Whisper her name!
The film opens with young Martha trying to run away from home to join the circus. With her is her kitten and her best friend Sam. The two are noticed by railway workers and police before they can get far. Sam escapes being arrested but Martha is dragged home to her wealthy aunt. The aunt, played by Judith Anderson, is a stern and harsh woman. By today’s standards violently abusive. During a power outage she attempts to beat Martha’s poor kitten to death when it gets in her way, in a shocking scene that will make pet owners cringe. Martha comes to the aid of her pet and shoves the older woman down the stairs, where she is found dead with a broken neck. Witnessing this is neighbor boy Walter who helps Martha avoid arrest by supporting her story.
The film then advances 18 years, Walter and Martha are married, with Walter being the District Attorney for the area and Martha leveraging her inheritance into a powerful industrial empire. While Walter is in love with Martha to the point of obsession, Martha is definitely not in love with him.
The reappearance of Sam causes the delicate house of cards to collapse. Both Walter and Martha suspect he may have seen the death of her aunt and that he intends to blackmail them. Walter sees him purely as a threat and uses the power of his office to entrap and threaten Sam. Martha is more conflicted and still holds a torch for her childhood best friend. The complicated web of loves, hatreds and conflicting interests begin to boil over. Further complicating things is that Sam literally walks into all this with no idea anything untoward is going on. Newly discharged from the Army, he arrives in town courtesy of an auto accident and stumbles into the mess. If anything he’s more interested in Antonia, a young woman played by Lizabeth Scott, who quickly becomes a pawn of the paranoid DA.
This one isn’t a love triangle as much as a love parallelogram. Walter loves Martha, who loves Sam, who loves Antonia but also might still love Martha. Confused yet? I can’t really get too far into the story because so much of it depends on reveal, anything beyond this point would spoil the film.
With a dynamite cast including the great Barbara Stanwyck as the title character, Van Heflin as Sam, Lizabeth Scott as Antonia and Kirk Douglas as DA Walter O’Neil; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a strange beast, an amalgam of film noir story with A-List cast. Like many Stanwyck vehicles, this one is as much drama as it is noir.
While not as recognized as other Stanwyck greats such as Double Indemnity or The Lady Eve. This one is a good example of her acting ability. Her character Martha is a volatile combination of anger, resentment, paranoia and wistful longing for what might have been.
Kirk Douglas puts in a powerful performance as the paranoid, obsessive Walter in his first major role in film. While the performance is distinctly different from his typical later roles, it shows his already considerable talent.
Lizabeth Scott is her usual self, giving a good performance loaded sensuality, anger and intensity.
Van Heflin is competent as street kid turned war hero, Sam. He gets the job done but the script really doesn’t give him much and many of his scenes are shared with some very talented Ham-asaurus Rex actors who dominate their scenes.
Verdict 3.5 Gavels out of 5 Good potboiler drama with some serious film noir influences. Not as good as other Stanwyck films but still worth seeing if you’re a fan of her films or film noir in general.