The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 27 2021
Columns The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

An engrossing film noir, that is all the better for being presented by Lewis Milestone as a sordid romantic melodrama. Barbara Stanwyck as Martha Ivers gives a chillingly superb performance.

It’s a postwar period psychological drama, highlighting the psychological obsessions and neuroses of the main characters. Martha Ivers is involved in a frighteningly foolish love triangle with two childhood friends. 

It is based on John Patrick’s Oscarnominated original story, Love Lies Bleeding. Robert Rossen’s edgy script was still another plus, though it never quite succeeded in explaining the spineless character Van Heflin portrayed. 

The film opens in 1928, in the fictional Midwestern town of Iverstown. The young heiress, Martha Ivers, is caught running off to join a circus with a boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks, Sam Masterson, and is returned by the Police to her elderly, meanspirited, wealthy aunt’s house. 

During the course of that thunder and lightning night, Martha clubs her aunt (Judith Anderson) to death and it is witnessed by her boyfriend Sam (who may not have actually witnessed the murder) and Walter O’Neil– the sniveling son of her tutor. Sam flees the scene, afraid he’s in enough trouble with the law, but Walter backs Martha’s story that an intruder killed her aunt.

 The Police will later pick up a known criminal whom Martha fingers and sends to the gallows. Some 18 years go by and Martha who was raised by Walter’s scheming toady father (Roman Bohnen), has become a tycoon, just like her aunt, and married Walter (Kirk Douglas, his debut performance) even though she doesn’t love him and considers him to be a weakling. 

Walter has become DA, but is so depressed he’s also become an alcoholic. In the meantime, Sam (Van Heflin) has led a colourful life as a circus entrepreneur, decorated wartime soldier and big-time gambler. While going west by car he stops to visit Iverstown after 18 years away and hooks up with just released jailbird, Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott). 

Sam’s presence rekindles the love Martha had for him and makes Walter jumpy, thinking Sam has come to blackmail him. When Sam asks as a favor that Walter release Toni from jail for a parole violation, Walter releases her under the condition she acts as bait for his nefarious scheme to run his childhood friend out of town. 

Goons rough Sam up, but that plan backfires and Sam instead of leaving town spends the evening with Martha reliving their past. The story remains tense as it builds to a confrontation between the three childhood friends, as the guilt-ridden couple, feel threatened by the loose cannon Sam’s return and their fears and desires take hold of them. 

Though it never was exactly clear what motivated Sam to remain in town and what he was looking for in enticing Martha, the film nevertheless becomes more revealing when the mystery surrounding the childhood murder is cleared up. It’s a cynical film that in all its doom and gloom manages to come up with a happy ending. (JK)

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 27 2021

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