The Mubi Cinematheque: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
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It was a dark and stormy night at the beginning of this Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) noir. A young girl, Martha, tries to run away, for what is revealed the latest in a string of many attempts, only to be caught and returned to her wealthy, cold-blooded aunt. The power goes out. Tensions escalate. And as lightning flashes, Martha clubs her aunt with the cane the elder was using to beat Martha’s cat to death with. The aunt dies, a cover story is used, and we flash to twenty years down the road.
Amid the melodramatic delivery, this set up comes across very well. It’s gripping and intriguing. One bit of misdirection is the notion, based on the title and the centre of these opening scenes, that Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) would be the main character. Of course, her presence looms over everything, but the audience surrogate navigating the scenery of Iverstown is Sam (Van Heflin), who returns to town after leaving that same night on a circus train. Sam is charming, as a career gambler ought to be, and perfect for the noir lead who stumbles into a set of situations by chance of curiosity. He’s driving, gets distracted by a sign for his old hometown and crashes his car.
His sudden reappearance is not seen as a good omen for Martha and husband Walter (Kirk Douglas in his film debut), the town’s district attorney who covered for Martha all those years earlier. They immediately assume Sam has resurfaced to blackmail them, which isn’t entirely off base considering his colourful record as a gambler, his list of arrests — no convictions — and his nomadic lifestyle. It doesn’t help matters that Sam shows up out of the blue in Walter’s office asking for a favor.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers shows the slow-acting poison of paranoia and the vicious cocktail it forms when mixed with ambition and power. It’s because of this as well that the title is a complete misnomer. Love never factors into it. Martha Ivers is not capable of love. As an adult, she has become as cold and calculated as her aunt except for a few moments where warm nostalgia cracks the surface when Sam is around. But is she manipulating him for her own gain? She does not love her husband and is downright contemptible of him. Walter drowns himself in alcoholism and self-pity, but not so much in guilt. His prize was Martha and, no matter how much he wishes it to be true, she will never love him.
All three central characters seem expert at self-preservation but using different methods. It resulted in three varied personality types (four if you count Toni, the girl Sam meets first when he stumbles into town). And yes, Sam is a grifter in some sense, but his intentions are misinterpreted and he ends up in trouble for the mix-up. Paranoia strikes again.
There are enough twists and surprises in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, but they never come across as forced or nonsensical. They’re all true to established character behaviors, especially when you consider the motives behind their actions. Sam may be our protagonist, but he’s prone to some sleazy choices. Like Martha, he finds himself caught up in the veil of nostalgia and what could have been.
The four lead performances are all excellent and fully formed. It’s amazing that this was Douglas’ debut. None, however, stand out above his or her peers. It’s truly an ensemble. Stanwyck transitions from ice queen to jovial youth so seamlessly; she knew how to play someone aged beyond her years. And Heflin does wonders in a role that could have fit right in in Orson Welles’ acting filmography, but also has a dash reminiscent of current star Michael Shannon. It caused the realization that Shannon would likely be amazing as a private detective in a neo-noir.
This cut could use some touch-ups to the lighting, as faces sometimes get washed out, but for the most part it holds together well visually. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is somehow an under-the-radar movie from a great era. With the pedigree of the cast and Milestone it should probably be more often regarded (it has only 10 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — all fresh).