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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"It's what people want, and how hard they want it, and how hard it is for them to get it."
"Don't look back, baby," says a man who knows his Gideon Bible, "You know what happened to Lot's wife." But her fate is mild compared to the torments of two peopleand a third they draw into their webwho can never stop looking back to something that happened when they were children. What connects this melodrama with noir films like the perfectly named OUT OF THE PAST, THE KILLERS (in which the hero explains that he is doomed because, "I did something wrong, once"), and many others is the theme that one mistake, one "reckless moment," can seal your fate forever.
The three children are Sam Masterson, a streetwise kid from the wrong side of the tracks; Walter O'Neil, a timid, obedient boy whose father is ambitious for him; and Martha Ivers, the orphaned heiress to a steel mill, who lives miserably with her aunt (Judith Anderson, in Mrs. Danvers mode). On the fateful night, all three are in the house when Martha, driven over the edge (her aunt both insults her dead father, a mill hand, and beats her kitten!) whacks her aunt with her own cane and sends her tumbling to her death at the foot of a grand staircase. Walter's father sees his chance, and holding the threat of exposure over Martha's head, takes control of her fortune and later forces her to marry Walter. When, eighteen years later, Sam (who ran away night of the killing on a circus train) blows back into town, Martha and Walter fear he has returned to blackmail them with his knowledge; Walter also fears, rightly, that Martha and Sam still carry a torch for each other. The highly-charged triangle becomes a quadrangle with the addition of Toni Marachek, a young woman just out of jail whom Sam picks up and befriends.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS is a conventional studio product, lacking the expressive camera-work or atmospheric settings that noir usually offers. Bombastic music deafens each emotional climax; women go to sleep with their glossy masks of makeup intact; obvious back-projection and poorly staged action sequences make the film look like a staged play. None of this really diminishes the movie, however, since its power comes from a smart script, especially from the complexity of characters and relationships. There is a strong affinity between Sam and Martha, both tough and poised and hard to read, while Toni and Walter are more vulnerable and obvious, driven by the simple motivation of love. But by the end it's clear that Martha and Walter have become twins, warped by their shared guilt (they both took part in prosecuting an innocent man who was hanged for the murder), while Sam and Toni share a fundamental decency and the capacity to look ahead to a fresh start.
Nice girl Toni is there to provide eye candy and a potential happy ending for Sam, but she gets a lot of screen time, too much in fact for her one-note character. Fans of Lizabeth Scott won't agree, but unless you find her particularly alluring, her scenes get a little tedious. Van Heflin is easy-going as Sam, the self-confident gambler who thinks he's seen it all, until he encounters Martha and Walter's toxic marriage. Heflin, though rather homely, brings a likable raffishness to the part, and his casual opportunism keeps you guessing about what he'll do next.
Kirk Douglas was never cast as such a weakling again (this was his debut film) but the mismatch works brilliantly. His intensity and powerful presence make his abject character fiercely compelling, instead of merely pathetic. A less imposing actor would come off as just a milquetoast; Douglas's manliness adds an interesting touch of perversity to his plight. His weakness is inside. Douglas captures perfectly Walter's insecurity and helpless jealousy, his cowardly use of his power (through Martha's influence, he has become District Attorney), his lame attempts to project confidence, his dependence on alcohol to salve his humiliation. He's not dumb; he knows that Martha would never have married him without the threat of exposure, but he clings to his feeble hold on her because he loves her desperately. You can't help feeling sorry for him, especially when Martha accuses him and his father of coming after her money like leeches, and he cries out, "All I wanted was you!"
Then there's Martha, the mysterious center of the film. Barbara Stanwyck has an amazing ability to draw the audience to her side and at the same time make one's blood run cold. She's in her prime here as a glamorous businesswoman (with steely satisfaction she shows off the improvements she made to the factory, "all by myself") who conveys total control, yet feels trapped in a life she loathes. Her hardness is at once glorious and chilling; she controls her husband like a cruel hypnotist. When she breaks down in tears and tells Sam that she has been the victim all along, powerless and frightened, like Sam you're moved but not quite sure you believe her. Even at the end, the ambiguity is unresolved: how much is Martha the victim, how much the villain? Walter says it's no one's fault; it's just the way things are; it's what people will do to get the things they want. The scenes between Martha and Walter are the highlight of the film, saturated with a poisonous mixture of love and hate, tinged with sado-masochism ("Even pain at your hands " Walter sighs when she puts iodine on his cut hand). This pact with desire, fear, greed and guilt is the spectacle of ruin--the Sodom and Gomorrah--that prompts Sam to warn Toni, "Don't look back, baby; don't ever look back."
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