Lewis Milestone, Byron Haskin
1946 (September 20, 2022)
Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/program category: A-
- Video Note: B
- Audio quality: A
- Additional Rank: B
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers begins as a gothic thriller, with heavy rain, thunder and lightning, with a prologue set in 1928 when the main characters are children. This establishes the plot that entwines the lives of three individuals after a fateful stormy night.
Martha (Janis Wilson) tries to run away from her wealthy, overbearing aunt (Judith Anderson) with a boy on the wrong side of the tracks, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). Their escape is foiled by young Walter O’Neil (Mickey Kuhn) and his greedy father (Roman Bohnen). Later that night, Martha has a confrontation with her aunt at the top of a dark staircase. Martha hits her aunt with her own cane and she falls to her death. Rather than admit what happened, she agrees to Walter’s father’s plan to make up a story about an intruder. Walter accepts the plan.
Eighteen years later, Sam (Van Heflin) accidentally returns to town and learns that Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) has turned her family fortune into a business empire and married Walter (Kirk Douglas), the local district attorney and alcoholic. Sam becomes involved with Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott) who, like him, has had trouble with the law. Martha stokes the embers of her old flame for Sam while Walter worries that Sam is there to blackmail them about the death long ago of Martha’s aunt. If the facts came to light, they would point to their guilt both for covering up the circumstances of the aunt’s death and for allowing the execution of an innocent man for the crime.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers benefits greatly from Stanwyck in the title role. She plays Martha as a frigid, wealthy, titled businesswoman with a terrible secret and a loveless marriage. Martha practically runs the town, manipulates her weak husband and, when threatened with exposure, is torn between self-preservation and her feelings for Sam, whose ethics and courage make him the exact opposite. of Walter. Stanwyck knows how to make the most of a reaction and she is in excellent form here. She can convey the innocence of suffering or be the scheming deceiver with a change of expression and convey distance and vulnerability in a single scene. In this well-written role of femme fatale, she takes flight.
Kirk Douglas, in his first screen role, plays an unhappy, cowardly drunk easily dominated by Martha, who is too shy and alcoholic to assert himself. The cast is against type, but Douglas makes the most of it and has a few good scenes. He would never play a similar character on screen again.
Heflin has the most prominent male lead and juggles the subplot, Sam’s relationship with Toni, which seems too sudden and not properly motivated, with the problem his presence causes Martha and Walter in the main storyline. In Toni, Sam sees a kindred spirit. Sultry, sultry, and vulnerable, Toni is an underprivileged young woman who paid for a mild run-in with the law while Martha got away with murder and amassed great wealth. Scott is similar in appearance and style to Lauren Bacall and plays Toni as a scared woman trying to put up a laid back front. On parole, Toni knows the eyes of the law are upon her, and Scott often gives the appearance of a hunted creature.
Had Heflin and Douglas switched roles, the casting would have been more believable, but Heflin was established and the thought was that Douglas was unknown and couldn’t handle the lead role. Know Douglas’ on-screen work after The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, it is difficult at first to accept him in such an emasculated role. Director Lewis Milestone generally pushes the film forward quickly, but he tends to get bogged down in the scenes between Heflin and Scott.
Martha ivers features a compelling performance by Stanwyck. She’s on top of her game as an inherently evil woman who knows how to manipulate people. She leaves no doubt what Martha is thinking at all times. Milestone wisely kept the camera on her during key scenes. This movie and Double Indemnity—both film noir—offer two of Stanwyck’s best performances.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was shot by cinematographer Victor Milner on 35mm black and white film with spherical lenses, photochemically finished and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The remaster featured on this Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber is derived from 35mm material from the Library of Congress. The film fell into the public domain years ago and has long been sold under various labels. This version is clean in terms of scratches, surface dirt, reel shift marks and other imperfections. The overall visual quality is not on par with other Paramount films released by Kino Lorber. The clothing, curtains, wood grain, and decor of the Ivers home lack immaculate detail. The prologue is particularly evocative, with an electric blackout adding to the gothic vibe. Candles provide dim lighting and eerie shadows proliferate. The rear projection is used when Sam is driving and spots the “Welcome to Iverstown” sign.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital. Optional SDH English subtitles are available. The dialogue is distinct and clear throughout. The film benefits from sound effects of thunder and heavy rain in the opening scene in Martha’s aunt’s dark house. A few shots break the calm of the night around the Ivers house. The roar of an engine and the clatter of a minor accident suggest Sam’s car accident. Miklos Rozsa’s exuberant score contains strains of foreboding as he plays under the opening credits. The music then varies from sympathetic to sad, depending on the scene. Overall, Rozsa’s music enhances an already solid story.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio commentary by Alan K. Rode
- The Turning Point trailer (2:01)
- Trailer All I Desire (1:05)
- Murder Witness Trailer (2:09)
- Trailer There is always tomorrow (2:39)
- Lonely Are the Brave Trailer (:54)
- Desert Fury Trailer (1:41)
- Trailer The General who died at dawn (1:28)
In his commentary, author and film historian Alan K. Rode notes that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is longer than other films of the same style. Miklos Rozsa’s opening music is dramatic and sets the tone for the dark events to follow. The film’s working title was love is bleeding. Censors placed many restrictions on Robert Rossen’s screenplay. The budget was just under a million dollars. The setting is supposed to be an industrial town in western Pennsylvania. Hal Wallis was in love with Lizabeth Scott and tried to make her career a major celebrity. Passages from Scott’s contract are read, indicating how one-sided he was for Wallis, a “contractual umbilical cord that equaled ownership”. After Martha Ivers, roles became harder to get for Scott. One of his later roles was in To love you, starring Elvis Presley. Scott’s ambition was to be a singer. By 1945, Barbara Stanwyck had been making movies for 16 years and was an established star popular among co-stars and crew members. Kirk Douglas was grateful to director Lewis Milestone for guiding him through his first film. Milestone’s camera doesn’t move much; tracking shots are only used when there is a specific goal. The Hollywood labor strikes of the 1940s are explained. Two unions formed an umbrella organization covering all studio workers. Ten thousand workers went on strike, but the studios had enough product on hold to withstand the strike. At Warner Bros. and Paramount, violence erupted. Milestone refused to cross the picket line and Byron Haskin took charge of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers for several days. Barbara Stanwyck has been nominated four times but has never won a competitive Oscar. She won an honorary Oscar in 1982 “for her outstanding creativity and unique contribution to the art of cinema.”
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers remains tense, leading to a confrontation between three adult childhood friends. It’s a cynical film that explores a dark secret, misinterpreted motivations, repressed desire, and the toll of repressed guilt.