"The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" (1946) is a film noir
that never quite acquired the acclaim it so richly deserves. The screenplay by Robert Rossen was based on the story 'Love Lies Bleeding' by Jack Patrick.
Set in Iverstown (Anywhere, USA), 1928. An orphaned teenage girl, Martha Ivers (played by Janis Wilson), is living with her wealthy aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Dame Judith Anderson), who for all intents and purposes owns the town. Unhappy, Martha tries to run away with street kid, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman), but is apprehended by the police and duly returned to her hardened, unforgiving, spinster aunt. Sam turns up at the Ivers mansion with the intention of spiriting Martha away in the night, but their plan is foiled again when Mrs. Ivers cruelly beats Martha's cat to death and Martha retaliates by striking her with a cane, sending her plummeting down the grand staircase and ending her life.
Witness to this murder is goody-two-shoes, Walter O'Neil (Mickey Kuhn), son of Martha'a opportunitistic tutor. Once discovered by the elder Mr. O'neil (Roman Bohnen), the children attest to the concoction that an intruder was seen fleeing the house and that the deceased at their point of entry was already lying dead on the stairs. Mr. O'neil, seeing the advantages of the situation, in which he may be appropriated the care and overseeing of Martha's development and affixing a permanent station for himself and his son in the Ivers house, readily accepts this fabrication, despite the unsureness with which the children tell it and the fact that the cane is still in Martha's hand. The authorities receive the half truth and no one is ever the wiser, except the poor man who hangs in the gallows for the murder on Mrs. Ivers.
Flash to 17 years later, 1945. Martha (played as an adult by Barbara Stanwyck) becomes a very successful businesswoman, expanding her wealth exponentially, while Walter, her now husband (played as an adult by newcomer Kirk Douglas; this was his first feature role in Hollywood) becomes the town's District Attorney. Sam (now played by Van Heflin; known for his previous role as Charles Bovary), contrary to Martha and Walter's beliefs, never witnessed or had knowledge of Mrs. Ivers' murder. He fled the mansion to escape detection, and hopped a train to drift around the country as a gambler. All these years later, passing near Iverstown, he is involved in a car accident and finding himself again in his old hunting ground, decides to look up his old friend, Martha.
The four principal characters are paired off in contrast. Both Sam and the girl he meets in Iverstown, the sultry Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), are displaced, lonely drifters. Martha and Walter have the economic, political and legal power to control an entire city. They are an American success story, a veritable institution in their society. Yet they are the villains.
Barbara Stanwyck is a stalwart of the genre, having played the ultimate 'femme fatale' in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944). Her role here is more complex. I think Martha feels resentment rather than guilt about the marital trap in which she has found herself, and sees Sam as a potential replacement. She displays a sadistic, almost sexual pleasure in the suffering of others, especially towards the end as she tries to convince Sam to murder Walter. Stanwyck is a fantastic actress. Her death by gunshot while embracing Walter is reminiscent of Double Indemnity in its overt sexuality: she boldly presses her thumb onto Walter's reluctant trigger finger.
Like other film noir heros, Sam has an ethical code that compels him to fight both authority and injustice. It's a powerful moment when Sam is beaten and left in a ditch by Walter's thugs; a warning not to underestimate the lengths to which the aristocrats will go to keep the truth about the Lady Ivers' murder from being discovered. In true noir fashion the camera zooms in on his bloody hand as he opens it to reveal an Iverstown Police badge. (DUN DUN DUN)
Miklós Rózsa's score can lean towards excessive melodrama, but the rest of the film is such a gem this is easily forgiven.
This movie was made in the middle of a strike by the set decorator's union. Kirk Douglas remembers;
"Lewis Milestone walked out of the studio in support of the strikers and for a time the picture was directed by Byron Haskin....It's melodramatic but it's moving. Like the best noirs, there's a haunting sadness that pervades not only the lives of these characters, but the whole of the post-war American experience."
quote source: www.filmsite.org