Tag Archives: film noir

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, Not Very Strange, Too Much Melodrama, but Stanwyck Makes it Work.

[image from YouTube]

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.

Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

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?

DETOUR

 

DETOUR

2.5/5

Quentin Tarantino and film-noir have influenced quite a bit of directors and Christopher Smith’s Detour wears its influences loud and clear to a shrill degree. [It even features a clip from the 1945 film of the same name, because Our Hero is a film buff.] I personally like both — I love the ultra-violence that explodes after a leisurely character buildup that only hints at who’s who, and I love noir because of the depths and depravity some characters will go to achieve their means, not to mention, twisty plots that sometimes leave holes unsolved, and feature memorable side characters, not to mention the necessary femme fatale. Detour, to be frank, is as unsubtle as a sledgehammer mashing its way through dry wall, and a hat-trickĀ  that doesn’t feature a rabbit.

Detour attempts to pay homage to both Tarantino and noir by introducing what looks to be a troubled character in Tye Sheridan (previously seen in Mud, Joe, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and the direct-to-video Dark Places). Here he’s Harper, a rich kid studying law in an unnamed university. His mother is dying, and he fears his stepdad will pull the plug and take off with the family’s money. We’re made aware of this situation in a conversation Harper has with a rather self-involved friend who’s of no help to both the plot or Harper himself, but perhaps the director thought he’d make good comic relief early on.

Anyhow, we soon cut to a bar scene. This isn’t, it seems, the kind of bar any college kid would hang out at — but I may be wrong. There he overhears a conversation between three thugs, and one of them, Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen, a mass of uncontrollable masculine posturing that recalls a version of James Dean) approaches Harper with plans to get into a brawl. Harper blandly treats Johnny to a drink, the both have a conversation that involves murder for hire. The following day, when Johnny Ray along with his girlfriend Cherry (a wasted Bel Powley) actually show up to do Johnny’s part of the deal it seems Detour will turn into a version of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that it doesn’t, but instead, splits the film into two segments. One follows the three of them into Vegas territory; the other one leaves Harper at home. You’ll have to watch this movie to see what Smith is trying to do with his split narrative, because while that technique has been used before, it doesn’t quite work inasmuch as it will confuse the heck out of you. But, let’s face it, there will be film buffs and cinephiles who love this sort of thing and will call it “inventiveness” in the narrative; to me, it just muddled things up.