Welcome to Mill Creek Musings, a segment in which I work my way through the three low-price Mill Creek film sets that I own, reviewing each film for content and quality along the way. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers marks my fourth viewing from the 50 Dark Crimes set. This was my second time watching the film, but this review is in the same fashion as my “new to me” reviews because it’s been a few years since my first viewing! This review is also a part of TMP’s Barbara Stanwyck filmography project.
Naturally, the thing to do when your oppressive aunt kills your cat is to react by killing her in front of two of your best friends… or, at least, that’s what Martha Ivers does.
The year is 1928 and young Martha (Janis Wilson), who is tired of living with her rich, stuffy aunt Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson) in Iverstown, is planning to hop a train and get out with her friend Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). The night that she was planning to leave, she kills her aunt instead and stays in Iverstown with her tutor (Roman Bohnen) and his son Walter (Mickey Kuhn).
Nearly 20 years in the future, Sam (Van Heflin) – who left town without Martha – has decided to return to Iverstown. Upon arrival he finds that Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) is in control of the town and has married Walter (Kirk Douglas), who is now the district attorney.
When Sam meets mysterious blonde Toni Maracheck (Lizabeth Scott), who is fresh out of jail and will soon be locked up again, he pays a visit to his old friend Walter to try to get her out of prison so they can go west together.
It seems that Martha and Walter, terrified that Sam will reveal Martha’s murderous past, will go along with the plan – until Martha’s old feelings for Sam start to rise up again. As the tagline boldly states, “Fate drew them together… and only murder could part them!”
Lewis Milestone directs the Hal Wallis Productions noir-drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – the debut film of Kirk Douglas.
The Mill Creek set offers a decent print of Martha Ivers. The contrast sometimes gets a bit flat and there are a few pops here and there, but it’s watchable. The sound is crystal clear — not a bit of muffling or distortion, unlike most of the films in the set.
As for the film itself, it’s a real riot in the beginning. It’s easy to get completely wrapped up in the story, and the viewer (especially those of us who love animals) can’t help but root for Martha to get her revenge when Mrs. Ivers is shown beating the cat. The film is so full of over-the-top rage at this point that it’s hard to tell if it’s truly awesome or the so-bad-it’s-good kind of awesome. Either way, it’s enjoyable to watch.
Janis Wilson (who looks a bit like Vivien Leigh to me) gives a nearly-too-overzealous performance that packs the perfect punch in the early scenes where she faces off with Judith Anderson. Mickey Kuhn is a bit stiff as young Walter, but Darryl Hickman is quite good as young Sam – a good match for Van Heflin, who plays the older version of the character.
Once we take a leap into the future, the film’s mood changes completely, becoming decidedly less cheesy and taking on a seriousness that is appropriate for the tension-filled lives of the older versions of the characters. The two-sided plot follows both Martha’s struggling marriage with Walter and Sam’s newly minted affection for Toni. There’s a lot of crime and corruption to keep the viewer interested, with romantic drama mixed in for good measure.
In terms of performance, we all know how much I love to rave about Stanwyck, but she’s a bit off base here (for once!). It seems like she’s very intentionally forcing herself to have a stiff lack of chemistry with Kirk Douglas. This is appropriate for the characters since their marriage is falling apart, but they’re clearly trying very hard to emphasize the lack of love and passion in the marriage, and it comes off as a try-hard effort, which is a problem. Stanwyck still gives a good performance, but it isn’t as great as what I’m used to seeing from her.
Lizabeth Scott comes very close to outshining Stanwyck and completely stealing the film (but never fear – Stanwyck does win it back by a slight margin in the end). Scott, with all of her sleepy-eyed and raspy-voiced appeal, gives off a very Lauren Bacall-ish vibe here and it works for her character.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is in general a good watch. It has a few problems, but with its mix of cheesy fun, romantic drama, thrills, corruption and blackmail, there’s a whole lot packed in to keep the viewer interested. Bonus points for the cast and a few great twists. The score: 4/5
(The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is in the public domain. Watch it for free at the Internet Archive!)