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USA 1946
Directed by
Lewis Milestone
117 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers

 Lewis Milestone's film is set in 1928 in Iverstown  a fictional mill-town owned by Mrs Ivers (Judith Anderson, best known for her iconic performance as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca,1940). Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) is her niece, the offspring of a marriage between Mrs Ivers' sister and a factory hand. Both parents are dead and Mrs Ivers is trying to groom Martha for succession but the girl has inherited her father’s bad blood.

The film opens with Martha being caught attempting to run off with Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), a youth from the wrong side of the tracks, She is returned home and in an ensuing fight with her aunt, the latter falls down the stairs and is killed. Sam flees but the incident is witnessed by Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas) the goody two-shoes son of Martha's crawling tutor. The latter sees an opportunity to advance his son’s position and so they cover up the evidence, blaming a unknown assailant. We find out later that in order to close the case the now-married Martha and Walter, the latter now also the D.A., pin the murder on some bum and send him to the gallows.

Seventeen years go by and Sam returns to Iverstown. In the twinkling of an eye he has fallen in with just-released jailbird Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott) who has defaulted on her parole. When Sam tries to get Walter to spring her he unwittingly opens old wounds, leading to tragedy.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a noirish Gothic pot-boiler that never makes the best of its florid elements as it tries to shoehorn a story of marvellous misanthropy into the standard good-triumphs-over-evil Hollywood scenario even managing to wrest a happy ending from the tawdriness. Most incongruous is the characterisation of Sam. In essence he is a hustler, a professional gambler arrested many times, including once for murder, although never convicted. He plays the knight-in-shining-armour to Scott’s Toni but when he discovers that he’s got an angle on Martha dumps Toni for the big money. Then when he realizes that Martha’s a ruthless bitch he heads for the moral high ground. Scott’s improbably gorgeous Toni is not much more convincingly defined, on the one hand a petty thief and apparently not averse to "accepting gifts" (as the film euphemistically puts it) from men, she is presented as sweetly vulnerable. Scott, an actress whose career was apparently stymied by her lesbianism, is nevertheless captivating in the role.

Kirk Douglas, in his film debut, is miscast and fails to convince as Martha’s self-loathing, spineless husband and only Stanwyck, in what is very much her stock-in-trade persona, manages to put across her ambiguous character with its combination of hard-as-nails self-interest and yearning loneliness. A strange love indeed.

FYI: Robert Riskin and Robert Rossen’s script was based on an Oscar-nominated original story by John Patrick.






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