Ain’t love grand? Especially young love, the kind of love that makes you want to do crazy, impulsive things? Like, oh, I dunno… run away from your mansion, in the pouring rain, hop on a circus train with a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, and head for parts unknown? Isn’t love just a lark!
In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, we meet the titular character in her adolescent days (played by Janis Wilson) as she and Sam (the low-rent chap, played by Darryl Hickman) are huddled in a boxcar with a few belongings, a candle, and her cat.
They get caught by the rail guards, and while Sam escapes, Martha is brought back to the luxurious home of her domineering aunt (played by Judith Anderson, before she was a Dame). Martha is scolded and sent to her room while her tutor hovers solicitously. He wants Martha to marry his son, Walter (played by Mickey Kuhn).
Walter kindly sneaks Martha’s cat up to her room – her aunt hates the thing. Martha tells Walter she’s still going to run away on the circus train with Sam, who promptly appears at the window. They firm up plans, and as Martha is about to go up to the attic to get a few more things, the cat slips out of the room and down the stairs and aunt Ivers sees it and commences to beat it to pulp with her cane and when Martha sees that…
With all the commotion, Walter’s dad runs in (along with the butler), and they see the body of the older woman at the bottom of the stairs, Martha holding the cane, Walter next to her. Martha makes up an excuse that Walter’s dad is all too happy to believe, as are the cops. Sam once again pulled a disappearing act, getting on that circus train after all, and neither Walter nor Martha make mention of him.
Fast forward a bunch of years, and we meet the adults. Sam (now portrayed by Van Heflin) is driving across the country and manages to bend his fender in his childhood haunt: Iverstown. In the garage, he sees a poster to elect Walter O’Neil (no less than Kirk Douglas) as Attorney General. A few more inquiries turn up that he’s married to Martha (the gorgeous as always Barbara Stanwyck), who pretty much owns the entire municipality (and everyone in it).
Looking up his old address, Sam finds a boarding house, with a bored broad named Toni (played by Lizabeth Scott) on the porch. She’s waiting for a cab to go back to her home town, which she hates. She and Sam end up sharing the cab downtown, but she misses her bus. Sam gets her a room at his hotel, nothing untoward happens (unless you count trading a Bible for cigarettes), and in the morning he is awoken by cops who are seeking Toni. She’s violated her parole by not going home. Sam, being the good guy, decides to help, and looks up Walter at his office.
While he’s there asking for help, Martha visits – and a long buried spark reignites. The remainder of the film follows this bizarre quadrangle of Walter, Martha, Sam, and Toni through a love and power struggle where no one is on equal footing.
Originally released in 1946, the film was nominated for the Best Feature Film award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1947, and was also nominated for an Oscar in Best Writing, Original Story. It was penned by John Patrick, known for screenwriting little things like High Society and Three Coins in the Fountain. It was also the debut film for Douglas, who managed to impress the notoriously… particular Stanwyck.
At a shade under two hours, this is a longer film than most features today. While categorized as “Film Noir” due to its dark undertones, it’s not full of seedy dive bars and stiff-jawed detectives. There’s some snappy dialogue, especially between Martha and Toni:
MARTHA: [Entering unannounced, and seeing TONI modeling her new garment] The sun suit looks very well on her Sam, she’s got just the figure for it. She’s a very pretty girl.
TONI: [In retort] I give another show at 8 o’clock.
MARTHA: In your room or here?
Ladies, ladies, you’re both pretty. And while Scott may be playing the bombshell role a little hard to be much more than an archetype, she makes it look damn good. Stanwyck is, of course, Stanwyck. She was known as…I believe a forthright and upfront kind of woman might be the most tactful way of saying it. Martha was a great role for her to embody: a very strong willed, rampantly independent woman who knew what she wanted and expected everyone around her to work just as hard as she did to make it manifest.
Both of the gents give great performances. Though it was his first film role, Douglas had experience performing on stage. While Walter spends most of the film drunk, Douglas is able to put a visible reason behind the drinking. Heflin, while not a conventional leading man, could perform rings around plenty of actors with prettier faces. Since his character of Sam was a gambler, he taught himself to roll coins across his fingers. Stanwyck actually warned him not to do it in their scenes or she’d upstage him with her own trick – and hiked up her skirt to adjust her garters. (It was an effective tactic.)
Luckily for us, the original copyright holder failed to renew, and the film passed into the Public Domain in 1978. Unluckily, it means that there are a lot of copies of copies floating around.
If you would like to watch a clear version, The Internet Archive has The Strange Love of Martha Ivers for FREE.
If you are in the mood for Noir, we’ve covered it on the blog a few times:
Gen covered The Bacall/Bogie version of The Big Sleep
I had a few things to say about Bogie and pals in Beat the Devil
Dileas reviewed the archetypal heist flick Kansas City Confidential
Havilah took a look at the comedic side of darkness in her post on My Favorite Brunette