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Tag Archives: Kirk Douglas

Champion (April 9, 1949)

Champion
Champion (1949)
Directed by Mark Robson
United Artists

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Mark Robson’s Champion is not a film about a man destroyed by fame. It’s a film about a man whose resentment, anger, selfishness, and cruelty are given free rein by fame and fortune.

It’s not an uplifting film, but it’s an occasionally powerful one, since it depicts a man who stands up to everyone who tries to take advantage of him, mistreats everyone who ever cared about him, and becomes middleweight champion of the world and dies of a brain hemorrhage without ever showing an ounce of remorse.

It’s also a tremendous showcase for Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He played an uncharacteristically milquetoast character in that film, but his next role, in Out of the Past (1947), was more of an indication of what lay ahead for Douglas. His character “Dink” in Out of the Past is a vicious crime boss, as was the character he played opposite Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone (1948).

Not every character Douglas played in the 1940s was a strutting, snarling alpha male — his wonderful performance in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is a great example of his range — but he excelled at playing macho men, and Champion cemented that image. With his jutting cleft chin, puffed-out chest, intense eyes, and lean, muscular physique, Douglas dominates every scene in Champion.

If Kirk Douglas had a spirit animal, it would probably be a banty rooster.

Kirk Douglas in Champion

Douglas’s physical intensity carries him through Champion fairly well, which is good, because he’s not that convincing as a boxer. He looks the part, but he doesn’t move like a world-class middleweight. He lacks the right combination of speed and power.

Champion was based on a story by Ring Lardner and was nominated for six Academy Awards (best actor for Douglas, best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy, best screenplay for Carl Foreman, best score for Dimitri Tiomkin, best black & white cinematography for Franz Planer, and best editing for Harry Gerstad), and won one — the Oscar for editing.

But now that almost 70 years have passed, I think Champion compares really unfavorably to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), which was released around the same time and was nominated for zero Oscars. First of all, Robert Ryan boxed as an amateur heavyweight, so he was utterly convincing as a professional fighter who loses more often than he wins. (Asking us to accept Douglas as the world middleweight champion is too much, I think.)

Also, The Set-Up is a tightly coiled masterpiece from beginning to end, while Champion feels sloppy. Douglas’s training and his rise up the boxing rankings are both done as cheesy montages with a light tone. The film doesn’t really get going until more than a half hour has passed, when Douglas’s character, Michael “Midge” Kelly, refuses to throw a fight to Johnny Dunne (John Daheim). For the next hour, Champion is a good film. Not a great film, but a good one. The always-great Arthur Kennedy turns in a good performance as Midge’s sad-sack brother, Connie, and Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell are both good as the women Midge uses and abuses.

Kirk Douglas

I found the penultimate sequence of the film particularly harrowing, but modern-day viewers might miss its implications.

Ruth Roman’s character, Emma, is romanced by Midge early in the film, which leads to her father forcing them to marry at gunpoint. As soon as it’s official, however, Midge drops her like a bad habit, and she eventually finds love with his brother Connie.

Toward the end of the film, when Emma is preparing to get a divorce from Midge in Reno so she can marry Connie, Midge forces himself on her. He kisses her, says “It’s still there, isn’t it?” She walks away from him and says, “Leave me alone.” He walks toward her and says, “You’re my wife.” She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.

Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it’s significant that the fade-to-black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line “You’re my wife” strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It’s his legal right, and the concept of “marital rape” was not a criminal act in 1949. But it’s a rape, and it’s a violation of his brother’s trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother’s rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.

After Midge wins his final fight and collapses and dies in his dressing room, the press asks Connie for a statement. “He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end,” Connie says, because he can’t bring himself to say that Midge was a credit to humanity, or to anyone else.

Much like Midge Kelly himself, Champion was a hard film for me to like. It’s a good movie, but not nearly as good as some of its contemporaries, like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up.

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A Letter to Three Wives (Jan. 20, 1949)

A Letter to Three Wives
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

At the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives. One was for best director and the other was for best screenplay. (A Letter to Three Wives was also nominated for best picture, but didn’t win.)

The film was based on a novel by John Klempner originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1945. The novel was called Letter to Five Wives, but the original script for the film version omitted one of the wives and was called A Letter to Four Wives.

Mankiewicz felt the shooting script was still too long, so he cut out one of the four wives. (Sorry, Anne Baxter.)

A Letter to Three Wives is divided into three sections, each dominated by a flashback sequence.

The first section focuses on Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), who met when they were both serving in the Navy.

The second section focuses on Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), a writer of radio dramas, and her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher.

The final section of the film focuses on Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), an appliance-store magnate.

