The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

c7ab8-all_quiet_on_the_western_front_1930_film_posterDirected by Lewis Millstone and starring an ensemble cast headed by Lew Ayres, this archetypal anti-war film based on the novel of the same name, begins with a group of school boys during the dawn of WWI. This group of patriotic German youth is hungry for adventure and the glories of war. 

Then they arrive and begin their training which causes them to despise their commanding officer and they also lose some enthusiasm. It gets worse when they head to a combat zone and join a company of veteran soldiers without any food to eat. They finally head to the front and after a day in the trenches their number is fewer. 

Trench warfare proves to be hardly as glamorous as it seems with constant bombardment, rats, lack of food, and most of all the shedding of blood. One of their pals loses his leg and his boots, then slowly more get knocked off or wounded. Now Paul is one of the only ones left but after a bout of hand to hand combat with a French soldier he becomes even more disillusioned. Paul too gets wounded and is sent home on furlough to his family but he finds his friends and family have no concept of the gritty, grimy reality of war. He returns to the lines one more time and a few of his old comrades are still alive. 

However, in a fateful moment Paul reaches out for a butterfly in his trench and just like that he is dead. The last of this school room full of young, naïve boys is now dead or injured. That is the horrible scar left by not only by WWI but any such conflict. 

Despite the fact that all the main German characters are played by Americans, this film has a sharp sense of realism that extends all the way through the film. Even though many of these young actors were unknowns and are not well known today, together they made a powerful ensemble. The themes of this film were so powerful in fact that it was banned in Germany.

5/5 Stars