Lewis Milestone, 1946
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott
“Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”
A young girl – Martha Ivers – lives with her miserly, controlling, and abusive aunt, but longs to run away with her friend Sam. One fateful night, she accidentally kills her aunt during a thunder storm and Sam leaves without her. Her tutor, Mr. O’Neil, and his son Walter go along with her story that the old woman slipped and had an accident.
Years later, Sam returns to Iverstown – named for Martha’s family – where she is a wealthy industrialist. Mr. O’Neil forced her to marry Walter, who has become district attorney. He loves his wife, but he has turned to alcoholism because she continually rejects and controls him. Sam, meanwhile, has met a lovely, yet troubled young lady, Toni, and is considering a future with her. Martha is delighted that Sam has returned, but soon Walter convinces her that he is only there for one thing… to blackmail them for every cent they’re worth.
Based on the story "Love Lies Bleeding," by John Patrick, the film was written by Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, The Roaring Twenties) and Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds). It falls in with a series of female-centered films noir from this period set in small-towns beset with corruption. Unlike the majority of film noir set in urban environs, the Iverstown of Martha Ivers is industrialized, small town America. Other films of this type that come to mind are Mildred Pierce or Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel; all three make powerful statements about domestic life, small town values, and the inevitable spread of corruption.
Issues of class are at the heart of the film – like the titular character of Mildred Pierce, Martha has made something of her life, but essentially came from nothing (her father was poor, her mother was from a wealthy family) and was forced to assume the last name (and identity) of a society heiress. Instead of descending into a life of leisure, she has worked long and hard to develop industry in Iverstown, particularly where her iron mill is concerned. A woman running a mill is an unusual role for the time period and I can’t help but feel that David Lynch was influenced by Martha Ivers for Twin Peaks. The latter’s Catherine Martell has much in common with Martha – both women are in loveless marriages with husbands they don’t respect, though the hostility comes from the controlling, manipulative women. They are both ruthless and predatory, women toughened by life in order to compete in a small-town man’s world. Neither Martha nor Catherine is without sympathy and it is easy to see how men fall for their dangerous schemes.
As with other small town/suburban-themed films noir, Martha Ivers has plenty of elements of melodrama. The developing relationship between Sam and Toni is the biggest culprit and include teary scenes where Toni admits she has made mistakes, but tries to explain that she went wrong at the hands of a man. I personally found these tedious, though Lizabeth Scott admittedly had a lot working against her, considering that she had the weakest role and it’s impossible to avoid comparing her to Barbara Stanwyck. Toni, a down-on-her-luck criminal, should be more sympathetic and likable than Scott is able to convey, but she merely comes off as weak and pathetic, a lost woman who is looking for someone to take care of her.
Stanwyck, one of the finest actresses of film noir and ‘40s cinema in general, plays a thoroughly complex role here as Martha. Martha is an unusual femme fatale in the sense that she is a victim and was essentially forced into her role by the people and circumstances around her – her aunt and her tutor, the fact that Sam left without her, and Walter’s inability to stand up for her early in their lives. Conversely, she seems to have reached a point where she enjoys the power; she doesn’t feel guilt about having an innocent man executed, she merely doesn’t want to be uncovered. She manipulates and belittles Walter, in an echo of their relationship as children.
Martha Ivers was Kirk Douglas’s film debut and while it’s fitting that his first movie was film noir, it’s difficult to really picture him as a weak character. Regardless, he’s excellent and steals the film from everyone except Barbara Stanwyck, because… it’s Stanwyck. Western star Van Heflin (3:10 to Yuma, Stagecoach, The Prowler, Possessed) manages to hold his own here, though he’s not quite as charismatic as Douglas or other famous tough guys like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. Like so many film noir protagonists, Sam is a loner, a drifter, a war veteran, and a career gambler to boot. Heflin is convincing and adds a somewhat more laid back, light hearted air to the role. Martha’s interest in Sam seems to be because he is an unsuccessful drifter, a forceful man with a potentially violent, criminal element. Really, Heflin’s Sam comes across as a man looking for adventure, someone who refuses to be tied down by or caught up in small-town drama or corruption.
There are some other excellent side roles, including Darryl Hickman (Leave Her to Heaven, Alias Nick Beal, The Set-Up), who is cast against type as the young Sam. Judith Anderson (Rebecca) is gleefully unlikable as Martha’s horrible aunt, whose sticky end sets the course for the entire film. If Anderson had been on screen any longer, she likely would have stolen the film.
Director Lewis Milestone made his career with All Quiet on the Western Front, but does solid work on Martha Ivers. The film’s strongest moments lie less in his direction and more in the charisma of Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas. The film’s odd plot and unique blend of noir and melodrama is enhancing by early hints of the Gothic – a young heiress trapped in a threatening old house by a malevolent caretaker. Martha’s aunt’s murder takes place during an ominous thunderstorm and the lights in the house flicker on and off. While I would have liked to see more of this element throughout the film, it is an usual work with a particularly tense spin on film noir’s ever present psychosexual theme.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, despite its out-of-place name that evokes BDSM, comes highly recommended. This mix of a great script, some wonderful performances, and a typically amazing score from Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound) cannot be missed. The film is fortunately available on DVD and Blu-ray after years of languishing in the public domain.