While each section focuses on a different couple, this is not an anthology film. The viewer meets all the characters in the early going, but sometimes just for a moment. Watching A Letter to Three Wives is a little like being introduced to a rush of people at a party. As the evening wears on, you become better acquainted with everyone and you learn how their lives intersect in often messy and hilarious ways.

A Letter to Three Wives takes place in an upper-middle-class Eastern community that’s 28 minutes from the big city, or “23 if you catch the morning express,” as Addie Ross tells the viewer. Addie Ross is the most beautiful and alluring woman in town, and although her presence dominates the film, we never see her. We only hear her voice as she cuts in to narrate and comment on bits of the story. (Addie Ross is voiced by the uncredited Celeste Holm).

Rita, Lora Mae, and Deborah are on their way to help run a day trip for underprivileged children when they receive a letter from Addie informing them that she’s leaving town for good, but she’s not leaving empty-handed — she’s taking one of their husbands with her. The three friends are forced to board the boat, and all of them stare longingly at the public telephone on the dock as they drift into the water. They won’t be able to find out which one of their husbands is missing in action until the day is done.

Sothern Darnell and Crain

Mankiewicz directed some fine films before this one, including the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), and the brilliant romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but A Letter to Three Wives is head and shoulders above all of them.

Mankiewicz was a witty, intelligent, and acerbic writer-director, and A Letter to Three Wives shows him in top form. It’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the ’40s about marriage and the American class structure. Deborah is a farm girl and never feels at home with the country-club set she’s married into. Rita has a demanding, high-paying job, and she makes a lot more money than her schoolteacher husband. Lora Mae is a trophy wife to a fabulously wealthy, boorish, and bullheaded man.

Kirk Douglas, who plays Rita’s schoolteacher husband, is fantastic in this film, and delivers one of the most eviscerating speeches I’ve ever heard about anti-intellectualism and the idiocy of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And Paul Douglas, who plays Lora Mae’s husband, gives a phenomenal performance as well. He was a stage actor, and this was his first appearance in a feature film, but he owns the screen, and would go on to have an interesting career.

A Letter to Three Wives is a masterpiece of scriptwriting and direction. Addie Ross is really just a plot device to tell a character-driven story, and toward the end of the film, I realized that I’d been told a very different story than the one I thought I was watching.

I Walk Alone (Jan. 16, 1948)

It’s the battle of the strutting, preening alpha males!

Fighting out of the blue corner, with the prison pallor, the brand new cheap suit, and the “not good, not bad” room at the Avon, it’s Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), former world heavyweight champion of bootlegging.

Fighting out of the red corner, with the jutting cleft chin, the expensive wardrobe, and the controlling interest in the swank night spot the Regent Club, it’s Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), the current world heavyweight champion of upscale criminality.

Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuumble!

When the film begins, Frankie, a former hard man in the bootlegging rackets who came up in a tough neighborhood and knew how to handle himself, has just gotten out of prison after a 14-year stretch for murder.

He’s picked up at Grand Central Station by his old friend Dave (Wendell Corey), who’s now the bookkeeper for Dink Turner.

The killing that sent Frankie to prison occurred when he and Dink were running rye whiskey from Canada through upstate New York and they blew through a roadblock set up by hijackers, which led to a chase and a gun battle that left one of the hijackers dead. Afterward, Dink and Frankie split up and agreed to go 50-50 for each other, no matter what happened or which one of them got nabbed.

All of Turner’s men call him “Noll” now, but Frankie mostly still refers to him as “Dink.” When Dave takes Frankie to the Regent Club, Frankie recognizes his old friend Dan (Mike Mazurki), a hulking mug who used to be behind the door of Dink and Frankie’s speakeasy the Four Kings, staring through a little peephole. Now he’s out front, in a snappy uniform.

A lot has changed in 14 years, but Frankie’s still the same guy he was when he went to prison.

Dink tells him, “The world’s spun right past you, Frankie. In the ’20s you were great. In the ’30s you might’ve made the switch, but today you’re finished. As dead as the headlines the day you went into prison.” (On New Year’s Day, 1930, Burt Lancaster was 16 years old and Kirk Douglas had just turned 13, so I think both men might be a little young for the roles they’re playing.)

The Regent Club was built on the force of Dink’s personality. It was his personality that controlled Frankie back in their bootlegging days. He expects the force of his personality to still be able to get Frankie to do what he wants, but all of his smooth talk and finesse only carries him so far.

Frankie is bitter than Dink never came to personally visit him in prison, and instead sent Dave, even though the prison was only an hour’s drive on the new parkway. All Dink did was send Frankie a carton of cigarettes a month.

