In the annals of film noir, movies like 'Double Indemnity,' 'Out of the Past,' 'The Maltese Falcon,' and 'Murder, My Sweet' grab all the attention, but dozens of other high-quality noirs deluged theaters during the genre's heyday in the mid-1940s, and 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' is one of them. Chock full of all the elements that make noir one of the most seductive and intriguing styles in all of cinema - murder, manipulation, obsession, neuroses, harsh lighting, murky shadows, and plenty of cigarette smoke - this sordid tale of unrequited love, greed, redemption, and despair may not possess the notoriety of the aforementioned titles, but remains a solid entry in a cluttered field, distinguished by fine direction and excellent performances from a stellar cast.
Directed by Lewis Milestone, a two-time Academy Award winner whose most distinguished picture is arguably the devastating World War I drama 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' begins with a riveting prologue that sets the stage for the tangled melodrama to come. One dark and stormy night, the willful, sociopathic teenage title character tries to escape the domineering clutches of her wealthy, ruthless aunt (Judith Anderson) by ditching the industrial borough of Iverstown on a railroad box car with wrong-side-of-the-tracks bad boy Sam Masterson. Yet before they can get away, the local police catch them and return Martha to her palatial "prison," where the young Walter O'Neil, son of Martha's tutor, tries to win Mrs. Ivers' favor and parlay it into a paid-for Harvard education. When Martha sees her aunt beating her stray cat during a power outage, she fights her off and accidentally kills her, but concocts a plausible alibi that Walter corroborates. As Mrs. Ivers' only heir, Martha inherits a substantial fortune, yet is beholden to Walter's father, who suspects foul play.
Fast forward 18 years to 1946. While driving through Iverstown by chance, Sam (Van Heflin) crashes his car, and while awaiting repairs, he encounters the sultry, down-on-her-luck Toni (Lizbeth Scott). Unforeseen circumstances prompt him to look up Walter (Kirk Douglas), a successful lawyer and ardent lush who's running for district attorney, which in turn leads him to Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), Walter's wife and the most powerful woman in Iverstown. Old obsessions and jealousies are rekindled, old wounds are reopened, and old secrets are revealed, as lust, paranoia, self-preservation, and manipulations hurl the quartet headlong toward destruction.
I first saw 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' in the late 1970s as a wide-eyed teen at a New York City revival house (anyone remember the hallowed Theatre 80 St. Marks?) on a double bill with another Stanwyck classic, 'Sorry, Wrong Number.' A case of the flu hit me hard during the movie, but I couldn't tell whether my rising temperature was a result of the illness or the potent action on screen. Textured and nuanced, yet brash and bold, Milestone's film mixes its squalid elements into a strangely intoxicating brew. A sullen, cynical mood pervades the piece, and though the glamorous leads are largely dysfunctional, they're fascinating to watch, and we want to see how far their desires and desperations take them.
Screenwriter Robert Rossen, who went on to write and direct such acclaimed films as 'All the King's Men' and 'The Hustler,' paints a lively portrait of deceit and decay, as every character strives to escape their private demons, exorcise the past, and forge a brighter, romantic future. The script, however, meanders a bit, spending too much time developing the hokey relationship between Sam and Toni, instead of delving deeper into the cancerous bondage that inexorably binds Martha and Walter. Stanwyck doesn't even appear until 30 minutes into the movie, and that's a shame, because she's a mesmerizing presence and one of filmdom's great noir heroines.
WIth her self-assured air, Stanwyck commands the screen, unafraid to explore the dark recesses of Martha's psyche. Her velvet-toned voice alternately barks at Douglas and purrs at Heflin, and her excellent work recalls her iconic portrayal of the devious Phyllis Dietrichson in 'Double Indemnity.' Scott, at times, looks eerily like her, but with her husky contralto, pouty expressions, and deadpan deliveries more acutely resembles Lauren Bacall. She creates fine chemistry with Heflin, whose easygoing charm and natural pugnacity make him an attractive noir tough guy who's not afraid to brandish his sensitive side.
