The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is generally classed as a noir, but it certainly did not seem like one for the first thirty or forty minutes: so much so, that I almost gave up on it. Instead, we are presented with a pretty standard melodrama of class, childhood oppression, and murder most foul hushed up in exchange for climbing the social ladder. At Film Noir of the Week, the reviewer says it sometimes seems like Grand Opera. (Its conclusion is close to Wagnerian.) Despite its slow start, after the set up is over, the story takes a dive into pure, blackest noir, thematically, if not stylistically. That is, the lighting, music, narration, and the like don’t have much to do with film noir, but the characters and the story…Yes!
The plot has many complications, but it is rooted in the lives of three youngsters in Iverstown, a mill-town, presided over by Martha’s mean aunt, who has made Martha her heir. Martha is not grateful, because the aunt despises Martha’s dead parents: her father, a former mill worker, and her mother who was fool enough to marry him. Walter is the “scared kid with glasses,” desperately in love with Martha, and Sam is the rough kid from the poor side of town for whom Martha feels a magnetic attraction. And so, one fatal night, Martha lets her Aunt have it, Walter sees all, Walter’s father hushes it all up so his son can grow up to marry Martha and finally bring some wealth and class into the struggling petty bourgeois O’Neil family. Just one thing: the kids think Sam saw it all before he hightailed it out of town, but he didn’t see anything in fact.
Walter does grow up to marry Martha, but he remains the scared kid with glasses, even as he is running for attorney general and getting tough on crime. Martha calls all the shots – what she says in town goes, while Walter spends his free time in a melancholic, drunken stupor. His election is a sure thing – no point in taking odds on it.
What makes this movie go is the characters, and the great actors who create them. Van Heflin is Sam Masterson, the kid who skipped town, and ends up coming back after seventeen years, purely by accident. He’s an interesting character: sterling war record; wandering gambler; heart of gold, but he beat a wrap for manslaughter. He’s no goody two-shoes. He frequently twirls his fingers in an odd way when he’s conversing, which emphasizes his observing, somewhat aloof, outsider nature. He’s not afraid to take a rough revenge on a private dick who tried to scare him out of town on O’Neil’s orders. And he seems to be irresistible to women: O’Neil’s secretary just melts under his gaze.
Toni (Lizabeth Scott playing an innocent this time) is one of the girls drawn to him. He meets her coming out of the building where he grew up. She’s not quite as pure as she seems, but a nice kid, and he’s the perfect gentleman, it seems. She has parole conditions to meet – he helps her out by getting her a room at his hotel. Their rooms share a bath. He recommends reading Gideon’s Bible, and he loves to quote the story of Lot’s wife: a nice noir theme – don’t look back. To me, this all seems pretty racy for 1946: adjoining rooms after a cozy dinner, Toni rapturously showering, washing away her not so pleasant past and being reborn into a new future…with Sam. Were they just reading, or like Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s poem did they read no more that evening..? Then Sam is awakened by two sleazy police detectives who are obviously working on O’Neil’s orders. They’ve jailed Toni on phony charges – a bid to dig us some dirt on Sam.
Barbara Stanwyck is Martha, who is revealed during the film as a full-blown femme fatale, but one who plays it classy. She doesn’t usually need to go for the throaty, seductive talk – she has the power and the money to get what she wants. But she is also a prey to her own desires, and they are pretty strong. She wants what she wants.
She builds her inheritance up into a gigantic financial empire. She transforms the mansion into a place of white and pink instead of gloomy brown and black. She holds her own against Sam’s attractions at first. Later, she comes to Sam’s hotel to pick him up for a “business dinner,” and it’s like the scene in The Ten Commandments when Pharaoh’s wife visits Moses in his slave hut: Oh, the furniture, the bottle of scotch! Just how I imagined such an ordinary hotel room would be!
Kirk Douglas is marvelous as Walter, a man consumed by self-loathing and his hopeless love for Martha, whose love, if not her body, is unattainable. She plays him like a fiddle: alcohol is his solace. Their relationship is one of submission, domination, and perversion.
The only romantic coupling (only implied, of course) that is wholesome, is that of Toni and Sam. The violent sexual nature of the bond between Sam and Martha is displayed when they revisit the woods where they used to hideout as kids. They find a campfire, which ignites old memories. The conversation that ensues reveals to Martha that Sam knows more than she thought about a lot. She isn’t happy. Her passion aflame, she tries to follow through on it.
She’s no match for Sam, physically, sexually, or morally. But he just can’t resist her. A real film noir pickle.
As their combat becomes sexual conflict, then submission, her hand relaxes, and drops the fiery brand into the fire. The flames rise up violently: the next shot shows the smoky ashes. The deed is done, the battle over, for now. The movement of her hand will be echoed in the Love-Death finale.
In this complicated story, things take a while to come to a head, but the three kids find themselves together again, at the head of those fateful stairs. Drunken Walter falls, and Martha sees a chance to rearrange her living arrangements, if she can just convince Sam to go along. It worked once before, long ago.
No dice. Sam is essentially decent, and he leaves, intending to never return to Iverstown. And he leaves Walter and Martha to their private hell. Walter knows the score now: he sees that Martha is really a sicko, but he loves her. “Kiss me, Martha.”
He knows there is only way way to end this for both of them. She feels the gun in her gut…and she does not fight it. It feels right. She pulls the trigger herself.
A puff of smoke. She is done with this awful life. She looks up, to the beyond, almost ecstatic. The music swells. It’s Tristan und Isolde in Coketown.
Sam hears the shot, turns to look back, sees the murder-suicide run to its conclusion. He is sick. Best to leave town, and not look back.