Dink tells Frankie he feels terrible about never coming to see him, but that he just couldn’t be associated with a convicted murderer when he was building up a high-class joint like the Regent Club. Back in the days of the Four Kings they ruled things by force, but now Dink deals with banks and lawyers, and his nightclub has a Dun & Bradstreet rating.

Dink manages to deflect Frankie for a little while by setting him up with his paramour Kay Lawrence, who’s played by the angular, dead-eyed beauty Lizabeth Scott. Dink tells Kay he wants her to find out what Frankie really wants, so he can help him, but she can’t help falling for Frankie a little, especially after Dink shows his true colors by planning to marry the wealthy Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) while telling Kay that it’s just to increase his wealth and prestige, and his upcoming nuptials don’t have to change anything between him and Kay.

Frankie is volatile and brutish. He wants what’s his. But he’s like a bulldozer and Dink is like a silk curtain. No matter how hard he comes at him, Dink just seems to slide harmlessly to one side.

Dink tells Frankie that their 50-50 agreement was based on their partnership in the Four Kings, not on anything future. Dave brought Frankie a lot of things to sign in prison that he didn’t read very carefully, and one of them was a dissolution of his partnership in the Four Kings. After closing costs, plus 6% interest compounded over 14 years, there’s $2,912 Frankie has coming to him. Dink makes it an even $3,000 and wishes him well. Frankie wants half of everything Dink has, but Dink doesn’t think Frankie’s entitled to anything Dink earned on his own after the Four Kings closed down. “How can you collect on a race when you don’t hold a ticket?” Dink asks Frankie rhetorically.

This confrontation occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and it’s a great sequence. Burt Lancaster was a former acrobat and circus performer, and he was always wonderful at using his body. When he finally realizes how little he can do to get what he wants from Dink, he stands alone in the middle of Dink’s conference room, his fists balled, bent over in anguish.

I Walk Alone was directed by Byron Haskin and produced by Hal B. Wallis. The screenplay is by Charles Schnee, and it’s based on the play Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s not good enough to be called a classic. Part of the problem is that it too often strays from its most compelling feature, the snarling macho men at its center who oppose each other. I was really caught up in the story when Dink denies Frankie his half and Frankie vows to kill him, but then the story veers into less interesting territory. Where does Dave’s loyalty lie? What does Dink have over Dave? Will Dave be able to break free? Does Kay really love Frankie? And so on.

Lancaster and Douglas are both outsized personalities who dominate the screen. By the time things come to a head two-thirds of the way through the film, the picture might have been more compelling if it focused solely on them and their head-to-head conflict, instead of spinning off a variety of plot threads.

The film ends with a shootout in a darkened room that we’ve seen a hundred times before and will probably see a thousand times again. Like everything else in the film, it’s not terrible, but it’s too run-of-the-mill to be truly outstanding.

I Walk Alone is definitely worth seeing if you’re a die-hard fan of either of the two lead actors, and worth a look for film noir fans who’ve never seen it. If, however, you’re looking for something truly great, I Walk Alone never quite rises above the level of entertaining mediocrity.

Mourning Becomes Electra (Nov. 19, 1947)

Dudley Nichols’s Mourning Becomes Electra has its staunch defenders, but so does every other awful movie.

Mourning Becomes Electra is unquestionably the worst movie I have seen so far this year, and it’s unlikely that I will see another one that’s as bad in the short time remaining. If I did “worst of the year” lists, it would almost certainly be at the very top.

Rosalind Russell was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress for her role in Mourning Becomes Electra and famously lost out to Loretta Young, who played a young Swedish-American woman in the lightweight comedy The Farmer’s Daughter, despite the fact that Russell lobbied hard for herself. (Russell did win the Golden Globe for best actress for Mourning Becomes Electra.)

I’ve got nothing personal against Rosalind Russell, but if I’d been a member of the Academy 64 years ago, she could have given me a brand new Lincoln Continental, a sable coat for my wife, and one hundred thousand dollars in cash, and I still wouldn’t have voted for her.

It’s not just that her performance is so one-note and hysterically pitched, but also that the entire film is so ineptly directed that each actor in the film seems to be directing him- or herself.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle of the same name, which was a reimagining of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus.

Instead of Agamemnon returning from the Trojan War to his wife Clytemnestra, his son Orestes, and his daughter Electra, a Union general named Ezra Mannon returns to Massachusetts from the Civil War to his wife Christine, his son Orin, and his daughter Lavinia.

Just as in the Greek myth of Orestes, Ezra Mannon is murdered by his wife, and her children plot to avenge their father’s death.

