Home Video Hovel- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, by Scott Nye
The general pitch of many a film noir is to comment on the corruption of man, either in terms of societal machinations (politics, law, business, etc.) or that of the soul, by taking an innocent and putting him (and it’s almost always him) in the position of gaining just a little bit more. Than “more” may be money, women, power, or influence, but there’s typically a moment when the innocent could have turned away and continued on the straight and narrow. No such moment really occurs in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The closest thing to it is a decision made by a child of about twelve or thirteen. The people in this film were always broken, always corrupt, and always destined to fail.
The hero of the story, Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), is a wandering gambler and heavy drinker. When we first see him, as a child, he’s running from the law by hiding in a boxcar. When we first see him as an adult, he’s drunkenly crashing his car into a telephone pole. This is the hero! The film introduces us to him, Martha Ivers, and Walter O’Neil as children, who have seperate ways of dealing with a tragedy that will come to define the rest of their lives. When we pick up with everyone eighteen years on, much has changed, but the relationships are still very much the same. Martha (played as an adult by Barbara Stanwyck) is now married to Walter (Kirk Douglas), who had designs on her as a younger man but is now wallowing in everything he’s compromised not only to be with her, but to become district attorney as well. Martha runs his life, and in a position of prominence of her own as the owner of a large factory in town, much of everyone else’s life as well.
Sam returns to town by accident (literally, as previously mentioned), with no intention of looking up any of the old gang again. But a run-in with an attractive woman on the wrong side of the law leads him to plead for Walter’s help, and subsequently Martha’s. And just when you think you’re over somebody, they walk back through the door, whistling your old tune.
Director Lewis Milestone achieved the rare feat of quickly rising to prominence and staying there for the duration of his career. He had minor films, but never went long without a major project under his talented eye. Martha Ivers was a rare turn to noir for the prestige filmmaker, and though it was quite a bit more expensive than many contributions to the genre, Milestone withheld none of the bite. He achieves the rare atmosphere in which you really can’t be sure what anyone’s going to do next, yet their actions are never surprising. Casting Heflin (best known to me for The Prowler) in the lead goes a long way towards this. His presence casually, almost unknowingly upsets the natural order of things, and his slightly theatrical speaking pattern keeps one uneasy yet intrigued. He never belies his precise motivations without giving an overly mannered performance.
The billed star of the film was Stanwyck, who came up in a series of naughty Pre-Code flicks (Night Nurse and Baby Face being especially noteworthy) before achieving a measure of respectability on the 1940s. She never surrendered her sexuality (hell, in 1941’s Ball of Fire, her character’s name is “Sugarpuss”), and in fact heightened it, proving, with this and Double Indemnity, that she could still own the picture in a supporting role. Martha’s a great, deeply complex character, forever contradicting herself, resisting and giving into temptation, and perched on the precarious ledge of success. That Kirk Douglas, in his first film role, is so perfectly matched to her is a testament of his immense talent. He’d already achieved success on Broadway, where Lauren Bacall rediscovered him (they were classmates) and recommended him to Martha Ivers producer Hal B. Wallis. And if there were ever a performance that signaled the arrival of a star, this was it. Douglas turns Walter’s personal weakness into tremendous strength in performance, never letting his character’s insecurity minimize his command of the screen.
Shot like many a noir – dark, even when it’s light out – HD Cinema Classics have done a fine job bringing this to Blu-ray. I expressed ambivalence about the company upon their recent release of The Red House, but this is a marked improvement. The contrast is still boosted further than it should, and there’s a general smoothness to the transfer that is unbecoming of classic movies, but for the most part they’ve let Milestone’s film look like film, keeping in some scratches, flickering, and even a little bit of grain. Still not a great transfer, but at least they’re getting it to look more like a movie and less like a videotape.
They have not accorded the film the same respect in the special features department. On paper, I’m perfectly content with a release that has a commentary track and nothing more, but William Hare is not the man to carry this all by his lonesome. He also did the track for The Red House, and the same problems persist here. Chiefly, he sounds like he saw the film several years back and is loosely recollecting it as it plays in front of him, resulting in a lot of plot summation with the occasional behind-the-scenes detail.
As this is a rather cheap disc, however – only $13 on Amazon right now – and the film is so damn good, I highly recommend you pick up The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It’s a cunning bit of cinema that works simultaneously as melodrama and film noir, wallowing in private desperation even as it thrills. It might not have the violence one comes to expect with the “noir” label, but it has all of the turmoil.