The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas (film debut), Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. B&W, 116 minutes.
Three childhood friends are linked forever by the truth behind a crime committed by one of them in their youth. Or so two of them believe — and set out to destroy the third before he reveals what they know but can’t say. Only it’s unclear what that third person believes about the crime, or if he even knows one was committed.
Of course, this is film noir, so enter the femme fatale, who becomes a pawn in their plans of betrayal.
Van Heflin stars as the affable yet street savvy Sam Masterson, who, purely by chance, finds himself in the town he grew up in with his car in need of repair.
Unaware of the trap he’s about to walk into, he looks up his childhood friends, Walter and Martha O’Neil (Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck). Along the way he meets the alluring and vulnerable Toni Maracheck (Lizabeth Scott), who has a few secrets of her own.
Heflin is as appealing as any movie star of that era in this film, and brings an effortless, timeless quality to his performance. While he was better known for his supporting character parts, when given the chance, he played the leading man with ease.
Kirk Douglas made his film debut co-starring in this high-profile 1946 movie after Lauren Bacall, a good friend, recommended him to the film’s producers. Despite his inexperience in movies, his performance as the beaten-down, broken district attorney is compelling. Placing a newcomer opposite an established star like Barbara Stanwyck was a bold move, but it paid off.
Stanwyck’s chilling portrayal of a ruthless, guilt-ridden women driven to push her husband to political success shows the depth and versatility of her talent as she reveals all sides of her character with equal skill and believability. Martha Ivers O’Neil is a complex character, but never a contradiction in the way she is portrayed.
Overall, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers rings true in its characters, their motivation and behavior. The start of the film is a bit slow, but stick with it for essential information. The rest is compelling and suspenseful, with a dramatic finish that wraps up the story in a manner consistent with the plot as a whole.