Just like O’Neill’s original play cycle, the film is divided into three parts, Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted.

Of course, the play is more than just a retread of classical Greek tragedy. O’Neill was also strongly influenced by the Freudian psychosexual theories that were in vogue in the ’30s.

However, for a movie with kissin’ cousins and freaky Oedipus complexes, Mourning Becomes Electra sure is boring.

The problems begin at the beginning. The first scene of Homecoming involves Seth Beckwith (Henry Hull), the Mannons’ groundskeeper, leading a small group of townspeople around the Mannon estate and explaining all the characthers’ names and relationships. It’s obvious that Seth and the townspeople are meant to function as a Greek chorus, but it’s too much information too soon, and without any context, it’s mind-numbingly boring.

In Homecoming, Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou) and her daughter Lavinia (Russell) howl at each other for awhile over the affections of officer Adam Brant (Leo Genn), who it turns out is the product of an illicit coupling between a Mannon male and a lowly housekeeper, both of whom were expelled from the house. Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) returns home, and his wife conspires with her lover, Adam, to poison him. Ezra accuses her with his dying breath.

In The Hunted, Orin Mannon (Michael Redgrave) returns home and spends a lot of misty-eyed time with his head in his mother’s lap. Eventually his sister Lavinia convinces him that Adam Brant and their mother were responsible for their father’s death, so they sneak aboard the ship The Flying Trades and kill Adam after they observe Christine’s rendezvous with him. Following Adam’s murder, Christine shoots herself out of grief.

In The Haunted, Orin and Lavinia return home after a romantic year-long getaway to the South Seas. When they return to Massachusetts, their friends — a slightly less dysfunctional pair of siblings, Peter Niles (Kirk Douglas) and Hazel Niles (Nancy Coleman) — are disturbed by the changes Orin and Lavinia have gone through. Lavinia plans to marry Peter, but Orin threatens to reveal all of their crimes to Peter if she goes through with her plan. Orin tries to molest his sister, and kills himself when she rejects him. Then, instead of marrying Peter, Lavinia shuts herself up in the house forever. The end.

Mourning Becomes Electra flopped terribly at the box office, and was hastily recut from its original 173-minute version down to a 105-minute version (which I believe was achieved by chopping off the entire final third section, The Haunted). It has since been restored, mostly, and exists on DVD in a 159-minute version. (The full 173-minute version has been shown on TCM.)

The main problem with Mourning Becomes Electra is how uninteresting and stagy the direction is. (Dudley Nichols did much more work as a writer than as a director, and Mourning Becomes Electra was the last film he ever directed.) This does not mean, however, that it is a faithful adaption. The demands of cinema are very different from the demands of the stage. Simply running through the lines of a stage play in front of a camera is a very different proposition than performing a play night after night in front of an audience. As a film, Mourning Becomes Electra is a “faithful” adaptation of O’Neill’s play in the same way a film of an elderly British man reading Great Expectations aloud for 19 hours could be called a “faithful” adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel.

It also doesn’t help that nearly everyone in the cast has a wildly different accent from everyone else, and that nearly everyone is the wrong age for the character they’re playing. The “young and handsome” Adam Brant is played by Leo Genn, a square-headed, fat-lipped 41-year-old British actor. Lavinia is supposed to be a young woman, but Rosalind Russell was 40 (or nearly 40) when she appeared in Mourning Becomes Electra, while Katina Paxinou, who plays her mother Christine, was only 46. This closeness in age could perhaps be overlooked if the two actresses were on the stage together, but on film, it’s distracting. Also, Paxinou’s thick Greek accent could perhaps be explained by her marrying into the Mannon family, but how to explain Michael Redgrave’s British accent?

The psychosexual and incestuous drama of Mourning Becomes Electra is obvious and ham-fisted. This is a film that is likely to be praised as “Freudian” only by people who have never read Freud. It’s also a film that is likely to be praised only by pretentious dilettantes who think that merely by forcing themselves to sit through something long and crushingly boring they are engaging in a high-minded activity.

Out of the Past (Nov. 13, 1947)

Out of the Past
Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Radio Pictures

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is the greatest film noir ever made, but no one knew it at the time.

Robert Mitchum even said as much when he told writer Arthur Lyons, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”

In 1947, French film critics and cinéastes were just beginning to use the term “film noir” (it was first used in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank) and it would be decades before the term caught on in the United States, long after the end of the “noir cycle.”

All of this is a good thing, of course, since self-consciousness can kill art.

If filmmakers in the ’40s and ’50s had deliberately tried to make films with all the elements that the French were praising, they probably would have produced ham-fisted junk that was as unwatchable as most of the “neo-noir” that littered multiplexes in the ’90s.

