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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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Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?

This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”

This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.

Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”

The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.

Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.

Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.

Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.