Sometimes I’m in the mood for a big, juicy film noir, one that hits all the right notes, from the cast to the story to the sets to the soundtrack.* Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers fills the bill admirably—it’s an example of the best work that Golden Age Hollywood could produce, and offers the great pleasures that can come from watching a well-made film that is happy to exploit genre conventions for all they’re worth. Maybe this film didn’t stand out from the competition in 1946, when it was nominated for only one Oscar, but today it’s recognized as a classic film noir.
We first meet Martha (Janis Wilson) as a spirited 13-year-old who is running away (during a thunderstorm, of course) from her gorgon-like aunt and guardian (Judith Anderson) with the help of her pal Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). The kids are caught and Martha’s tutor Walter O’Neil (Roman Bohnen) tries to curry favor with Mrs. Ivers by claiming his son, the very proper Walter, Jr. (Mickey Kuhn) told the police where to find the runaways. It’s a no go, however—old Mrs. Ivers is as mean as she is rich, and you can see why young Martha is so eager to get away from her.
When Mrs. Ivers dies in a fall, it’s not the freeing action it might be because young Martha is at least partly to blame, and Walter Jr. was a witness. Walter Sr. figures out more or less what happened and agrees he will back up Martha’s story but demands favor for his son and himself in return. Meanwhile, young Sam gets out of town because there’s clearly nothing but trouble waiting there for him.
Jumping ahead 17 years, Walter Jr. (Kirk Douglas in his screen debut) is married to Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and has become a hopeless drunk, while she’s come into wealth but has also become as cold and heartless as her aunt. She’s also someone who was born on third base but thinks she hit a triple, and delivers, entirely without irony, a speech about how she did it all herself. Sam (Van Heflin) turns up in town (with an uncredited Blake Edwards in a bit part as a hitchhiking soldier) and stops to get his car repaired. He immediately takes up with the comely Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail and missed her bus out of town.
It’s a classic screenwriting 101 setup, contrasting two couples: Martha and Walter are dripping in wealth and privilege, but hopelessly twisted and unhappy, while Sam and Toni have had a lot of bad breaks but are able to take the best from life and hope for a better future. You know Sam and Martha are going to see each other, and the sparks will fly, but a lot has happened since they were children, and past actions can’t always be undone.
Robert Rossen wrote the screenplay, from a story by John Patrick (who received the film’s sole Oscar nod), and the operatic scope of the story is realized through a high-budget production and lots of star power. Stanwyck is stunning in a series of gowns by Edith Head, and Victor Milner’s cinematography highlights her glamor. The Ivers/O’Neill mansion is beautifully appointed, courtesy of art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan. If some of the twists and turns of the plot don’t seem quite naturalistic, it’s all consonant with the heightened reality of this film, which is telling a story at such a grand scale that it’s not reasonable to judge the characters on the basis of whether they adhere to the conventions of average human behavior.
* The main theme by Miklos Rozsa serves as the signature music for the film noir podcast “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir,” which is required listening for anyone interested in this genre (or style, a constant debate among aficionados).
| Sarah Boslaugh
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, from a HD remastered 4K scan of the 35mm image (particularly worth noting because there are a lot of low-quality copies out there, since the film entered the public domain in 1974 when its copyright was not renewed). Extras include an audio commentary by author and film historian Alan K. Rode and trailers for several films.