On the other hand, this means that a brilliant noir like Out of the Past got lost in the shuffle at the time of its release, and was viewed as just one more “private eye” picture, or just one more “violent melodrama.” The review in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time, for instance, called it “a medium-grade thriller.” (Although they did praise Nicholas Musuraca’s beautiful cinematography.)

In his November 26, 1947, review of Out of the Past, curmudgeonly NY Times critic Bosley Crowther had a lot of good things to say about the film, and praised the dialogue and acting, but admitted that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot.

This is a fair criticism, since the plot of Out of the Past still confounds first-time viewers, and most second- and third-time viewers as well. Note, for instance, the number of reviews of the film that claim the story is told mostly in flashback, when the flashback portion of the story actually occupies less than a half hour of running time, and from the 40-minute mark onward, the film takes place entirely in the present.

But time has been kind to Out of the Past, and a perfect understanding of its plot isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying every gorgeously filmed minute of it, since it’s packed with everything that makes a noir a noir. Its male protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is smart and tough, but ultimately helpless when faced with the seductive charms of the film’s femme fatale, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). The film contains murders, swindles, frame-ups, crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, gambling, a large chunk of stolen money, a tragic ending, and some of the most seductive chiaroscuro cinematography of all time.

Greer and Mitchum

The plot can’t really be summarized in a nutshell, but I’ll try anyway.

While driving through a one-stoplight California town called Bridgeport, which is 79 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) pulls into a service station owned by Jeff Markham, who’s living in Bridgeport under the name “Jeff Bailey” and trying to forget his tawdry old life by going fishing every day with a nice girl named Ann (Virginia Huston), which her boyfriend Jim (Richard Webb) isn’t too happy about.

Joe tells Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), his old employer, wants to see him in Lake Tahoe.

So Jeff spills to Ann. His real name is Markham, not Bailey. Three years ago he lived in New York and worked with an oily gentleman named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). They were detectives. They got a call to see a big operator, a gambler named Whit. His girl had shot him with his own .38 and taken off with $40,000 of his money, and he wanted her back. The money, too, but mostly her.

Jeff took off on his own, leaving Fisher behind, and followed Kathie’s trail to Acapulco, Mexico. As soon as he saw her, he was hooked like a fish.

In voiceover, Jeff recalls his romance with Kathie in Acapulco.

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away, like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived, I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream and we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls. I wired Whit but I didn’t tell him.

“I’m in Acapulco,” I said. “I wish you were here.” And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.

Kathie swore to Jeff that she didn’t take Whit’s money, to which he responded, “Baby, I don’t care,” and kissed her.

Jane Greer

Jeff and Kathie ran off together and headed for San Francisco. Things went swimmingly until he was spotted at the racetrack by his old partner Jack Fisher, who would turn him and Kathie over to Whit in a heartbeat for the payoff.

Despite Jeff’s best efforts to lose the tail, Fisher eventually tracked him and Kathie down. When Jeff and Fisher started trading blows, Kathie coldly shot Fisher, then took off.

Jeff never saw her again. He was left to bury Fisher’s body in the woods. He also found a deposit slip for $40,000 in Kathie’s purse, confirming that she’d lied to him about the money.

The rest of the film takes place in the present. Jeff meets with Whit at his palatial getaway in Lake Tahoe. Kathie has returned to Whit, and he now knows everything about Jeff’s betrayal of him.

Exacting a kind of payback, Whit forces Jeff to go to San Francisco to steal income tax records from the crooked accountant — Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) — who helped him hide his money from Uncle Sam and who’s now demanding $200,000 hush money. Jeff is supposed to get to Eels through his beautiful secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming).

But it quickly becomes clear to Jeff that he’s being set up as a patsy, and that Whit’s people are going to kill Eels and make it look as if Jeff did it.

Ann, the good girl in Jeff’s life, can’t believe that Kathie is as awful as he makes her out to be. “She can’t be all bad, no one is,” Ann says. “Well, she comes the closest,” Jeff responds.

And he’s right. Kathie is a murderer, a thief, and a liar. She’s completely and utterly faithless, but Jeff keeps falling for her. Every time she calls, he comes running. He can’t help it. He hates himself for it, but he can’t stop.

I first saw Out of the Past when I was 17, and I’ve seen it many times since then. It took me several viewings before I got a handle on exactly what was going on in the film, but I always felt that its byzantine plot was part of its appeal.

Even if you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on or who’s doing what to whom (or why), Out of the Past is still a seductive and brilliant film. It’s the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

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.