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

Kiss of Death (1947)

kissof1Film-Noir gets interesting when the stylized, more formalistic world of this dark genre begins to seep into the familiar human drama that we as an audience are more used to. Many of us have families. We have jobs so we can provide for our families.  Or maybe some of us don’t and that makes for some tough decisions.

In Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) has been out of work for a long time now, so on Christmas Eve, in order to get presents for his two little girls, he robs a jewelry store with a few other accomplices. What sets him apart is he’s not your stereotypical ruthless criminal. He’s a family man, but he’s also bought into the idea that you don’t squeal. So inevitably after he gets caught and booked, Nick will not talk and he gets sent to the clink. The assistant D.A. (Brian Dunleavy) tried to help him, but Bianco took the three years in Sing Sing instead.  After all, his wife is doing fine and so are his daughters.

While he’s in the clink, however, he gets tragic news that his wife committed suicide and his two girls were sent to an orphanage and that changes his entire outlook. He needs to get out of there, and he’s ready to sing if that means getting to see his girls. He begins communication with D.A. Louis D’Angelo again, and he also begins to receive visits from a pretty young woman named Nettie (Colleen Gray), who used to babysit his girls back when his wife was still alive. As his relationship and gratefulness in Nettie grow, Nick also comes in contact with Tommy Udo who is also serving time. He’s a thug with a maniacal laugh and psychopathic personality if there ever was one. He’s not a good guy to cross.

The dkissof2ay finally comes when Nick gets out and he has Nettie waiting for him with his two girls. They are a beautiful happy family and Bianco has remade his life possibly better than it ever was before. However, he’s still beholden to the D.A. and they want him to get dirt on Tommy Udo. They don’t know what they’re asking, but still, Nick goes through it reassured that depending on what he can get, Udo will be put away for good. But of course, the slimeball beats the rap and Nick’s now a sitting duck. He sends his family away and waits for a confrontation with Udo.

His home life has all of a sudden been shattered, and he’s a wreck. Udo’s sadistic laugh undoubtedly ringing in his ears. In a different era, this film could have spiraled deeper and deeper into the darkness after the final confrontation. Supposedly there was one cut of the film where Widmark’s character actually got away and Mature was left for dead. The ending that was decided upon is still harrowing but holds a Hollywood silver lining as Coleen Gray’s narration ties up the story in a nice bow.

There potentially was also a scene in Kiss of Death with Mrs. Bianco where Udo took advantage of her and drove her to commit suicide, but it was deemed too graphic at the time. Although I would admit that such a scene would have made Udo even more despicable, he really did not need much help. Widmark plays him to a tee with a chilling laugh that would make the Joker proud. Mature is certainly not the standout, but he’s a necessary every man who we can empathize with. The demure Colleen Gray (who unfortunately just left us) is also fun to watch as the girl who stands by him. She also serves to narrate our story informally. Maybe it’s just me, but I really do not grasp the importance of this title. It gave me major misconceptions going in, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

4/5 Stars

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

allthatheaven4When I first saw the work of Douglas Sirk, I was immediately struck by how well it seemed to personify 1950s Hollywood. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is little different in its opulence and superficial soap opera tonalities. Except for this one, at times, feels a little like it should be a part of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Perhaps it glides a slightly more interesting line between high society country club members and quintessential middle America.

The two alternatives are contrasted in our screen couple played by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.

Cary Scott (Wyman) is a well to do, middle-aged widow with two grown kids off at school. She is often lonely and always sensible when it comes to the life decisions she makes. After all, she doesn’t want the local gossip blabbing about her life to all their society friends.

That changes rather gradually thanks to her seasonal gardener and professional tree-trimmer Ron Kirby (Hudson). He is a different sort of spirit who seems to be content with nature and his place in it as nurturer. Their acquaintance begins over a harmless cup of coffee and turns into an excursion to his humble abode. Over time, Cary is introduced to Ron’s brands of friends who are all charming, down-to-earth folk who live life to the fullest without worrying about wealth or societal pressures. This is what she has been looking for and he is the man who she needs. So when Ron proposes marriage she readily accepts.

Now comes the task of putting it before the kids and then showing Ron to the local snarks. The socialites are no different with their sniggering and pointed remarks. There is no mercy for Cary and Ron. In fact, they are appalled by such a scandalous romance. The children who normally are rational and kind, do not mince words with their mother. Ned talks about the family honor, the legacy of their father, and their home. He cannot bear for his mother to supposedly throw all that away. Kay, on her part, is always getting caught up in psychoanalysis, but this time all rationale goes out the window after her boyfriend breaks up with her.  Under this built-in pressure, Cary reluctantly breaks off their marriage, mostly for the sake of the children.

allthatheaven2Except she is never quite the same and never feels like she did with Ron. Cary is resigned to staying in her lavish home, while reluctantly accepting the newest form of modern entertainment — a television. Christmas time is especially hard when she runs into Ron, but then the kids come home. That’s when she realizes her grave error and what comes next is exactly what you expect, with a few small diversions. Cary turns back to Ron, who has been in a funk of his own. Following an accident that was induced by Cary’s presence, Ron is bedridden and Cary rushes to his aid. This is the life she was meant for no matter what society says of her.

