The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
So nice it’d be if the cast of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers had detectable chemistry rather than stagey interplay, but because I’m a fan of high-strung melodrama and the camera-buttering acting styles of Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas, I can’t be too picky, especially since the film features one of Stanwyck’s finest femme fatale characterizations and especially since it was the film debut for the then up-and-coming Douglas. Tepid fire-starting aside, the movie isn’t keyed up for the sake of being keyed up: these characters, with their tendencies to run their motor mouths in middlingly successful attempts to cover up their nervous edges, have a reason to be so predisposed to deliver an intensely emotional monologue followed by an orchestral zing.
As the titular dragon lady, Stanwyck is a riot, an aesthete of iniquity as ready to ruin someone’s life to save her own skin as she is ready to hate herself for her innate wickedness. In the film, her Martha Ivers is the quintessence of small town dominance: the city in which she lives, Iverstown, is named after her power-playing ancestors, and her husband, Walter O’Neil (Douglas), is the district attorney. She has the town wrapped around her finger, and she’s a master of manipulation prone to backstabbing and to blatant self-interest. She’s a politician minus the title.
But as it goes within a genre whose dogma won’t allow a single individual to have it easy, Martha’s composure has to be indestructible. One false move and her deadly secret will be revealed to all, thus ruining her. (Her deadly secret being that she accidentally killed her domineering aunt [Judith Anderson] in her youth, let her tutor [Roman Bohnen], Walter’s father, take the blame, and married Walter not out of love but out of convenience.)
But while she’s gotten good at protecting herself over the years — uneasiness fueled by inherent ruthlessness is pretty effective — her credence in herself is derailed after Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), a childhood friend who was with Martha on that fateful night, coincidentally arrives in town in order to repair a fender bender. In addition to becoming acquainted with Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), an enigmatic young woman who more or less steals his heart, Sam is also drawn into Martha and Walter’s blackmail fearing web of deceit.
Imposing a falling-down-the-stairs-in-an-ornate-nightgown sort of melodrama reminiscent of Douglas Sirk’s greatest hits and latter day descendants a la Dallas and Dynasty, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers isn’t content delivering the usual barrage of bitch slaps, business-driven seductions, and snaky exchanges with superficial execution. It’s also prone to damning the damages that come along with capitalism enforced greed and the sorry effects of a life comprised solely of slimily working your way up to the top. Martha and Walter are the haves and Sam and Toni are the have nots — but eventually the have nots are the ones that prove prosperous, if only because their morality, though half-eaten by irreversible red-marks on their pasts, refuses to leave them even when their actions are sometimes doubtable.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is intuitive and well-written — a deft cocktail of guilty-pleasure oriented popcorn entertainment interlaced with drops of satire — so it’s unfortunate that the rapport between the actors is never as potent as anyone involved thinks it is. The stars are individually expert — Stanwyck a slithery ace, Douglas a drunken shithead who could have been something, Heflin a tough-talking innocent, Scott a Lauren Bacall knockoff who can actually act — but together, they never quite mesh. Save for the way Stanwyck and Douglas convincingly portray a couple doomed by one-sidedness, Stanwyck and Heflin have a hard time generating the sexual tension that’s supposed to lie palpably between them, and Heflin and Scott don’t spawn the sizzle necessary for a developing romance meant to withstand the evils of Iverstown.
But the film is a watchable one, and likable is how much it pushes itself to consist of more than the potboiling that jinxed most soapers of the era. If The Strange Love of Martha Ivers prompted the heat that always seems ready to jump off the screen, it’d be more than a hidden gem — maybe it’d even be a classic, perhaps if Robert Mitchum stood in Heflin’s shoes or if Jane Greer were in Scott’s. But because the film is over-the-top without losing sight of its observational strength, there’s no denying that it’s among the best of its kind. B