The Irrepressible Miss Stanwyck: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Welcome back to week two of The Irrepressible Miss Stanwyck, my month long tribute to one of my favorite leading ladies. Last week, I looked at Jeopardy!, a film which saw Barbara going all the way to save her dying husband. While it showed off her ability to deliver hard edged, risky performances, it is a role tempered with tenderness. This week, despite the title that both hints to amorous adventures and sounds like a lost gialli, tenderness is secondary to self preservation as Stanwyck shows off her tough side in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Along with Barbara, Strange Love is the first film role from an icon of cinema, Kirk Douglas, and it also marks her first collaboration Van Heflin, who would co-star with her twice more. The trio, along with blonde bombshell Lizabeth Scott, gets mixed up in a tale of murder, blackmail, and revenge coloring Film Noir with shades of grey.
As the film begins, we are introduced to Martha Ivers as a teenager. Running away from her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson), Martha plans to hitch a ride out of town with a young hooligan, Sam. When they are caught, Sam is hauled off to jail and Martha sent to her aunt. While being reprimanded, Martha kills her aunt in a fit of rage, and the only witnesses are her tutor’s son Walter, who covers her crime by claiming to have seen the accident, and Sam, newly escaped from the law, who runs off and hops a circus train. Fifteen years later, Sam (Van Heflin) has a freak car accident while traveling which lands him back in his hometown for repairs. While there he discovers that Walter (Kirk Douglas) is the D.A. and on his way to even greater elected audiences, but his wife, Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) is the real power behind the throne. Sam, looking for a little fun meets Toni (Lizabeth Scott), freshly released from jail and just as quickly busted for a parole violation. Sam goes to his old friend Walter to see if he can get Toni off the hook as a favor to an old friend, but the “nervous little kid”, as Sam thinks of him, reads the meeting as a thinly veiled blackmail attempt. When Martha gets involved, old romances are set aflame again, alliances shift, and the only way it can conclude is with death.
While in many examples of Film Noir there is usually a delineation between the good guys and the bad guys, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers treads in even murkier waters. While Martha is a murderer and easily the worst of the bunch, her wishy-washy husband is not beyond hiring a few thugs to strong arm Sam and Toni, Sam is not beyond exploiting the misunderstanding to actually move into blackmail, and Toni is willing to do whatever it takes to stay out of jail. Even the romances, or strange love as the title calls it, are fractured and unhealthy. Martha is only with Walter to use him as a tool to navigate the corridors of a man’s world she cannot directly control. While Walter knows exactly what a patsy he is, but the drive to become something important, someone famous, is too much for him to resist. It doesn’t take long to see why Sam takes an interest in Toni, with her long gams and platinum blonde hair, and for a girl like Toni, looking to escape to somewhere, anywhere really, a guy like Sam looks like a good ticket out. All these mixed allegiances and needs keep the film interesting, and at over two hours, a near marathon compared to other Noir fare, the script complexity is a must to keep the action going.
Stanwyck, as Martha Ivers, creates one of her most enduring roles. While as a child she is portrayed as idealistic and hopeful, the adult Martha Ivers is a bitter woman deprived her true love and stuck with a sap for a husband. She has become the very model of the insulated wealthy that her Aunt had been. She’s also stunningly beautiful. Barbara runs the gambit of emotions in the Strange Love, and it really shows her fluidity as an actress to move from scenes of tenderness to malice and hatred without a second beat. Kirk Douglas, in his first film, could not yet have been playing against type, but anyone who knows his body of work will feel like he is. Douglas makes for an excellent weenie, and there’s little of the future Spartacus on display. In many ways, the role played by Van Heflin, the drifter with romantic ties to a beautiful woman, is the kind of part that Douglas would end up playing while Heflin’s star would begin to fizzle in the 50s and beyond. I always rather enjoy Heflin’s work, and this film, as well as B.F.’s Daughter, proves that Stanwyck and Heflin had real onscreen chemistry. Lizabeth Scott, who looks to be the femme fatale of the picture but really is more the woman in peril, is perhaps the weakest performer, but the actress, known as a “Veronica Lake-type” does light up the screen in some scenes.
Director Lewis Milestone would go on to work with stars like Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty and The Rat Pack in Ocean’s 11, but sadly, he never returned to the Noir genre again. Instead, the vast body of his career was filled with war films such as Halls of Montezuma. Cinematographer Victor Milner, who often worked with Cecil B. DeMille, gives the film a beautiful look, but, just like the film’s characters, there are no stark black and whites, but rather shades of grey which seem to lead on forever. While The Strange Love of Martha Ivers may not show up on many shortlists of great Film Noir titles, it surely deserves to be placed among them. For fans of Barbara Stanwyck, however, The Strange Love deserves to be near the top of any list. This is the kind of film that shows all facets of what makes her an irrepressible actress to me. She’s tough, resourceful, tender, smart, and deadly beautiful, and if that doesn’t sound like someone you’d get into some strange love with, then I don’t know what is the matter with you.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers just happens to be in the public domain, and so it makes me thrilled to bring you the film in its entirety. Enjoy.