The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, Paramount Pictures. Starring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas. Co-starring Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. B&W, 116 minutes.
Three childhood friends are linked forever by the truth and lies behind a crime committed by one of them. Or so two of them believe—and they 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.
Young Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson) and Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) are running away, she from a domineering aunt, and he from the small-town life of Iverstown, Pa. Martha is found by police and brought back to her home, but Sam escapes, although he comes back to see Martha later that evening.
About the time he arrives, Martha’s aunt (Dame Judith Anderson) takes her anger toward her niece out on the girl’s cat, beating the helpless animal with a cane as she ascends the staircase. Martha pushes the elderly woman away, and she falls to her death at the bottom of the stairs.
Martha and her tutor’s son, Walter O’Neil (Mickey Kuhn), both lie to Walter’s father (Roman Bohnen) about what happened, and he pretends to believe them. What they aren’t sure about is whether or not Sam witnessed the incident, and they grow into adulthood with that uncertainty—and the unjust consequences of their actions—hanging over them.
As adults, Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter (Kirk Douglas) marry, although it is clear she does not love him. Late one night, the affable yet street savvy Sam (Van Heflin) finds himself back in Iverstown after decades away, where he meets Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), an alluring and vulnerable young woman with a secret of her own. The two are clearly attracted to each other and check into the same hotel. Not long before doing so, Sam learns of the marriage of his childhood friends and their seeming success in Iverstown.
Martha and Walter remain uncertain about what Sam saw that stormy night so long ago. Their fear motivates a downward spiral of actions by Walter designed to intimidate this drifter with a shady past, and an equally destructive attempt to seduce him by Martha.
This was Kirk Douglas’ film debut, although he already had established himself as a stage actor on Broadway. His friend Lauren Bacall suggested him for the part, and it was a good move. Despite being a novice to film, he stands on his own next to Barbara Stanwyck.
Stanwyck is playing a role similar to some she has played in past films, such as Double Indemnity, and in this film, she underplays the part. Known for her professionalism and kindness to cast and crew, she surprised her two male co-stars with her cool demeanor toward both of them.
This is a different role for Heflin than those in most of his films, and he plays the charming, worldly Sam Masterson to great effect. Scott, looking incredibly like Lauren Bacall, is the more traditional femme fatale of this film noir (although in a literal sense, that mantle would belong to Stanwyck) and she, too, is appealing and sympathetic, despite her nefarious past.
The start of this film sets up the story line, but drags somewhat. It isn’t until the adult characters enter the scene that the story becomes compelling and, even with its dark theme, fun. The Strange Love of Marth Ivers is much like its title, a little odd and ominous, but still is the kind of film you settle into watching with a bowl of popcorn and the phone turned off.