Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Director: Lewis Milestone                                Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                               Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott

For some reason Paramount allowed their ownership of this film to lapse in the seventies and it has since become fodder for innumerable cheap film noir DVD sets. But don’t think that diminishes the value of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It’s most obvious claim to fame is that it’s the motion picture premier of Kirk Douglas and was only Lizabeth Scott’s second film, but it also boasts solid performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. At the helm is director Lewis Milestone who is probably most famous for his Academy Award winning All Quiet on the Western Front as well as the classic Of Mice and Men. This film is about a love triangle that begins in childhood with the cover-up of two murders. The young Stanwyck character kills her rich aunt and the young Douglas character, along with his father, allows a homeless criminal to be executed for the murder.

The modern portion of the film begins with Van Heflin driving through his old hometown and getting in an accident. Though he had been a delinquent as a kid, he had since served in World War II. Walking through town he meets Lizabeth Scott, a newly released convict and, when she decides to stay with Heflin, winds up breaking her parole and is arrested. Meanwhile Douglas is the district attorney with a guilty conscience, put there with the influence of his rich wife, Barbara Stanwyck. Heflin stops by Douglas’s office and brings up the old days, intimating that if he doesn’t spring Scott that the world might find out about their cover up. Heflin and Stanwyck had been close as kids and she still thinks of him as hers, while it’s clear than Douglas’s marriage to her is a loveless one. Heflin plans on leaving town as soon as Scott is out, but Stanwyck has other plans that wind up tearing their lives apart.

The thing that makes the film so good is the story. It’s a very original idea, the twists are incredibly satisfying, and it has an absolutely operatic climax. The film is based on a short story entitled “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, but was written for the screen by the great Robert Rossen. Rossen’s screenplay is not brilliant, but it does have its moments of poetry and is infinitely serviceable. It’s hard to believe that this is Douglas’s first film, as he’s a natural onscreen. Heflin was already a screen veteran at this point in his career, and of course Stanwyck had been a star before either of them began acting. All three work well together and make the triangle crackle on screen. There is also some nice supporting work, beginning with the iconic Judith Anderson as Stanwyck’s “wicked” aunt. The distinctive Roman Bohnen makes an appearance as Douglas’s father, and the one other recognizable actor is Tom Fadden as a cab driver.

And as great as the acting is, there’s also Miklós Rózsa’s memorable score to add to the mix. His theme song is tremendous and he would subtly rework it for his final film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Most of the criticism against the film is its lack of directorial artistry. This is certainly true. Milestone has little of the artistic flair of directors working in the same period like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak or Anthony Mann. The lighting, camera angles, and staging are actually very pedestrian. Even when Milestone has his subjects in a single shot, his camera is too far away and actually draws attention to itself . . . and not in a good way. In the end, however, the film succeeds in spite of that. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is not great cinema but it is great entertainment, and for me that’s always been the hallmark of a great movie.

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