Last week I picked up The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a 1946 film directed by Lewis Milestone. I was intrigued by the title, but what drew me in was the fact that Barbara Stanwyck was one of the stars. I’ve always loved her work and just can’t resist watching her work; to me she was one of those actors like James Cagney who took control when they were on the screen; in my mind, she was as sultry and as mesmerizing an actress as has ever emerged from Hollyood.
Anyway, I am so glad I made this selection, as Martha Ivers is one of the most entertaining, wickedly ironic and just sheer delightful movies I’ve seen in some time. It’s a complex story, with two sets of main characters, whose lives intertwine in strange, sometimes convoluted ways and it winds up as a insightful look into the deception of love and the question of absolute power. While over films have dealt with this subject, few have done it as stylishly as this one.
The films opens up in the fictional city of Iverstown in 1928 with a sequence of two teenagers, Martha and her friend Sam who are running away from home. Martha has a special reason for doing so, as she is living with a cruel rich aunt whom she despises for her dominating presence. Sam is a poor kid and wants to run off to join the circus, a situation Martha finds entrancing.
They hop aboard a freight car in the station, but are immediately discovered by the police. They take Martha back home, but Sam mangages to escape. Martha is brought back to her house and after being scolded by her aunt, goes to her room where Walter, a boy her age who happens to be the son of Martha’s tutor, listens to her plans to escape.
Meanwhile, Sam arrives in Martha's room, planning on taking her away. A violent thunderstorm hits, the power in the house goes out and we soon see the aunt climbing the stairway to check on everyone in the house. When she sees Martha’s kitten that she despises, she starts to hit the feline with a fireplace poker. Martha sees this and in the darkness, grabs the poker from her aunt and starts to beat her, eventually causing her death when her aunt falls down the staircase and fractures her skull. Seconds later, the power in the house comes back on and Martha’s tutor sees that her aunt is dead. Martha, standing next to Walter, makes up a story about an intruder who supposedly caused the woman’s death. Walter, who saw Martha beat her aunt, confirms her version. All of this only a few minutes into the movie!
We then flash forward eighteen years where we see Sam (Van Heflin) driving by Iverstown with a sailor he picked up as a hitchhiker. He has an accident and has to take his car into town for repairs. Little does he realize at that moment how long it would be for those repairs to take place!
Killing time, he walks through town where he meets Antonia “Toni” (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful, mysterious woman who is on her way back to her hometown, assuming she can get to the bus station on time. Both take a taxi and when she is late for the bus, he reserves rooms for himself and her in a local hotel. Soon the truth comes out that she is avoiding her return trip home, due to her passionate dislike of her father.
We then meet Martha (Stanwyck) who married Walter (Kirk Douglas, excellent in his screen debut), who is now the local district attorney. This is a marriage of convenience for her, as she stayed with Sam, thank to his keeping his mouth shut about the murder. Sam is now guilt-ridden and spends much of his time at night with a bottle, as he can’t honestly face the public and talk about the law, given his previous behavior. Neither can really leave the other, as their secret might emerge.
This is the setting then for all sorts of intrigue and double crosses, as Walter soons discovers that Sam is in town; thinking he must have returned for a blackmail scheme, as he was a witness to the murder years ago, he does his best to send Sam away. Martha meanwhile, sees that Sam is with Toni; her feelings for Sam return and she is now determined to get him back and away from this new woman in his life.
I won’t give any more of the plot away, except to say that it is constantly full of twists that you don’t expect. You’re never really sure if Sam cares much for Toni or is only spending time with her, given his forced time in town. Once Sam sees Martha, will he fall in love with her or resist her charms?
The original story by John Patrick was nominated for an Academy Award (the category of original story no longer exists), which was well-deserved. At the beginning of the film, we see Sam running away. We find out bits and pieces of his later life and discover that he is a gambler who is constantly running out of and then winning money. He’s a restless drifter, so we don’t think that he’ll fall for either woman, but this time might be a little different, given the allures of Toni and Martha.
For me, it is Robert Rossen’s screenplay that is among the greatest achievements of this film. Rossen was an immensely talented craftsman who could write and direct with great passion; after his work in the early and mid-1940s as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters (I wrote about his adapted screenplay for The Sea Wolf in a previous post), he directed several of his screenplays, including All The King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961).
I recently wrote a post about some of my favorite movie quotes; there are enough in this screenplay for a separate post. Rossen had a great ear for dialogue and for this film, his words were as sharp and acerbic as ever. Here are a few examples:
- Early on Martha talks to her husband Walter about the murder she committed and how they conspired to convict someone else:
“The man they executed was a criminal. If he hadn’t hanged for that, he would have been hanged for something else.”
- Later, Walter discusses Sam with Martha:
Walter: “You know what’s on my mind, Martha? About Sam?
Martha: “ I think I do and that’s where it will stay, in your mind. Unless I tell you differently.”
- In a scene when Sam goes to see Martha in her office:
Martha: “What do you want?”
Sam: “I think I’ve got what I want. I think I’ve got a gimmick. A gimmick is an angle that works for you to keep you from working too hard for yourself.”
- And perhaps the film’s most famous exchange, when Toni admits to Sam that she deceived him:
Toni: “Go ahead and hit me Sam. I’ve got it coming.”
Sam: “The only thing you’ve got coming kid, is a break.”
Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in a publicity shot for the film
Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) directed this film with a nice energy and composer Miklos Rosza cranks up the strings when things get a bit melodramatic. The acting is uniformly good, with Heflin cooly playing all the angles, Scott offering a nice combination of innocent and sexy, Kirk Douglas sneering as only he could sneer and Barbara Stanwyck giving us another of her icy, domineering females who just won’t take no for an answer. Whether you’re a lover of film noir or just someone who likes an old-fashioned, steamy potboiler, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is for you.