intriguing noir with interesting twists and turns, snappy dialogue, and strong performances. The climax of the film is one of the most twisted and satisfying of any noir I’ve seen and shows us, after toying with our expectations, what constitutes the true fatal attraction in this film. Noir fans will find much of worth in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.