Friday, May 3, 2013

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: The Strange Love of Martha Ickers (1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Directed by: Lewis Milestone.
Written by: Robert Rossen & Robert Riskin based on the story by John Patrick.
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck (Martha Ivers), Kirk Douglas (Walter O’Neill), Van Hefllin (Sam Masterson), Lizabeth Scott (Toni), Judith Anderson (Aunt).

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is an interesting film. Some refer to it as a film noir, and it certainly has elements of the genre – a deceitful femme fatale, who tries to draw in the innocent hero into a web of lies and murder. And yet, strangely, director Lewis Milestone treats it more like a melodrama – a tale of a warped marriage between Ivers and her husband. This makes for an odd little film. I didn’t much care what the hell happened to our “hero” – I just wanted to get back to the warped marriage that is really the film’s core.

The movie opens in 1928, where a young Martha Ivers is caught running away from home again. Her parents are dead, and she is being raised by a mean, rich, powerful Aunt (Judith Anderson, doing what she does best). She has run off with ne’er do well Sam Masterson to join the circus, but is caught and brought home. Sam comes looking for her that same night anyway, but when he sees Anderson stalking around the house, he takes off and doesn’t look back. But Walter sees Martha when she grabs her Aunt’s cane and kills her with it – as does Walter’s father, who is employed by the Aunt, and wants money and power.

Flash forward 18 years, and Sam (now played by Van Heflin), stumbles back into his hometown for the first time in years. His car breaks down, and he needs to wait to have it fixed. As he’s waiting, he meets Toni (Lizabeth Scott), and the two plan on leaving town together the next day – that is until she is arrested. Sam happens to notice a poster promoting the re-election of the District Attorney, who happens to be his old friend Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut), and learns that Walter ended up marrying Martha (Barbara Stanwyck). Sam decides to pay a visit to his old friend and see if he’ll do him a favor, and get Toni out of jail. But Walter thinks Sam has something more sinister up his sleeve – blackmail. He was, after all, in the house that night, and may well have seen Martha murder her aunt. And since Walter and his father used this information to blackmail Martha into marriage, and to put her considerable fortune and influence behind Walter’s career, maybe Sam wants something similar.

As the movie wears on, I got tired of all the scenes with Van Heflin’s Sam – which is a shame since he is the leading man - unless they involved either Douglas or Stanwyck. I certainly didn’t much care about his relationship with Toni, that seems to be based on nothing other than the need for the hero to have a love interest, since they don’t know each other, and Lizabeth Scott is rather bland in her role anyway.

But whenever Stanwyck or Douglas are on screen, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers comes alive. Stanwyck oozed sex appeal and danger, and she does a wonderful job here as the ambitious, deceitful Martha, who you can never quite get a handle on. Does she, deep down, really love Walter? Or does she despise him, like she says, and really love Sam? Who is telling the truth about the drifter they framed for her Aunt’s murder? As for Douglas, I always liked him in roles like this – as a sort of slimy, sort of pathetic bad guy. Really, Walter is not much of a man, a lousy drunk, paranoid and sad about his life with Martha. And remarkably, in his debut film, Douglas gives Walter added complexity.

Had the movie focused more on Walter and Martha, it could have been great. As it stands, there are far too many scenes of Van Heflin, who is rather forgettable in the role that although he is the central character, feels underwritten. There are too many questions about his motivation that never really add up. But watching Stanwyck and Douglas together more than makes up for Heflin and Scott’s failings. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers may not be a great film, but it is a good one.

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