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.
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.
Sam 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.
Barbara 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.
The 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.