“You’re insane. You’re out of your mind. Me too! You see how close we are to each other?”
– Kirk Douglas to Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
It is a dark and stormy night. The oldest and most risible cliché in Victorian melodrama – but that is how The Strange Love of Martha Ivers actually does start. As the thunder booms and crackles, a rich girl and a poor boy steal aboard a deserted train. They want to run away and join a circus. But the girl’s creepy and abusive aunt (Judith Anderson) has the local police on her payroll. They catch the runaways and drag them back to her eerie Gothic mansion. Auntie takes her revenge by bludgeoning the girl’s pet kitten to death with a walking stick. Her outraged niece grabs the cane, whacks the old battleaxe on the head and sends her hurtling down the staircase to her death. The girl’s smarmy tutor and his milksop son see it all happen. They set her up for a lifetime of blackmail as the price of their silence…
To call this opening ‘torrid’ is like saying the core of a live volcano is rather warm. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is melodrama with all the stops pulled out. A tale of greed, lust, revenge and psychopathic murder, it is – in the words of Noël Simsolo – “worthy of the worst libretto in Italian opera”.1 This may be a tad unfair to Italian opera. A hybrid of film noir and the Gothic women’s melodramas of the 1940s, a movie like this had to be in the worst of possible taste: if not, it might not work at all. With the Second World War over – and the United States high on idealism and its messianic sense of its place in the world – there was a low-down and dirty need to show how violent, vulgar, grasping and downright sordid America could actually be.
Following her aunt’s death, little Martha (played by Janis Wilson) inherits a small industrial metropolis named Iverstown. She also grows up to be Barbara Stanwyck – the most ferocious and formidable of the Great Hollywood Divas. On her first entrance, we get a view from inside her mansion of a butler opening the front door. We then see, framed in the doorway, a chauffeur opening the door of her car. Stanwyck emerges slowly, disdaining to notice the bustle around her. Her black power suit is studded with rhinestones and tailored like a medieval suit of armour. (As in so many of Stanwyck’s films, the clothes are by Edith Head.) In a later scene, she wears a stole made up of tiny minks, which look as if they have been freshly slaughtered.
Much has been written of Stanwyck and her aggressive, tough-as-nails image. Most striking, perhaps, is Molly Haskell’s observation:
Just as Lillian Gish is an adaptation of the Victorian virgin to American soil, Stanwyck is a “corruption” of the European femme fatale. She is allied not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of the capitalist economy.2
It may be relevant than Stanwyck – atypically for a Hollywood star, then or now – was a fervent right-wing Republican. Her explicitly ‘capitalist’ persona was never more clear-cut than in Martha Ivers. At one point, she justifies murdering her aunt – and letting an innocent man go to the gallows for her crime – by boasting of how she built her small factory into a multimillion-dollar business empire. “What were their lives compared to mine?” she snarls. It is a line of reasoning of which Donald Trump in 2016 might well be proud.
Her one discernible weakness lies in her wretchedly awful marriage to Walter (Kirk Douglas) – the wimpy bespectacled youth whose father blackmailed her into marrying him. He has grown into a depressed and sexually inadequate alcoholic, who rages in impotent fury at her affairs with other men. One day her childhood playmate Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) comes cruising back into town and his car hits a fence post. He takes it to a garage, where a crap game is in progress. “Open game?” he asks. “Nope!” the mechanic says. Nothing is ‘open’ in Iverstown unless Martha says it is. But Sam promptly starts to challenge the status quo, befriending a pretty ex-jailbird Toni (Lizabeth Scott) and inviting her to drive with him out west. “I’ve never been out west before,” she says. “What’s it like?” Sam lifts both hands wide apart in the air and answers: “Big!” She steals a sly look at his crotch and smiles.
It is clear that Martha is still sexually obsessed with her old friend Sam – and that, even in childhood, they went way beyond being ‘just pals’. We have to wonder too about Walter, her husband. Sam addresses him casually as “sweetheart” and – when Walter hires thugs to tail him and beat him up – gives him a cocky grin and says: “I didn’t know you cared!” Can this sexual tension between Sam and Walter be why the marriage is a fiasco? As Sam drives into town, a sexy sailor dozes in the passenger seat of his car, looking for all the world like an extra from Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947). The love interest Toni has a boys name and wears a mannish trench-coat and sharply-collared shirts. When Martha meets her, jealousy is clearly at war with attraction. “That’s a pretty girl!” she says, her face lighting up. However rigged the crap games may be, the game of sex in Martha Ivers is very ‘open’ indeed.
Sex, in the finest tradition of Italian opera, must lead inevitably to death. As Sam beats a retreat from the crazed passions of Iverstown, Martha and Walter are drawn together in an archetypal love-death finale. As Andrew Spicer notes, “she aids Walter’s attempt to kill her, pulling the gun deeper into her stomach as if relishing death as the sexual ecstasy and release that she has been denied in her life”.3 Death is the ultimate orgasm in Martha Ivers, as money and power are the supreme aphrodisiac. Of course, we may object on grounds of taste. Real life is infinitely more vulgar.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946 USA 116 mins)
Prod. Co: Paramount Prod: Hal B. Wallis Dir: Lewis Milestone Scr: Robert Rossen, from an original story by Jack Patrick Phot: Victor Milner Mus: Miklos Rozsa Ed: Archie Marshek Art Dir: Hans Dreier, John Meehan
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Judith Anderson, Roman Bohnen, Darryl Hickman
- Noël Simsolo, Le Film Noir – Vrais et faux cauchemars (Paris: Éditions Cahiers du Cinéma, 2005), p. 222. Translation from French by author. ↩
- Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Second Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 197 ↩
- Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Harlow: Longman, 2002), p. 100 ↩