The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
1946 / B & W / 116 minutes
Tagline: Fate drew them together... and only murder could part them!
On December 13, TCM screened, yet again, an interesting example of big budget film noir. It blends the right amounts of guess work, women’s movie romance and nice clothes, and hard-boiled notions about the wicked ways of life in seemingly ideal communities.
Much of the suspense hangs on characters who act on mistaken assumptions and oblivious characters who don’t know they lack crucial information. I won’t discuss plot and incident because an account would dilute the suspense that every movie watcher has the right to savor on her own. Because the movie takes a little too long for characters to tumble to facts, I will reveal to a world dying to know that my butt started to go numb at about the 95-minute mark of this two-hour movie.
Barbara Stanwyck plays the femme fatale as she did in Double Indemnity. She is hard and ruthless, but vulnerable and liable to a pitiful but frightening instability. She’s acted on impulse that caused others pain, cost two unfortunates their lives, and blighted her own life in the process. Violence and the prospect of cruelty excite her.
The other female lead, Lizabeth Scott, brings to mind Lauren Bacall, with her husky sultry voice and unique but not pretty face. But in only her second screen appearance, Scott gives the character a convincing broken manner. Like a hunted animal, she’s always looking over her shoulder, wincing in expectation from the next blow from a drunken parent, a violent sib, or a sadistic prison guard with a billy club. Born to be victimized, she isn’t close to clever and knows it. She needs somebody to take care of her.
The male leads are cast against type. To me, Van Heflin always seemed genial, harmless and Pillsbury Doughboy-soft. Here he plays a supposedly tough veteran of Anzio and a canny product of circus life and rambling gambler. In his screen debut, Kirk Douglas plays a drunken milktoast who is also a conniving, ethics-free DA who coerces small time crooks into bad funny business and sends innocent men to the gallows. This is noir, remember, so human failings cause trouble and suffering. Douglas pulls off playing a dynamic weakling, persuading us that his character has complexity – gutless, devious, dangerous, untrustworthy, volatile, but a husband totally in love with his wife.
Film noir tends to be cynical about appearances. Near the beginning of a movie is a wonderfully awful example of creepy decoration. A rich woman’s mansion has furnishings that look Late 19th Century Western Frontier Genteel though the scene is set the late 1920s. Naturally, the fancy decorations hide the inner rot of the semi-monsters that have to inhabit the house. Later in the movie the mansion is inhabited by Babs the Adultress who rubs her extramarital affairs with personal trainers in her alcoholic husband’s face. Hubby the DA takes his anger out on the petty crooks at work. He fixes problems for his friends and hires plug-uglies to usher drifters out of town.
The mid-sized factory town looks safe and prosperous enough. But it is run by a cabal of the spoiled rich and their corrupt lickspittles. The ordinary citizens are cranky toadies who accept their subordination as part of the natural order. In short, the town is the sweltering hell that Republicans think of when they think of the Good Old Days. The arrival of the stranger Van Heflin uncovers the rot inside civic life. The good citizens sure don’t like him being so rebellious.
Because of the big budget and requirements of The Code, the ending is not nearly as fatalistic and dark as film noir endings usually are. Despite the happy ending, enjoy.