"Whisper her name." Judge George Hatch did just that and met a most adept dominatrix.
"Welcome to Iverstown…America's fastest-growing industrial city."
For years, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was available only as a shabby public domain release found in discount bins from the likes of Alpha and Goodtimes Video. In 2000, Image Entertainment gave it an official "Hal Roach Studios Film Classic" presentation complete with the original artwork on the cover. Image went so far as to claim that, "This immensely important work was preserved just at the point of deterioration." Sadly, such was not the case. The picture was washed out and the DVD was rife with visual and audio artifacting.
Paramount has finally given us a dazzling new transfer that puts the noir back in one of the darkest and most perverse crime melodramas of the 1940s. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a twisty and twisted thriller dealing with circumstances that, along with such other classics as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, challenged the rules of the Production Code. In their definitive collection of essays, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, authors Alain Silver and James Ursini note that screenwriter Robert Rossen (All the King's Men) and director Lewis Milestone (The Red Pony) have "created a film that is a testimonial to both the affinity between sex and violence and the cruel manipulations of a femme fatale."
Facts of the Case
It's 1928 and young Martha Ivers has already run away from home four times because she resents her domineering aunt's strict attempts to give her an upbringing worthy of the family name. Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson, Rebecca) is intent on priming Martha for her future as the matriarch of a small-town steelworks empire known as Iverstown.
Martha, though, is infatuated by Sam Masterson's bad-boy brio and they plan to run off together for good. The smart but shy Walter O'Neil is being steadily forced into Martha's life by his knavish father, who constantly kowtows to Mrs. Ivers with the hope of winning his son an education at Harvard and, hopefully, Martha's hand in marriage. But Mrs. Ivers is well aware of Mr. O'Neil's spurious agenda and finds both him and his son beneath contempt. Then Martha's cat, Bundles, plays a key role in a brutal and unexpected murder that leaves the future relationships of the three teenagers in limbo for almost two decades.
In 1946, Sam (Van Heflin, Shane) returns to Iverstown, literally by accident, and finds that Martha (Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number) has indeed married Walter (Kirk Douglas, A Letter to Three Wives), who is running for re-election as district attorney. Unfortunately, life with Martha has turned Walter into a spineless alcoholic. Now instead of being manipulated by his father, it's Martha who pulls his strings.
Sam, meanwhile, has taken a shining to the sultry Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott, Pitfall), a woman he sees exiting the house he grew up in, which has been turned into a hostel for transients. Toni is a blonde on the run from a past which included jail time. Sam plans to provide some focus and a more promising future to her life, but the best-laid schemes of Martha and Sam quickly turn into a labyrinthine plot of misguided alliances, ulterior motives, and corrupt ambitions.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers has all the trappings of a soap opera but what you're watching is a sadistic game of psychological role-playing with a noirish edge. There are no "safe words" to be said when one wants stop the cruelty. Instead, every comment is yet another provocation—"Go ahead and hit me, Sam. I've got it coming"—and, as the characters try to outmaneuver each other, they find themselves in dire circumstances of their own fabrication.
In addition to the murder of Mrs. Ivers, Martha and Walter share another dark secret. They are co-conspirators who abused Walter's power as district attorney to condemn an innocent man for the death of Martha's aunt. The virtually castrated Walter wallows in guilt and self-pity and seeks refuge in frequent alcoholic binges, but Martha, a true dominatrix, continues to castigate him even further with constant harangues about his shallowness and weaknesses. When Sam Masterson returns to Iverstown, the couple suspects he's come to blackmail them.
At first, Sam is simply amused by their concern and, besides, he's found a true soul mate in Toni Marachek. When she's arrested on trumped-up charges of loitering and thus violating her parole, Sam goes to Walter for help. Walter himself quickly resorts to blackmail, forcing Toni to set Sam up as a fall guy to get him out of town. Martha, of course, has even stranger plans: She wants to get rid of the weakling Walter and tries to seduce Sam into killing him. Even though he's a decorated war hero, Sam is just a drifter with a checkered past and Martha finds that enticing as ever. Her fatal attraction to Sam does not go unnoticed by Walter, who begins fuming with jealousy and drunken rage.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers features a cast of high-powered actors in the key roles. Barbara Stanwyck is a demented dynamo as the adult Martha. She lords over the nighttime views of her steel mills much the same way J. J. Hunsecker presided over New York City in Sweet Smell of Success. Stanwyck captures all of the nuances of the character from her inflated ego and tough, no-nonsense demeanor through her slide into paranoia once she realizes her manipulative strategies have gone awry. Her performance is similar to that of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and both characters are the epitome of femme fatales.
Van Heflin plays Sam as a sort of pinball buffeted around by circumstances and the cunning machinations of Martha and her simpering but wily husband, but Heflin's Sam doesn't liked being pushed around or played for a sucker and his easy-going nature has a violent flipside. Lizabeth Scott makes Toni the most sincere and sympathetic character in the film. Even with their questionable pasts, both Sam and Toni represent the "white side" of film noir and Heflin and Scott bring a charming and genuine affection to the film.
Martha Ivers marked the film debut of Kirk Douglas at age 29 and he delivers a surprisingly standout performance as a foundering milquetoast. Despite his strong jaw, here Douglas creates a decidedly weak-kneed character, who can barely merit the audience's pity. Walter is a despicable character and anyone expecting Michael "Midge" Kelly in Champion or Spartacus is in for a shock. In film noir, strong male leads were often cast against type. See Burt Lancaster in The Killers and Criss Cross, for example. Douglas nearly steals every scene he's in, even those opposite Stanwyck. Judith Anderson practically reprises her role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, down to the costumes and hairstyle, but her cameo and death are two of the film's highlights.
Paramount's stunning new transfer brings the brilliant cinematography by Victor Milner (The Palm Beach Story) to life. The prologue has a decidedly Gothic look to it, with the key events occurring during a thunderstorm. As Sam enters Iverstown, the film takes on a small-town Americana ambience coded with noir aesthetics in its lighting and composition. Indoor scenes are shot through with a gray patina that reminds us of the ominous, ever-present steel mills, the images of Martha's power.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono sounds terrific. Gone is the audio hissing and popping that marred certain scenes. Miklós (Spellbound) Rózsa's lush and romantically intricate score relies on his single-theme-for-each-character premise, intertwining specific melodies with the sweeping orchestrations. Silver and Ursini point out that, "Rosza overscores the film to the point that nonmusical moments amount to negative emphasis thus heightening the dramatic flux of the story and the audience's expectation." With the help of an uncredited Robert (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town) Riskin, screenwriter Robert Rossen matches Rózsa's score with pregnant pauses in his audacious screenplay. Now the dialogue crackles, not the soundtrack. Thank you, Paramount!
There are no extras on the DVD, but the number of chapters in the menu has been increased from nine on the old Image disc to 14 on Paramount's. The DVD is packaged in a snap-lock keep case, but don't get all frustrated: You can always tear them off. I think of it as some additional security for this gem of a film.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a must-see film noir that is finally being presented as intended. It's a perverse romance in which each member of a four-sided triangle has secrets detrimental to their future. It's a woman-centered crime-thriller that everyone can enjoy for the plot twists, characterizations delivered by a stellar cast, and the presentation of a small American town seething with corruption. Iverstown is a genuinely iconic "Dark City" and well worth a visit.
Not guilty! The tagline for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is "Whisper her name…," but I suggest you shout it out at your nearest video outlet.
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