The book source for this superior thriller is called Love Lies Bleeding but it could have just have well been called Bleeding Chickens Come Home to Roost, or Dirty, Bloody Laundry. In all of film noir no drama paints a better portrait of petty small-town corruption. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is the unusual moral tale in that it discriminates between the irredeemably rotten and the simply hardboiled - the curse of money, power and privilege hangs over this story like a shroud.
Lewis Milestone directs the picture's four great performances with assurance from a racy, insolent screenplay by Robert Rossen. It hasn't been seen looking this good in a long time, an observation that prompts a few questions for the evaluation section.
We can tell that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers has a superior screenplay when Sam Masterson finally gets around to telling Martha Ivers that she's become just like the hated woman she killed seventeen years ago - the only script hint relating Martha to her domineering Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson) has been a shot way back at the beginning where we think Martha is lighting a candle, and it turns out to be Mrs. Ivers. The film abounds in touches like this, that must have been engineered into the script.
The film is practically a film noir version of Our Town painted black with a hardboiled sensibility. The picture oozes doom and fatality as if Iverstown were some kind of evil Eden. Greed for money and power take the place of original sin, as the oppressive Aunt Ivers passes her curse down to the next generation. In a disturbingly emotional prologue, the old lady's body isn't even cold before her self-appointed heirs (mainly, a local teacher and his son) enter into an unholy pact with Martha, the troubled teenaged killer. When we return to Iverstown half a generation later the entire community is dominated by the dirty secret of that night in 1928: Martha and Walter have inherited everything, but at the cost of their souls. She's an unfulfilled captain of industry while her now-husband is self-destructing from terminal self hatred. The breezy Sam Masterson has no idea that he's entered Rotten City, U.S.A. The outwardly prosperous community is like the one described by Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, with the housefronts that peel back to reveal the ugly secrets inside.Many noirs create moods of corruption but Robert Rossen's script for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers gives us characterizations of uncommon depth. Barbara Stanwyck's Martha makes a few noises like Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity but is far more sympathetic. As destructive and manipulative as she is, she's still the scared and confused girl who wants to kill Aunt Ivers. After suppressing the truth and living a lie, the only thing she really understands is self-interest. She and Walter hide a second, much more heinous crime directly related to their guilt - a truly ugly joint effort that was designed to lock them together forever. Kirk Douglas (in his first role and playing a weakling we hardly recognize) has consolidated Martha's power by taking the job of local district attorney. He controls the police and uses company detectives to enforce his will. Success in Iverstown is based on one is fixed with Martha and Walter O'Neil: The local mechanic can mistreat the customers and run illegal crap games in his garage, but a too-attractive out of town girl wearing an expensive coat will be assumed to be a thief.
Martha and Walter are studies in perversity -- he drinks to forget while she invents a new reality for herself by finding lovers. They're so caught up in their own corruption that they panic when Sam Masterson hits town. Sam was present on the night of the original murder. Although he just wants to get his new girl out of jail and move west, the O'Neills assume his intention is blackmail and put the heat on him. Van Heflin doesn't play Masterson as a heroic soldier back from the war. He admits he was a shady character and plays his cards close to his chest, amused when people assume he's working an angle. He makes knowing remarks about sex and the world to Martha when she takes him on a tour of her house. Their complicated relationship is immediately resented by Walter: He-man Masterson can take care of himself and is quick to establish himself as the biggest rooster in the room. It's a complicated dramatic tangle.
The only sign of hope is the fourth member of the quartet, Toni Marachek. Hal Wallis launched Lizabeth Scott the previous year in a now-rare but popular picture called You Came Along, and Martha Ivers confirmed her as a star. Toni is the hope of the future, the reward for Masterson should he extricate himself from the Iverstown mess and make a better life for himself. Toni herself is on the edge of despair but she refuses to abandon Sam to the night lights of the evil city that Martha loves to look at from afar. As she helps Sam escape, he warns her not to look back with the lesson of Lot and the Pillar of Salt. 1
Toni is the film's closest thing to an average person. She's been pushed around and abused in life, first by her father and now by local cops and judges determined to brand her as a fallen woman. She wants to escape to something better and she sees that hope in Sam, but the pain and coldness shows in her eyes too. It's a fine performance from an actress that receives compliments too seldom. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers doesn't start from a position of neutrality - even the most innocent of the four has an unhappy stain of societal disapproval to remove.
Martha Ivers has a solid hard-boiled sheen. Iverstown is a tough place where thugs call Sam out of a restaurant for fair a fight that turns into an ambush. O'Neil does all of his bargaining through go-betweens, and forces Toni to put on a mortifying charade. Everywhere we look we see authority being abused, and for a hero we have a tough guy who started as a runaway and still likes to play the odds. Sam has no compunctions about presuming that D.A. Walter O'Neil will get Toni out of jail just for the asking.He also likes to see people bending to his will, whether roughing up a guy at a bar or baiting Martha to see just how depraved she really is. By the time the film is heading into its final act death scenes, tough-talking Toni Marachek is looking like the most honest person he's ever met.
Paramount's DVD of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a surprise, as the film has been seen almost exclusively in sub-par quality ever since being listed (officially?) as a public domain title. The copyright on the box is listed without qualifiers as being held by Hal Wallis productions. Perhaps that's why it's with the Paramount catalog, and didn't go to Universal / MCA with the rest of the pre-1948 Paramount library. The picture is fine, looking almost as good as the stills we've seen -- Victor Milner paints the nights with inky blacks and the Iverstown streets have a slightly-stylized realism. They're a good place to pick up a girl by offering her a smoke, or to make a cop suspicious because you remember his name from almost twenty years before.
Miklos Roza's romantic score layers the picture will wall-to-wall mystery - it's not one of his soundalike dum-da-dum-dum noir jobs. With the better picture and improved sound, it no longer seems exaggerated. There are no extras. The Paramount people have put together a classy-looking cover artwork design.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers isn't a detective movie or a standard crime thriller, which helps support the notion that film noir is a style and not a genre. It's one of the best noirs around, and this excellent-quality disc is a welcome release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers rates:
1. This film's assistant director Robert Aldrich would later make a literal version of The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah which of course ends with the tale of Lot's Wife and the pillar of salt. And Aldrich's Bette Davis double bill of Gothic horror films both have flashbacks to formative 'curses', one of which began in 1928.