DirectorLewis Milestone, Byron Haskin
Release Date(s)1946 (September 20, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers begins like a Gothic thriller, complete with heavy rain, thunder, and lightning, in a prologue set in 1928 when the main characters are children. This establishes the plot that entwines the lives of three individuals after a fateful stormy night.
Martha (Janis Wilson) attempts to run away from her rich, domineering aunt (Judith Anderson) with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). Their escape is foiled by young Walter O’Neil (Mickey Kuhn) and his greedy father (Roman Bohnen). Later that night, Martha has a confrontation with her aunt at the top of a dark staircase. Martha strikes her aunt with her own cane and she falls to her death. Rather than admit what’s happened, she goes along with Walter’s father’s plan to make up a story about an intruder. Walter goes along with the plan.
Eighteen years later, Sam (Van Heflin) accidentally finds himself returning to the town and learns that Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) has turned her family fortune into a business empire and married Walter (Kirk Douglas), the local district attorney and an alcoholic. Sam becomes involved with Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott) who, like himself, has had problems with the law. Martha fans the embers of her old flame for Sam while Walter fears that Sam is there to blackmail them over the long-ago death of Martha’s aunt. If the facts came out, they would point to their guilt both for covering up the circumstances of the aunt’s death and for allowing an innocent man to be executed for the crime.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers benefits greatly from Stanwyck in the title role. She plays Martha as an icy, entitled, rich businesswoman with a terrible secret and a loveless marriage. Martha practically runs the town, manipulates her weak husband and, when threatened with exposure, is torn between self-preservation and her feelings for Sam, whose ethics and courage make him the exact opposite of Walter. Stanwyck knows how to milk the most out of a reaction and she’s in excellent form here. She can convey suffering innocence or be the duplicitous schemer with a change of expression and convey aloofness and vulnerability in a single scene. In this well-written femme fatale role, she soars.
Kirk Douglas, in his first screen role, plays an unhappy, cowardly drunk easily dominated by Martha, too timid and booze-crippled to assert himself. The casting is against type, but Douglas makes the best of it and has some good scenes. He would never again play a similar character on screen.
Heflin has the larger male role and juggles the subplot, Sam’s relationship with Toni, which seems too sudden and not properly motivated, with the problem his presence causes for Martha and Walter the main storyline. In Toni, Sam sees a kindred spirit. Sultry, sensual, and vulnerable, Toni is a disadvantaged young woman who has paid for a minor brush with the law while Martha has gotten away with murder and amassed vast wealth. Scott is similar in look and style to Lauren Bacall and plays Toni as a frightened woman trying to put up a casual front. On parole, Toni knows the eyes of the law are on her, and Scott often conveys the appearance of a hunted creature.
If Heflin and Douglas had switched roles, the casting would have been more believable, but Heflin was established and the thinking was that Douglas was unknown and couldn’t handle the lead. Knowing Douglas’ screen work subsequent to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, it’s initially difficult to accept him in such an emasculated role. Director Lewis Milestone generally moves the film along briskly, but it tends to bog down in the scenes between Heflin and Scott.
Martha Ivers features a riveting performance by Stanwyck. She’s in top form as an inherently evil woman who knows how to manipulate people. She leaves no doubt as to what Martha is thinking at any time. Milestone wisely kept the camera on her during key scenes. This film and Double Indemnity—both films noir— offer two of Stanwyck’s finest performances.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was shot by director of photography Victor Milner on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The remaster presented on this Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber was derived from 35 mm elements from the Library of Congress. The film fell into the public domain years ago and was sold under various labels for a long time. This version is clean in terms of scratches, surface dirt, reel change cues, and other imperfections. Visual quality overall is not up to the standard of other Paramount films released by Kino Lorber. Clothing, curtains, wood grain, and decor in the Ivers house lack pristine detail. The prologue is especially evocative, with an electrical blackout adding to the Gothic atmosphere. Candles provide dim illumination and odd shadows proliferate. Rear projection is used when Sam drives and spots the “Welcome to Iverstown” sign.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is distinct and clear throughout. The film benefits from sound effects of thunder and heavy rain in the opening scene in the darkened home of Martha’s aunt. A couple of gun shots break through the quiet of night around the Ivers house. The rumble of an engine and the clatter of a minor crash suggest Sam’s car accident. Miklos Rozsa’s exuberant score contains strains of foreboding as it plays under the opening credits. The music later varies from sympathetic to sad, depending on the scene. Overall, Rozsa’s music enhances an already solid story.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Alan K. Rode
- The Turning Point Trailer (2:01)
- All I Desire Trailer (1:05)
- Witness to Murder Trailer (2:09)
- There’s Always Tomorrow Trailer (2:39)
- Lonely Are the Brave Trailer (:54)
- Desert Fury Trailer (1:41)
- The General Died at Dawn Trailer (1:28)
In his commentary, author and film historian Alan K. Rode notes that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is longer than other films in the same style. The opening music by Miklos Rozsa is dramatic and sets the tone for the dark events to follow. The film’s working title was Love Lies Bleeding. The censors put many restrictions on the screenplay by Robert Rossen. The budget was just under $1 million. The setting is supposed to be a factory town in western Pennsylvania. Hal Wallis was in love with Lizabeth Scott and tried to build her career into major stardom. Passages from Scott’s contract are read, indicating how one-sided it was to Wallis, a “contractual umbilical cord that amounted to ownership.” After Martha Ivers, roles became more difficult for Scott to get. One of her later roles was in Loving You, starring Elvis Presley. Scott’s ambition was to be a singer. By 1945, Barbara Stanwyck had been making movies for 16 years and was an established star popular among co-stars and crew members alike. Kirk Douglas was grateful to director Lewis Milestone for shepherding him through his first film. Milestone’s camera doesn’t move very much; tracking shots are used only when there is a specific purpose. The Hollywood labor strikes of the 1940s are explained. Two unions made up an umbrella organization covering all studio workers. Ten thousand workers went on strike, but the studios had enough product backlogged to weather the strike. At Warner Bros. and Paramount, violence broke out. Milestone refused to cross the picket line and Byron Haskin took over the direction of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers for a few days. Barbara Stanwyck was nominated four times but never won a competitive Oscar. She won an honorary Oscar in 1982 “for superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers remains tense, building to a confrontation among three adults who were childhood friends. It’s a cynical film that explores a dark secret, misinterpreted motivations, repressed desire, and the toll of pent-up guilt.
- Dennis Seuling