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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (July 24, 1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Paramount Pictures

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is based on a short story called “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, who published it under the name “Jack” Patrick. I don’t know why the name was changed when it was made into a movie; possibly it was deemed too gruesome. It’s a great title, but I’m glad that it was changed to a more generic one. I had no idea what I was in for.

The film begins in 1928, in a smoke-filled Pennsylvania factory town called “Iverstown.” (Pronounced “Iverston.”) A young girl named Martha Smith Ivers (Janis Wilson) runs away from home in the pouring rain, jumping a freight car with a streetwise little tough named Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). It’s not the first time she’s tried to escape.

Their plans hit a snag when they’re found by the police. Sam gets away, but Martha is taken home, and we see exactly what she’s trying to get away from. Her aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson), is a villain straight out of a fairy tale. Mrs. Ivers is fawned over by the sycophantic Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha’s tutor. O’Neil keeps dropping none too subtle hints that his bookish son Walter (Mickey Kuhn) is perfect Harvard material, if only they had the money to send him one day.

The tongue-lashing and threats Martha receive from her aunt when she’s brought home by the police are bad enough, but later that night, when the little cat that Martha keeps hidden in her room gets out, Mrs. Ivers really goes over the top in the cartoonish villainy department and attempts to beat it to death with her cane. To protect her pet, Martha pushes her aunt down the stairs. She tumbles down the staircase and breaks her neck. Walter O’Neil witnesses Mrs. Ivers’s death. His father didn’t, but he suspects what really happened. However, when the children are questioned by the police, he backs up the story Walter and Martha concoct about a mysterious intruder.

There’s just one more wrinkle. That night, Sam Masterson had snuck into Martha’s bedroom, and was somewhere in the house. Did he see what really happened? We won’t know for awhile, because Sam runs off, and isn’t seen again.

The story jumps forward 18 years to 1946. Walter O’Neil (immediately recognizable by his priggish demeanor and his wire-rimmed spectacles) is now played by Kirk Douglas. When we first see him, he’s three sheets to the wind, but through his slurred exposition we learn that he’s now the district attorney of Iverstown, and is married to Martha, who is now played by Barbara Stanwyck. Walter clearly loves Martha, but she despises him.

After the death of Mrs. Ivers, Martha’s tutor, Mr. O’Neil, took control of her family fortune, and blackmailed her into marrying his son. Walter lived up to his potential and went to Harvard with the help of Ivers money, but he is tortured by the secret he and Martha share. Not only did he help cover up Martha’s role in her aunt’s death, but years later, he prosecuted the drifter the police picked up for the murder of Mrs. Ivers, and sent the man to the death house. Martha isn’t just an innocent victim in the affair, however, and as the film goes on, she becomes more and more villainous.

Then again, so does Walter. Douglas gives a really fine performance in this film — the first of many in his long career — as a vindictive man who is morally weak but who possesses enormous political and legal power. Stanwyck, also, is fantastic as always. I think the first movie I saw her in was Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and I thought she was really funny-looking. I couldn’t see what Fred MacMurray saw in her, or why he would go to such ridiculous and homicidal lengths to be with her. But after seeing her in this film and the excellent melodrama My Reputation (filmed in 1944 but released theatrically in 1946), I’m starting to see it. While not a great beauty, Stanwyck has a gritty, vibrant quality that demands attention. She is always fascinating to watch.

The present-day plot gets rolling when Sam Masterson (now played by Van Heflin) rolls back into town. Now a good-natured drifter and gambler, he doesn’t even intend to visit Iverstown, but when he carelessly drives his car into a sign while giving a hitchhiker (Blake Edwards) a lift, he’s forced to.

While paying a visit to the house he grew up in, Sam meets a beautiful young woman named Antonia “Toni” Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail. The two itinerants are immediately drawn to each other, but their budding romance is going to be put through its paces as soon as Walter and Martha discover that Sam is back.

Believing that Sam has purposefully returned to blackmail them, Walter sets his thugs on both Sam and Toni, jailing Toni for violating her probation and taking Sam for a ride and leaving him beaten on the side of the road outside of town. If you’ve ever seen a film noir before, you’ll know that guys like Sam don’t like to be pushed around, and when they are, it only strengthens their resolve not to turn tail and run. But you’ll also know that dangerous women attract them like honey attracts flies, and when Martha tries to get her hooks back into Sam, things won’t be easy for any of the four leading characters.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is on the long side (just shy of two hours), and the plot has a lot of moving parts, but the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited Robert Riskin is excellent, and never bogs down. Lewis Milestone’s direction is sharp. Really, this is just a great film. Everyone who likes classic cinema should see it, not just fans of noir.

