The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Film noir's shadowy look and bleak attitude get their clutches into this melodramatic corker from 1946
Reviewed by Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 15, 2012
The Strange Love of Martha IversHD Cinema Classics, $15.98 (DVD/Blu-ray combo)
Film noir's shadowy look and bleak attitude get their clutches on this melodramatic corker from 1946, which stars Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, and Kirk Douglas in his first screen role. It's a fraught stylistic combination, but one that suits this postwar story about a rich, powerful, and selfish woman whose life has been shaped by an incident that occurred on a dark, rainy night during her adolescence.
The film opens in 1928, as young and willful Martha Ivers (played by Janis Wilson in this prologue – before the movie skips ahead 18 years and the character blossoms into Barbara Stanwyck) is apprehended after running away from home. She lives in Iverstown with her rich, imperious aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha's accomplice is Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, who manages to flee Iverstown on his own that night. Martha's tutor, Mr. O'Neil (Roman Bohnen), rushes with his son Walter (Mickey Kuhn) to Mrs. Ivers' mansion in a toadying attempt to demonstrate his usefulness. Martha and milquetoast Walter are friends in spite of their overbearing guardians, but it is Sam who clearly excites Martha's anti-authoritarian impulses.
Fortunately, it's not long before this constellation of characters grows into their older (and better-performing) counterparts. After the plodding preamble, things pick up in 1946, as Sam (Heflin), now a drifter and gambler, just happens to be driving past Iverstown when his car crashes. (Look for a brief, unbilled appearance by future filmmaker Blake Edwards as a hitchhiking sailor in that car.) Sam learns that Martha (Stanwyck) now runs her aunt's factory and is married to Walter (Douglas), an alcoholic who is in the midst of a campaign to become the local district attorney. Some new blood is stirred into this old gang with the appearance of Toni Marachek (Scott), a beautiful blonde who happens to be sitting with her luggage on the front stoop of the house where Sam grew up. Toni and Sam instantly hit it off. Events from the past and in the present then ricochet toward the film's perverse and nasty conclusion. Stunning contributions by costumer Edith Head and frequent film noir composer Miklós Rózsa also add volumes to the mix.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers fell into public domain when its copyright wasn't renewed in 1974, which means there have been been a slew of bad videos and DVDs in circulation over the years. The print restored for this Blu-ray release comes from the Library of Congress. The result is bright and clean, although it appears too smooth and polished for my taste. The images are sharp but all the film grain and fine definition are missing. Additionally, a commentary track by film noir historian William Hare is stilted and not terribly informative. But stick with the movie and you'll see the best print of Martha Ivers that's seen the light of day since I was a kid who watched it after school on TV.