The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Lewis Milestone

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Steely eyed and sexy, that’s Barbara Stanwyck at her best. No one conveyed the tough dame, determined yet alluring look that can arouse a man’s loins any better. With a screenplay by Robert Rossen (Force of Evil) based on a story by John Patrick, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” is a hybrid twisting mix of film noir and 1940′s women’s melodrama with Stanwyck’s dangerous female right in the middle.

It’s the late 1920′s when Martha Ivers, a young orphaned teen, living with her rich aunt (Judith Anderson) strikes the older woman with a cane causing her to fall down a flight and stairs and die. Witnessed by her friend, Walter O’Neil, the boy backs up her story to his father, a hungry and ambitious lawyer, that the older woman did in fact “fall” with no help from Martha. The father suspects that’s not what really happened but realizes Martha, as her aunt’s only living relative stands to inherit a fortune and will make for a perfect wife for his awkward son.

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An innocent suspect is framed and executed for the murder. Flash forward eighteen years, Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter (Kirk Douglas) are now married, their dark secret buried in a marriage of convenience. They have settled into a successful life, she as the corporate executive of a factory employing 30,000 people and Walter as the town’s alcohol drenched District Attorney.

Into the apple cart arrives Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), a childhood friend of the two, and a boy Martha was suppose to run away with the night old auntie met her maker.  Sam was on his way to the west coast when a car accident forced a change in his plans. By happenstance, right near his old home town. His return after 18 years sparks some long buried flames within Martha’s belly long dormant during her loveless marriage to Walter. Walter meanwhile, suspects Sam’s real reason for coming home is no coincident. Thinking he’s back to blackmail the couple, Walter hires a P.I. and some local thugs to work Sam over and dump him outside of town. But Sam is a stubborn dude who doesn’t like to get pushed around. He decides to dig into the past and discovers the dark secret bonding his two childhood friends  in their loveless marriage. You see, Sam never knew about the murder, he had split before it happened.

Strange Love of Martha Ivers 31Sam also has a new love, Toni, a very sexy and alluring Elizabeth Scott. Though, she is just out of jail she is the good girl in this saga. It’s the weakest written of the four lead roles and Scott is basically wasted as eye candy. To complicate matters, Sam still has desires for Martha, his emotions twisted, jumping back and forth between the two women.

The film’s finale is a melodramatic lollapalooza, with Martha and Walter’s web of deceit and lies crumbling around them, their toxic marriage ending in self destruction.  Walter pulls out a gun and points it at her waist. Weak as ever, Martha, knowing he hasn’t got the guts to pull the trigger, guides the gun against her stomach and does the deed. As she crumbles in his arms, Walter kills himself. From outside Sam watches and walks away.

Martha IversBarbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin give solid performances along with Miklos Rozsa’s sometime bombastic but effective score. Stanwyck’s ruthless character, with her steely eyes, can make your blood run cold yet at the same time be alluring and seductive. Her Martha Ivers would definitely gives Phyllis Dietrichson a hard edge run in the tough babe category. The film also introduces us to a young Kirk Douglas, in his film debut, oddly cast as an emotionally weak man dependent on alcohol to get him through his life. He’s intense, as Kirk always is, but lacking any kind of back bone he comes across as a pathetic and desperate man pushed into a powerful position in the community only because of his wife. It’s pretty much a one note performance though there are inklings of the Kirk we would come to know in later films.

Martha IversThe film’s weak spot is in the unimaginative direction of Lewis Milestone indicated by his use of too many ordinary camera shots. Milestone peaked early in his career with the excellent anti-war film, “All’s Quiet on the Western Front.” Since then, with the exception of a couple of films like “The Front Page” and “Of Mice and Men,” his career became one of mediocre films lacking in any kind of personal touch. Works like, “The Purple Heart,” “The General Died at Dawn,” “No Minor Vices,” “The North Star” and the long winded “Halls of Montezuma,” a war film so artistically detached from his earlier “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” one wonders was it really made by the same director.”  And then there are some downright oddities like the rat pack love-fest, aka “Ocean’s 11″ and the Brando atrocity, the 1962 “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  A few films stilled showed shades of Milestone’s promise like “A Walk in the Sun” and this film noir but neither quite rise to top remaining nondescript, middle of the road flicks. “Martha Ivers” would have benefited nicely if a more visually imaginative director like Robert Siodmak had been at the helm.

Look for a teenage Darryl Hickman as young Sam Masterson early in the film. Also, according to IMDB, future director Blake Edwards has an uncredited small role as a sailor.

