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In 1928, young heiress Martha Ivers fails to run off with friend Sam Masterson, and is involved in fatal events. Years later, Sam returns to find Martha the power behind Iverstown and married to "good boy" Walter O'Neil, now district attorney. At first, Sam is more interested in displaced blonde Toni Marachek than in his boyhood friends; but they draw him into a convoluted web of plotting and cross-purposes. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Whisper her name: Stanwyck as twisted steeltown autocrat
Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers presents a, well, strange case. Much if not most of it fits comfortably into the noir cycle that was just gathering its head of steam. But its look, save some recurrent bus-station shots, suggests lavish and well-lit prestige productions (as does its length), and in its deep-rooted narrative it harks back to sprawling, brooding melodramas such as Kings Row.
That narrative is broken-backed as well, with two disjointed time frames. The movie opens in 1928 in sooty Iverstown, a steel city almost certainly somewhere in Pennsylvania. There we meet, as teenagers, three of the story's principals: Unruly Martha, making yet another attempt to run away from her wealthy, rigid aunt (Judith Anderson); her street-urchin buddy Sammy; and prissy school-teacher's son Walter. On the night Anderson is bludgeoned to death (to the tune of lightning, thunder and crashing rains), Sammy waits for Martha to join him; when she doesn't, he signs up with the circus and blows town.
Fast-forward to 1946, when decorated veteran Sammy (Van Heflin), headed west, cracks up his car and finds himself once more in Iverstown. He meets up with the fourth main character, Lizabeth Scott, who not unlike himself has been knocked about (she's a jailbird). When the police lock her up for violating parole, he pays a visit to his old friend Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his debut), now the district attorney, to secure her release.
Douglas, who rarely draws a sober breath, holds the office thanks to the ambition and power of his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck). (The original publicity campaign cautioned `Whisper her name!') When she shows up unexpectedly and warmly greets Heflin, all Douglas' insecurities and jealousies erupt; not only does he suspect that Heflin has always been his wife's first love but he fears that Heflin, privy to the long-buried secret of the aunt's death, can undo his marriage, his success, and the industrial empire Stanwyck has built. He takes heavy-handed measures to defend himself, blackmailing Scott into framing Heflin. But hasn't reckoned with the resourcefulness of his adversary or with the wilfulness of his wife.
But the story is really plotted along romantic coordinates whose intersections are punctuated by Miklos Rozsa's throbbing score. Douglas loves Stanwyck, who really loves Heflin, while Scott loves Heflin, who loves her back but still has unfinished business with Stanwyck (no wonder Douglas drinks nobody loves him). And in the rondelay of turnabouts and betrayals (or seeming betrayals), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers slips perilously close to soap opera. Its stately pace and prosperous look give it a dated, ponderous feel, quite unlike the rough sleekness of film noir, though there's an unmistakable echo of Double Indemnity Stanwyck's performance as Martha Ivers reworks hers as Phyllis Dietrichson, right down to the concluding love-death tableau.
But, while occasionally cumbersome, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers stands on its own as an overwrought, obsessive drama, with a very topical acknowledgment of the insulation that money and power can buy, and of the moral and social corruption that inflexibly comes as part of the package. It's a strange movie, all right, but a haunting one as well.
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