The 1946 noir is beautifully remastered in a package from Kino Lorber
Hearing a title like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, you might think Martha (played here by the never disappointing Barbara Stanwyck) would have the most screen time of any of the performers. But the 1946 drama about doomed romance in a small town prefers the POV of itinerant gambler Sam (Van Heflin) as he returns home after a long absence. A childhood friend of Martha, Sam is happy to run into her again, but she is of two minds about it. On the one hand, they were a kind of childhood sweethearts, and on the other, Sam probably witnessed her killing her aunt (Rebecca’s Judith Anderson, who said this role was “the meanest part I’ve ever done,” according to Alan K. Rode’s commentary on this recent Kino Blu-ray).
Martha is now married to milquetoast DA Walter (a baby-faced Kirk Douglas in his film debut). As their attachment is primarily due to their adolescent choices on one rainy night, Martha and Walter’s marriage is fraying at the seams. Walter attempts to use alcohol as a form of escape, while Martha strives for power through her company ownership — thanks to her dead aunt — and Walter’s political future. If Sam tells anyone about the true events of that night, Martha and Walter are pretty much screwed.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers could serve as a sort of study about masculinity and gender roles in 1940s film. Protagonist Sam is a man’s man, the kind of guy who would ogle a gal’s stems and yet keep things on friendly terms so she feels safe with him. Of course recent jailbird Toni (gorgeous Lizabeth Scott with her throaty voice) falls for him. He’s not exactly threatened by Martha’s power-hungry nature, although he reminds her of a very different, less financially stable path she might have chosen.
It’s honestly a bit funny that Douglas is stuck in the role of a man who lets his wife make all the choices for him. But the young actor lends a certain darkness to his role, hinting at emotion roiling underneath his complacency. Martha wears many faces: the domineering, conniving businesswoman, the woman who pines for her lost love, the woman who can’t trust anyone due to the way she was raised. Stanwyck switches between Martha’s masks impeccably, never spending long enough time with any of them in case viewers might get a sense of any possible vulnerability. Her character never loses her manipulative tendencies.
The storytelling here is heavy-handed, but the actors still shine through — even poor Lizabeth Scott with her limiting role. Her character Toni isn’t allowed much depth or growth and serves more as a marked contrast to the powerful Martha (it’s worth noting that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers had to deal with censorship issues around Toni’s character, who we might assume is a sex worker and yet isn’t killed off).
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers may not be one of the best film noir works made, but it’s still a strong example of post-WWII gender dynamics in Hollywood. (White) women who had gained any sort of power while men were away at war had to be taken down a peg, in movies and real life. That is on display in this 1946 film, and with Stanwyck stunning as always, who could ask for anything more?
Besides the HD remastered print, the Kino Lorber Blu-ray includes:
- An audio commentary track from film historian and preservationist Alan K. Rode