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14 comments on “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Lewis Milestone

  1. Terrific overview of this movie. And I agree with you about Lewis Milestone’s direction. The movie suffers a bit for it.

  2. John Greco says:

    Thanks SS! Yeah, a director with more visual style, like Hitchcock, would have elevated this film.

  3. The Lady Eve says:

    “Martha Ivers” has always seemed campy to me. Stanwyck is prettyy over the top as the steely bitch fatale and Douglas really lays it on as drunken Walter. I’ve never been able to see what in Martha’s nasty character appealed to Heflin over Scott’s character. The whole thing is impossible to swallow. But I watch it anyway.

    • John Greco says:

      It’s definitely not a top notch noir and not believeable but still entertainlying watchable. While I agree with you about Douglas really laying it on as a drunk, I did find Stanwyck’s performance quite good. Van Helfin is alway solid.

  4. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a good assessment of a film whose description sounds a lot better than the film actually is. It sounds like a noir but doesn’t really seem like one. It’s closer to crime melodrama with a touch of the “blowing the lid off of small-town secrets” of films like “King’s Row” and the later “Peyton Place.” It also shows the postwar fascination with psychology simplified for the masses–all those guilty childhood secrets and their aftermath. This was the time when all the studios were jumping on the film noir bandwagon. Paramount hit it lucky with Billy Wilder and “Double Indemnity” (my favorite film noir) but this kind of thing wasn’t really their style.

    I think you’re right to attribute the film’s failure to live up to its promise to director Lewis Milestone, and I absolutely agree that his career peaked with a handful of early masterpieces (I like “The Front Page” a lot as well as “All Quiet”), rather like Rouben Mamoulian’s. The film is too slick and controlled and doesn’t relish its nastiness the way a genuine film noir does. But here’s always Stanwyck (with her unique ability to project toughness and femininity at the same time), Heflin was well suited to his role as an inquisitive everyman, and I liked Judith Anderson’s small part at the beginning as the wicked aunt who sets later events in motion.

    • John Greco says:

      R.D. You point about the film being too slick and controlled is well taken. As you also mention, the studios were jumping on the noir band wagon and attempting duplicate what the B film and poverty row studios were doing out of necessity. It didn’t always work, like here and to some extent with others like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a film I like but it’s a bit too glossy especially Lana Turner and her outfits which are little too clean for a truck stop waitress in the middle of nowhere. Considering she was not much of an actress though, Turner was effective. I prefer OSSESSIONE of all the versions of Cain’s book. And getting back to “Martha Ivers,” Anderson is a real treat. She plays mean so well.

      I am with you on Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY as it is also my favorite noir.

      Here’s wishing you the best on this New Year’s Day!

  5. I haven’t seen this in ages but your review is dead-on from what I recall. I remember that it wasn’t as surprising as I had expected, but I suspect that if I watched it today I would get more enjoyment from the performances. I’m such a huge Barbara Stanwyck fan that she could make the most out of any script.

  6. ClassicBecky says:

    I’ve always liked this movie very much, but it wasn’t great, and it was hard to figure out why. Your assessment of the weakness is the answer: ” … unimaginative direction of Lewis Milestone indicated by his use of too many ordinary camera shots.” Very astute. You are quite right about Kirk — he was totally wrong for that part. The same thing happened with him in “Mourning Becomes Electra” with a wimpy part. Good review, John!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Becky. Yeah, despite its flaws I do enjoy watching this now and then. I have not seen MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA but Kirk in the role of a weak man seems odd, though that is probably because we after all these years we are so use to him being on the opposite side of the fence.

      • ClassicBecky says:

        Well, as far as Kirk, he was starting out and you have to take whatever you can get starting out as an actor! You know, Mourning Becomes Electra is probably one of the worst movies ever — It has a fabulous cast, but it is completely stolid, trudges along with O’Neill’s melodrama at a slow pace, and has wonderful Rosalind Russell in one of the worst cases of miscasting I’ve ever seen. I love the play, Michael Redgrave is a favorite, Katina Paxinou is wonderful, but it just didn’t work for me. I’d be interested to know if you feel differently. If you do get to see it, let me know or, better yet, do a piece on it!

      • John Greco says:

        Definitely sounds like a film one has to be in the mood for.

  7. Judy says:

    Haven’t seen this one as yet, John, but I am trying to see as many Stanwyck movies as I can and will hope to see this one soon – then return to your review. A cross between noir and women’s melodrama sounds like something which would appeal to me.

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