Of course, the real stunner is Douglas, in his film debut, as the milquetoast Walter, who uses liquor as a salve to ease the pain of his troubled marriage, torturous guilt, and spineless nature. For an actor who soon would be identified as a strong, macho presence, this is quite a different role, and Douglas does it proud, embracing Walter's insecurities with a wry humor and subtly expressing his aching, unfulfilled need for Martha's affection. It's a star-making performance that would instantly catapult him to the top of his profession.
More than 60 years after its initial release, 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' remains in many ways a strange concoction, featuring one of noir's most deviant stories and shocking denouements. Yet the sure hand of director Lewis Milestone (surprisingly, this would be his only noir film) and finely etched portrayals by Stanwyck, Heflin, Douglas, and Scott make it accessible and, for the most part, timeless. Attractions don't get much more fatal than this one, an ironic - and more stylish - precursor to Douglas' son Michael's dance with another female devil 41 years later.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Inside, both a Blu-ray disc and standard-def DVD are included, along with a collectible postcard featuring the movie's cover art. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Upon insertion of the disc in the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
For a public domain title, 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' looks quite good on Blu-ray. Supposedly transferred from original 35mm elements and benefitting from a full restoration, the picture quality is pleasingly lush, clear, and clean. Not all evidence of print damage has been removed - a few faint vertical lines and a bit of snowiness still crop up occasionally - but the image is largely free of annoying speckles, grit, and marks of decay. A few missing frames here and there jar the senses, and around the one-hour mark a slightly larger chunk of celluloid seems to have been removed, but the general presentation is slick and stylish, especially for a film of this vintage that hasn't been properly preserved.
Grain is surprisingly faint, thanks to the liberal application of DNR, which tends to wash out facial details in medium shots, but contrast is strong, with plenty of gray scale variance lending the picture texture and depth. Black levels are rich and inky - essential for a successful noir movie - and all the shadows and nocturnal scenes come across well, as crush is kept at bay most of the time. Whites are a little bright, brandishing the occasional bloom, and some mild aliasing could be detected in a few shots. A bit of inconsistency mars the print, too, as some scenes appear rougher and softer than others, but again, that's understandable for a film that has obviously been through the wringer.
Yes, this transfer has faults, but the good outweighs the bad, making it one of the better public domain remasters I've seen. Overall, classics mavens, Stanwyck fans, and film noir aficionados should be satisfied with this effort.
Unfortunately, Film Chest fumbled the ball a bit by not gracing 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' with lossless audio. What we have instead is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track that's certainly serviceable for a film of this sort; it just doesn't meet the standards to which high-def aficionados are accustomed. A few pops and crackles sporadically crop up, but on the whole, the sound is clean and lacks the hiss and surface noise that usually litter public domain titles. Though all the audio is anchored up front, a wide dynamic scale adds presence and depth. Bright highs and weighty lows add impact to Miklos Rosza's brooding, melodramatic score, which possesses a lovely fullness of tone that belies its advanced age.
Dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, and doesn't flaunt any of the shrill or tinny timbres that often hamper antique tracks. Also on the plus side, atmospherics, such as the driving rain that frames the opening sequence, and accents, such as gunfire and fisticuffs, are subtle and crisp, respectively. This may not be a high-tech track, but it seamlessly complements the on-screen action, and that's what's important here.
Just a couple of extras adorn the disc, but that's more than we usually get with public domain titles. It's a shame, though, that what's here doesn't meet the standards of the film.
'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' may be a second-tier film noir title that lacks the name recognition of such iconic classics as 'Double Indemnity' and 'The Postman Always Rings Twice,' but it's nevertheless a stylish genre specimen slickly directed by Lewis Milestone and well acted by Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas. There are enough sordid goings-on here to fill a couple of pictures, but Milestone and his cast manage them well, producing an absorbing tale of twisted longings, torturous guilt, and redemption. Video, audio, and supplements are just fine for a public domain title, and this edition should satisfy fans until a legitimate release from Paramount comes down the pike. For noir lovers, this one is definitely worth a look.