THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, entertaining noir from 1946, launched two new stars, given a chance to shine with two veterans. Imperishably cool Barbara Stanwyck, 39, plays one of her darkest bad-girls, with Van Heflin, 37, back after three years in the Army Air Corps, as one of those fated to be drawn into her web. Joining their whirl of deception, corruption and worse are fresh faces Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas.
‘Iverstown’, Pennsylvania. In 1928, 13-year-old ‘Martha Ivers’ (creepily done by Janis Wilson) tries repeatedly to escape her dominating aunt (Judith Anderson, once again imperious) but how she finally does it will complicate the futures of her two childhood friends. When the story advances to 1946, the now-adult Martha (Stanwyck) has turned the factory town into a booming success. Breezy gambler ‘Sam Masterson’ (Heflin), one of the childhood pals, cruises through town on his way to wherever, and finds Martha has married their other old friend, ‘Walter O’Neil’ (Douglas) who’s now the D.A. with a set political path. Weak Walter also has a drinking problem; their brittle marriage an inconvenient convenience. Chance has Sam link up with another drifter, ‘Toni Marichek’ (Scott) whose come-hither look and sultry manner hints a checkered past. Walter is convinced Sam is scheming blackmail, Martha desires Sam, Toni becomes a pawn in a game with likely dire stakes.
The plot, with its quick reversals of love v. hate and sped-up incidence of time (everything happens over two days) is pulp tosh, but the dialogue is decent and the wise-to-wariness playing makes its see-saw worth hopping on. The underrated Lewis Milestone directed. The all-is-corrupt script done Robert Rossen (with Robert Riskin pitching in) was derived from “Love Lies Bleeding” a story by John Patrick, who was Oscar nominated for Best Writing, Original Motion Picture Story (category nixed after 1956). Miklós Rózsa coats the pessimism with one of his moody scores.
Bold-eyed lynx Scott, 23, had only been in one picture (You Came Along) but producer Hal B. Wallis (whose stake was personal as well as professional) was determined to make her a star, and managed to bump the new vamp’s billing to share with Stanwyck and Heflin (Babs not happy about it, ditto director Milestone). Bristling newcomer Douglas, 29, rated 4th. Both ‘finds’ took off like rockets, Kirk to much greater and longer lasting success.
Douglas would play a lot of selfish heels and conflicted heroes, but his debut has him as a self-destructive pushover; he handles it well, with none of the teeth-gnashing intensity that would color many of his later performances. Scott’s a mix; alluring in a defensive, almost passive-aggressive way, somewhat hesitant over how far to push the melodrama. Like concurrent ‘hot new dish’ Lauren Bacall, she had to find her footing. She could be a poster for “looking good with a Lucky Strike”: this is a movie where cigarettes are almost supporting players. Heflin lights his share while he readily dials complexity into Sam’s amiable opportunist, no sap but not a choir boy either. Dragon lady Stanwyck doesn’t show up for the first third of the 116 minutes, but when she does you quickly discern who’s the praying mantis in this specimen tray. Adored by directors, actors and crews for her professionalism, personality and attitude, on camera “Missy” had few peers summoning believable fury and take-no-prisoners malevolence. She also rates some killer costumes courtesy of Edith Head.
Picture carries a solid rep with critics, and came in 27th at the box office for that first “now what?” year after the war. With Roman Bohnen (in craven mode), Darryl Hickman (Sam as a child), Mickey Kuhn (Walter as a child), Ann Doran (flashing her great smile as Kirk’s flirty secretary), James Flavin (as a cop for the umpteenth time), John Kellogg and Blake Edwards (23, his first bit as an actor, nine years before he directed his first feature).