In 1928, young heiress Martha Ivers fails to run off with friend Sam Masterson, and is involved in fatal events. Years later, Sam returns to find Martha the power behind Iverstown and married to "good boy" Walter O'Neil, now district attorney. At first, Sam is more interested in displaced blonde Toni Marachek than in his boyhood friends; but they draw him into a convoluted web of plotting and cross-purposes.
Barbara Stanwyck ... Martha Ivers
Van Heflin ... Sam Masterson
Lizabeth Scott ... Antonia 'Toni' Marachek
Kirk Douglas ... Walter O'Neil
Judith Anderson ... Mrs. Ivers
Roman Bohnen ... Mr. O'Neil
Darryl Hickman ... Sam Masterson as a boy
Janis Wilson ... Martha Ivers as a girl
Ann Doran ... Bobbi St. John
Frank Orth ... Hotel clerk
James Flavin ... Detective #1
Mickey Kuhn ... Walter O'Neil as a boy
Charles D. Brown ... McCarthy, Private Detective
A powerhouse cast is assembled for "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers." It's a treat to watch this able quintet at work, making for an engrossing film experience.
Barbara Stanwyck is at her peak--sure, confident, and unfailing. Van Heflin's natural talent makes everything he does seem effortless. Kirk Douglas offers a most impressive film debut in what, in retrospect, is an uncharacteristic role. Lizabeth Scott (who seems to me a fascinating cross between Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Clooney) is constantly engaging. Long after her part has faded, Scott's image remains indelibly fixed in the memory. And finally, the great Judith Anderson is on in a strong character role.
Miklos Rozsa's compositional style is remarkable in its adaptablity. Close one's eyes, and the film could well be set a thousand years earlier--or any point in between. Which is to say, it's general, while at the same time, specific.
The writing team headed by Robert Rossen created a slick and saucy script, which holds interest throughout, and Hal B. Wallis was sharp enough to retain this productional team formula for many years. Were the film to have been given a perhaps more poetic--less Gothic--title, it might have enjoyed even greater stature in the annals of the genre.
As it is, "Ivers" is a worthy member of the noir film family.
The prologue to "The Secret Loves of Martha Ivers" suggests a Gothic movie, with the spooky figure of Mrs. Ivers dominating the eerie household that Martha wants to flee; then, the film changes to a noir with a fine plot. In fact, Lewis Milestone, the director, has mixed a styles in the picture, but the end result makes a satisfying film to watch.
The musical score of Miklos Rozsa contributes to create a good atmosphere to what we are watching, also greatly helped by the black and white cinematography by Victor Milner. Robert Rossen, a man who went to direct his own films, wrote the screenplay.
We are given a story about an young woman who lives under the ironclad rule of a domineering aunt. Martha finds in Sam, a kindred spirit, who loves her. She wants to escape with him in order to get away from this tyrant. Things get complicated with Martha being nabbed from the train that is going to take her away and she is brought back to the hated house. The nasty storm blowing over Iversville cuts the electricity. Martha has a confrontation with her aunt, and things take an ironic twist. Mr. O'Neil, the tutor, makes sure he and his son will be well provided in exchange for their silence.
The action changes after that. It's now eighteen years later. We see Sam as he is driving near Iversville and he suffers an accident because he is not looking. Coming back to Iversville brings back memories. He goes to the house where he lived and meets the sweet and mysterious Toni Marachek, who is leaving town. By this time, all in town are alerted to Sam's return and things begin to unravel.
Walter O'Neil, the town's D.A. has married Martha. He has become an alcoholic. Martha has done wonders with the steelworks she inherited and is obviously a wealthy woman. She immediately figures with Walter that Sam's return has a different meaning; he has come back to implicate them in the death of Mrs. Ivers, and they must deal with him. Both Martha and Walter are suffering the guilt associated with their naming an innocent man, who has been executed because of them. The film has a good resolution, as crime doesn't pay, or so, this is the clear message that comes across. Sam, at the end, is seen driving away from the town with Toni.
Barbara Stanwyck makes a creation of Martha Ivers. This was a role tailor-made for her. She has a great time playing this woman, who doesn't know what she wants, whether to stay with the weakling Walter, or to try to get back to Sam. Van Heflin, as Sam is splendid. He had played opposite to Ms. Stanwyck and in this film, both do some interesting work, under the guidance of Mr. Milestone.
Kirk Douglas was making his film debut and he made a splash with his take on the weak Walter O'Neil. Lizabeth Scott was also a revelation, who is totally convincing with her Toni Marachek. Judith Anderson has only a couple of scenes at the beginning of the movie, but she is effective as the domineering Mrs. Ivers.
Although we had seen the film before, we still watch it whenever it shows on cable. Thanks to Lewis Milestone's direction the movie will live forever.
Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers presents a, well, strange case. Much if not most of it fits comfortably into the noir cycle that was just gathering its head of steam. But its look, save some recurrent bus-station shots, suggests lavish and well-lit prestige productions (as does its length), and in its deep-rooted narrative it harks back to sprawling, brooding melodramas such as Kings Row.
That narrative is broken-backed as well, with two disjointed time frames. The movie opens in 1928 in sooty Iverstown, a steel city almost certainly somewhere in Pennsylvania. There we meet, as teenagers, three of the story's principals: Unruly Martha, making yet another attempt to run away from her wealthy, rigid aunt (Judith Anderson); her street-urchin buddy Sammy; and prissy school-teacher's son Walter. On the night Anderson is bludgeoned to death (to the tune of lightning, thunder and crashing rains), Sammy waits for Martha to join him; when she doesn't, he signs up with the circus and blows town.
Fast-forward to 1946, when decorated veteran Sammy (Van Heflin), headed west, cracks up his car and finds himself once more in Iverstown. He meets up with the fourth main character, Lizabeth Scott, who not unlike himself has been knocked about (she's a jailbird). When the police lock her up for violating parole, he pays a visit to his old friend Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his debut), now the district attorney, to secure her release.
Douglas, who rarely draws a sober breath, holds the office thanks to the ambition and power of his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck). (The original publicity campaign cautioned `Whisper her name!') When she shows up unexpectedly and warmly greets Heflin, all Douglas' insecurities and jealousies erupt; not only does he suspect that Heflin has always been his wife's first love but he fears that Heflin, privy to the long-buried secret of the aunt's death, can undo his marriage, his success, and the industrial empire Stanwyck has built. He takes heavy-handed measures to defend himself, blackmailing Scott into framing Heflin. But hasn't reckoned with the resourcefulness of his adversary – or with the wilfulness of his wife.
But the story is really plotted along romantic coordinates whose intersections are punctuated by Miklos Rozsa's throbbing score. Douglas loves Stanwyck, who really loves Heflin, while Scott loves Heflin, who loves her back but still has unfinished business with Stanwyck (no wonder Douglas drinks – nobody loves him). And in the rondelay of turnabouts and betrayals (or seeming betrayals), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers slips perilously close to soap opera. Its stately pace and prosperous look give it a dated, ponderous feel, quite unlike the rough sleekness of film noir, though there's an unmistakable echo of Double Indemnity – Stanwyck's performance as Martha Ivers reworks hers as Phyllis Dietrichson, right down to the concluding love-death tableau.
But, while occasionally cumbersome, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers stands on its own as an overwrought, obsessive drama, with a very topical acknowledgment of the insulation that money and power can buy, and of the moral and social corruption that inflexibly comes as part of the package. It's a strange movie, all right, but a haunting one as well.