On a note completed unrelated to the film, I find it interesting that three of the four principal actors worked under pseudonyms. Kirk Douglas was born “Issur Danielovitch Demsky,” Barbara Stanwyck was born “Ruby Catherine Stevens,” and Lizabeth Scott was born “Emma Matzo.”

Incidentally, Scott was born into the Matzo family in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania (the state where this film takes place). With her angular features and husky voice, Lizabeth Scott reminds me a lot of Lauren Bacall, but she’s even sexier, which I didn’t think was possible until I saw this movie.

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Leave Her to Heaven (Dec. 19, 1945)

Can there be such a thing as a film noir in color? I don’t think there can, but the term noir has been so widely used, popularized, and bastardized that director John M. Stahl’s Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’s novel Leave Her to Heaven, made during the heyday of noir in Hollywood, is often referred to as a rare instance of a film noir in color.

A year after she starred as the eponymous Laura (Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic that is also frequently referred to as a noir even though it really has very few characteristics of one, aside from being filmed in black and white), Gene Tierney created a memorably unhinged character named Ellen Berent.

When we first meet Ellen, the first thing we see is her beauty. Sitting across from novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in the lounge car of a train, surrounded by green walls, her dark hair and pale face offset by her bright red lips, she looks like a porcelain doll come to life. Quickly, however, we notice something else. The way she is staring at him is predatory. The way she doesn’t speak for a long time after he answers a question is strange. She is beautiful, but there is something wrong with her. We can guess, however, that his relationship with Ellen won’t have a happy ending.

If only Richard saw what the audience can see. Of course, the audience also has the advantage of a framing device. In the first scene of Leave Her to Heaven, we see Richard return to Deer Lake, Maine. His friends and neighbors look at him strangely. As they whisper among themselves, we learn that he has just gotten out of prison after a two-year stint, but we don’t know what the charge was.

Most of the story is told in flashback. Beginning with the scene on the train, we see how Richard fell into Ellen’s clutches. After they disembark, they find that they are both guests at Rancho Jacinto, in New Mexico, where Ellen has gone to scatter her father’s ashes. After telling Richard several times how much he looks like her father (even though a framed photograph of the man looks nothing like Cornel Wilde), the scene in which the stone-faced Tierney rides a horse and scatters her father’s ashes in the mountains is one of the most striking in the picture. When Richard agrees to marry her soon after, it is at her urging. Marrying her is something he thinks he wants, but the words “Will you marry me” never escape his lips. He is caught in her web.

After their marriage, Ellen and Richard go away to his cabin in Maine. She resents the intrusion of anyone else into their lives, such as her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) or Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is recovering from polio, and her resentment has deadly consequences.

Ellen is devious, but it’s not always clear how conscious she is of her own cunning. Although the other characters speak of how unnaturally close she was to her father, and how she loves with a childish ferocity that can be dangerous, the viewer is not privy to any deeper psychological insights. There are no scenes of her childhood or flashbacks to any trauma that might have precipitated her madness. It’s refreshing to have a character with sociopathic tendencies that have no pat explanation, but some insight into the jealousy that drives her might have helped flesh out the character.

So what is it that makes Leave Her to Heaven a film noir? The classification is a slippery one, and has become popular enough that nearly every black and white film from the ’40s that is not a musical or a comedy has been called a film noir at some point. In one of the first treatises on the subject, the 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified the five main facets of film noir. They said that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” Over the years, the term film noir has grown to encompass certain stylistic elements as well. Stark black and white cinematography and unbalanced constructions that grew out of German Expressionism are both hallmarks of noir, as is a pervading sense of doom.

So does Leave Her to Heaven contain any of these elements? It certainly could be called “strange,” but it’s not particularly dreamlike. It’s not very erotic, either, since Ellen seems to capture Richard in a web that is more psychological than it is sexual. Her actions are sometimes cruel, but the picture as a whole is not terribly ambivalent. Ellen may arouse feelings of both pity and hatred in the viewer, but she is still presented in a straightforward way. She has no crises of conscience or confusion about what she wants. And the lush Technicolor cinematography really pushes Leave Her to Heaven out of the noir category.

Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama with a couple of shocking scenes, a sociopathic main character, and a courtroom denouement that drags down the pacing of the picture, but which does feature an enjoyable performance by Vincent Price as one of Ellen’s old flames who is now a prosecutor. It is not a film noir, unless we can divorce style from content. The absence of black and white cinematography and a real sense of doom (or a truly unhappy ending) means that Leave Her to Heaven just doesn’t qualify as a film noir. Of course, this shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. Whatever its genre, it’s an effective film with an interesting performance by a beautiful actress who didn’t exhibit a great deal of range in any of her roles, but who is chilling in this one.

Leave Her to Heaven was Twentieth Century-Fox’s highest grossing picture of the 1940s. Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for best cinematography in the color category.