Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

In case you haven’t picked up on this, most of the movies I watch come from Netflix. It’s an online DVD rental service that charges a set monthly price for which you get to have a certain number of movies checked out at any time. You keep a movie as long as you want, and when you send it back, they just send you the next movie on your list. The cool thing is that instead of wandering aimlessly through the New Releases section of the video store like I did in the old days, I get to build this list, called the queue, at my convenience. Whenever I hear or read about a good movie, I can get online and add it to the queue. The downside is that my wife and I have a pretty long queue, so a movie I add today may not get here for months.

That’s what happened with “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” and by the time it arrived, I couldn’t remember why it was on the queue. I’m sure I read about it somewhere, or maybe Netflix recommended it for us. Anyway, sometimes we have to just trust our past decisions, so we popped it in. Turns out it’s not bad. A bit melodramatic, but worth watching. Clearly it was on my queue because it’s a noir, which I dig, and because it is noteworthy for being Kirk Douglas’s first film.

The story is of a love triangle, formed by young Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) and the two boys who love her. Sam Masterson is a tough, confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks who tries to help Martha escape from the gilded cage of her rich aunt’s mansion, and whom Martha loves. Walter O’Neil is the bespectacled son of Martha’s ambitious tutor. When Martha accidentally kills her shrew of an aunt, Walter and his dad help her hide it, while Sam skips town.

The story then skips ahead twenty years, and at this point you are likely thinking that Kirk Douglas must play the grown-up version of the cool, poor kid, right? Wrong, buddy! He plays Walter, a weak, hollow soul who won Martha’s hand as the price for helping conceal her crime, but who now lives a pathetic, henpecked life in the knowledge that his wife doesn’t love him. Martha, meanwhile, has inherited her aunt’s fortune and used her own intelligence and will to multiply it, but she is tortured by her contempt for her drunk of a mate. Into this circus of domestic bliss walks Sam (Van Heflin), back in town after all those years, and genuinely just interested in looking up his old playmates. Walter and Martha, however, weighed down as they are by all their lies, assume Sam is in town to blackmail them with the truth about Martha’s aunt, steal Martha away, or both. The guilty flee when no man pursues, and thus Sam and Martha are drawn down into the darkness.

Besides having a really lame name, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” suffers from some Old Movie maladies. In the first part of the film, all the kids talk in those high-pitched movie-kid voices that they had in all those old films. That drives me nuts. The adults in that first segment are also painfully melodramatic. Once the film skips ahead, and the main actors show up, things get better, but the movie never completely shakes off the aura of melodrama. Lizabeth Scott plays a down-on-her-luck girl and love interest for Sam, and she isn’t that great. She is known as the poor-man’s Lauren Bacall, and she does look remarkably like Bacall, but if a poor man had just a few bucks, he would do better to spring for Bacall herself.

Other than that, the film has some pretty decent performances. Barbara Stanwyck keeps you guessing as to whether she is a victim or a manipulative sociopath. Van Heflin offers a charming performance as well. Kirk Douglas, however, gets the prize for this movie. His portrayal of Walter the henpecked drunkard is astoundingly nuanced; it’s worth watching the film just for him. His career was definitely going somewhere after this first movie.

Finally, I want to point out something about “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” that I have noticed in other movies made during and after WWII. That was a period when many women had gone to work because of so many men being overseas, and there was some societal duplicity about what the role of women was going to be. On the one hand, “Rosie the Riveter” signs exhorted women to work to help the war effort. On the other, I think many folks were very concerned that it should be clear that once the war was over, those women would give up their jobs to returning men and pursue the traditional female goals of marriage and family. Many movies I have seen from that era seem to be about strong, smart women who make a career on their own, then ultimately meet some terrible fate. In “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” the fate of Martha the capable industrialist is contrasted with that of Toni (Lizabeth Scott), a sweet, unambitious girl who puts her faith in a man. I suspect that Hollywood produced stories like this because they subtly promoted the traditional gender roles that an anxious America longed for.

There’s no need to break your leg rushing to rent “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” but it is worth watching if you get a chance.

3 stars out of 5.