It’s pretty mushy, weepy stuff in a sense. That’s the superficial level of second-rate romance and picture-perfect technicolor. In fact, All That Heaven Allows is visually beautiful in a sickening sort of way. The town is too pristine, the seasons too perfect, the snow too puffy. And yet it all seems to be an impeccable supplement to Sirk’s moral drama. Ironically, this is not a moral tale about unbridled love between a woman and her younger lover. That would make complete sense. Instead, Sirk subverts that wonderfully, by suggesting the weight of the blame is on society and the peer pressure that permeates the upper crust.

Even if this film is a little too syrupy in its sweetness, I can manage a spoonful or two because there is a greater meaning to this frivolity. All That Heaven Allows is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s worth taking a chance on.

4/5 Stars

Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

mildredpierce1Mildred Pierce is a hybrid between two genres in a way. It most certainly could be categorized as a weepie 1940s melodrama, a so-called “woman’s picture,” and yet it has the undeniable framing devices of a typical film-noir. It’s unique in other ways as well. It features a strong, independent woman as the lead, the eponymous Mildred Pierce and her aspirations and the struggles in her life become the focal point of this story.

Before any gun was fired or a dead body was found at a beach house or any of that happened, Mildred was a stay at home housewife with two daughters and a husband. It becomes all too clear that all is not right in the Pierce household as Bert becomes annoyed with Mildred, who spends so much time doting over eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). It’s as if she needs to earn Veda’s love and Bert realizes the issue early on. They separate and soon after they watch their youngest daughter die of pneumonia suddenly.

What happens next is Mildred’s big break. She starts out all alone and discouraged before finding a job as a waitress, and ultimately, starting up her own restaurant with the help of the hapless Wally Fay (Jack Carson). She finds a loyal friend and employee in Ida (Eve Arden) and a rejuvenated love life thanks to the socialite Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott).

Veda on her part is ecstatic to finally have a life of nice things with the stream of income coming in from her mother, however, she still does not approve of her mother working in the restaurant business. Mother is so Philistine after all.

Thus, despite all the work and effort, she has put into holding onto her one remaining daughter, Veda begins to drift farther and farther away from Mildred until a fight causes Veda to leave home. Most people would say good riddance, but Mildred Pierce is not like that. She has an unhealthy, almost obsessive need for her daughter’s affection. She will do anything to get her back and most of it has to do with giving Veda stuff.

She is far from happy but finally marries Beragon, because she thinks it might bring Veda back to her home. It works but what she doesn’t know is that she is getting forced out of her own company by Bergaon. That evening she found her gun and then Beragon got murdered on the premises of his beach house.

Back in the station, the shadowy noir sensibilities are still present and Mildred abruptly finishes up her tale. Except for the police investigator and the audience know better. That was not the end of the story. There’s one last cruel twist.

In my mind, Joan Crawford is rivaled only by Bette Davis in giving me the shivers, except in this film her eyes are so expressive, giving off emotion without her even saying anything. Within this film, I find the character dynamics and gender conflict to be quite interesting and there are really 6 main characters we can look at:

Mildred: A strong woman who gains her independence the hard way by putting in work to earn her honest wage. She is not a bad person per se, but her weakness is an unhealthy love for her daughter, or rather, a need to have the affection of a girl who never can be satisfied. It leads to divorce, a loveless marriage and a lot of heartaches.

Veda is a little spoiled brat and most of the pain and problems in the film stem from her. She constantly plays on her mother’s emotions heartlessly and even goes so far as to steal her man. That is perhaps the ultimate slap in the face after all she has already done.

Ida: Along with Wally Fay, Ida is perhaps one of the more likable characters in the film, because she is a strong woman who also holds a lot of wit thanks to the performance of Eve Arden. She also utters the famous line that shines some light on the Veda situation (Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young).

Bert: Although he takes part in an affair and is not the perfect husband, I think Mildred and the audience realize how right he was. He saw all the drama with Veda coming, and he remained civil with Mildred through it all, continuing to look out for her.

Monte: He may not be a “villain,” but Beragon is ultimately another corrupt character who is driven by money and his social status. However, it is interesting to ponder whether it was his own avarice and playboy instincts that led him to do what he did, or was he wholly influenced by Veda?

Wally: Finally, we have Wally Fay played the always enjoyable Jack Carson. He too has his eye on Mildred, but although he can be forward and a little annoying, he ultimately looks out for her much like Bert. And yet to call him an angel would be an overstatement because he still has his own interests in mind.

That’s what makes these characters so fascinating since there are some obvious antagonists, but each character, at their core,  has faults. Thus, it makes sense that this film has melodrama brought on by familiar conflict and the like, only to descend down into the noirish world brought on by vice and greed. Whatever you label this film as, the fact of the matter is, it was a major hallmark for the fading Joan Crawford as well as the ever versatile director Michael Curtiz.

4.5/5 Stars

Mildred Pierce (1945) – Film-Noir

Starring Joan Crawford, this classic film noir is intriguing because it revolves around a successful woman. The film begins with a murder and Pierce is taken in for questioning. From that point on she tells the story of her life with her first husband and two daughters. However, Pierce was in conflict with her husband about their spoiled daughter Veda and they split. She was forced to go it alone in the business world and make something of herself. However, her spoiled daughter and complex relationships with men made her life painful. She was now a wealthy restaurant owner but Veda no longer loved her. Pierce tried in every way to win back this love However, her efforts were not enough to save Veda from her fate. This film is certainly enjoyable and Crawford does a wonderful job because for once you actually feel sorry for her. She has a solid cast behind her including Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, and Jack Carson.

4.5/5 Stars