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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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My Reputation (Jan. 25, 1946)

Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation, which premiered on January 25, 1946, and went into wide release a day later, was filmed in 1944. Prior to its stateside theatrical release, My Reputation was released for military use, and was shown to troops as entertainment during World War II. The screenplay, by Catherine Turney, is based on the novel Instruct My Sorrow, by Clare Jaynes.

On paper, this movie didn’t interest me, and I probably never would have watched it if I wasn’t doing this project. A prototypical “women’s picture,” My Reputation is about a young widow living among the upper crust of Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1942. Once I started watching it, however, it quickly drew me in. It’s a quality picture from beginning to end. The actors all deliver heartfelt performances, the situations and dialogue are realistic, and the direction, editing, and cinematography are all top-notch.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the protagonist, Jessica Drummond. When the film begins, Jessica’s husband has just died, leaving her a widow and their two sons, aged 12 and 14, fatherless. The executor of the late Mr. Drummond’s estate, lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) clearly has feelings for Jessica, but they are not reciprocated. Jessica’s mother, Mrs. Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) has worn mourning clothes ever since her own husband died decades earlier. Jessica’s mother is scandalized when Jessica refuses to dress differently after her husband’s death. “Our kind of people wear black,” she says matter-of-factly.

My Reputation reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce (1945) in its nuanced portrayal of a single woman navigating tricky social waters. It didn’t hurt that Eve Arden, who played Mildred’s best friend, here performs a similar duty as Jessica’s reliable gal pal, Ginna Abbott.

When Jessica goes on a skiing vacation with Ginna and her husband, Cary (John Ridgely), she meets the the insouciant and charming Maj. Scott Landis (George Brent), who is on leave from the war. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance, but Jessica distances herself from him when he becomes too sexually forward. Landis isn’t a heel, but he is a bit of a rogue, and clearly states that he has no plans to marry. Despite this, Jessica can’t get him out of her mind, and when their paths cross again, she gives in to his advances, consenting to at least kissing. Whether more transpires between them is left up to the viewer, but there is no implication that they consumate their love. This doesn’t change the scandalous nature of their relationship, and Jessica quickly finds herself ostracized from the gossipy circles in which she runs. She stands up for herself, but the disapproval of her mother and her friends is nothing compared with the criticism she receives from children, especially her younger son, who says, “But you belong to dad. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s dead or not.”

My Reputation ends on a hopeful note, but its depiction of an intelligent, sensitive woman living in a stifling social milieu is still hard to watch. The viewer’s frustration is mitigated, however, by the excellence of the production, especially the attention to detail that makes a well-made film such a joy to watch. For instance, in a scene in which Jessica confronts her mother, the shot is framed so that a large portrait of Jessica as a child and her mother as a younger woman hangs in the background between them. The juxtaposition says nearly as much as their heated words.