Whenever I would hear about Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers I would get the impression of a work of great complexity layered by loads of character development and dark plot machinations. Perhaps because I’ve become used to seeing Barbara Stanwyck play hard-as-nails women on the screen even in her early period that I would expect her to practically drive the plot to the ground with her sole presence as she did in Double Indemnity. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers it takes a while for her character to enter the story proper as we’re given an extended prologue in which the young Martha Ivers, played by Janis Wilson, receives the blunt end of harsh treatment from her elderly aunt (Judith Anderson). When their animosity reaches a head, and the aunt buys her ticket to the Promised Land without knowing it, Martha and her tutor’s son Walter (who was a witness to the murder) keep their secret to themselves.
Years later, we meet Martha as an adult, now a powerful woman married to Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut). There isn’t much love in this marriage, or let’s say, Walter loves Martha but Martha really could not care less. Enter Sam (Van Heflin), an old friend with whom Martha was going to run away with in order to escape the oppression of her aunt. Walter immediately suspects Sam is in town because he knows what happened that fateful night. Sam on the other hand revisits old haunts and comes by a young woman on parole, Toni (Lizabeth Scott). The two hit it off and Sam decides to help her out, make an honest woman of herself. In the interim, Sam also reconnects with Martha. This definitely does not go well with Walter who remains convinced Sam is out to get him, and has Sam be the victim of a set-up by blackmailing Toni. The ruse fails; Sam remains in town, remains with Toni, but still feels compelled towards Martha.
For the most part, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers works solely a a melodrama; noir it is not. The story is just too sloppy to be taken seriously, with enough head scratching moments as to why does Sam remain in the story when the story has far moved past him, or why is Toni, a marginal character at best, even included as a cog in the wheels of Iverstown. It seems to me that, because of the rise in popularity of noir (in all but name; film noir proper would not be called as such until the 1970s) demanded that there be a foil with perhaps dubious alliances to add a crack in the story. Toni is the only character not tied to any of the events from Martha Ivers’ younger years; she has nothing really to offer the story other than the appearance of a red herring.
The only saving grace of Milestone’s silly movie is the presence of his threesome. Cast against type Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas make strong impressions of men caught under the bonds from the past and Douglas especially makes the most of his emasculated persona. Stanwyck is not at her best here; that would have been in Double Indemnity (as I mentioned above). Her Martha Ivers is merely one-dimensional, a woman in love with power more than anyone else, but who doesn’t really commit any action of savagery to warrant her own depravity. For a chunk of the movie all Stanwyck does is enunciate her lines with precise chilliness, convey a vague sense of menace, and that’s all. When she suddenly proposes Sam to do the unthinkable it kind of comes a bit forced, but okay, this was the 40s and movies were not as complex then as they are. Even so, I have seen many movies from this time period and even those called “women’s pictures: featured women with strong characters and solid motives. I just didn’t quite see it here, and that just makes the movie not much else than a footnote in 1940s cinema.
And that is a shame. The story is good, meaty even, but too much time is spent on recreating the past, and even more time on bringing these four people together, that by the time this happens there isn’t much more story to tell and events seem to happen to force the story into a violent resolution between Stanwyck and Douglas. Even so, an okay movie with Stanwyck is better than nothing, right?