“Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”
Young Martha Ivers shares a terrible secret with her two childhood friends, Sam Masterson and Walter O’Neil concerning the death of her Aunt. Years pass, and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) is now married to District Attorney O’Neil (Kirk Douglas). They still live in Iverstown (named for Martha’s wealthy family). Their marriage is not a happy one, but it’s sealed by shared guilt. Martha is now the wealthiest woman in Iverstown, and she and her husband either own or control everything in this corrupt small town.
One night, a car accident strands Sam (Van Heflin) in Iverstown. It’s mere coincidence that he’s back after an absence of almost twenty years, but Walter and Martha assume he’s there to blackmail them. Their guilt alerts Masterson to the possibilities of the situation, and so he sets out to exploit it.
From director Lewis Milestone, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a classic entry in the genre of film noir. Kirk Douglas, in his first screen role, stars as Walter O’Neil. Obviously the studios did not yet have Douglas type-cast in the strong hero roles he later assumed. In this film, he plays mealy-mouthed O’Neil–a spineless man who’s pushed around by his wife. O’Neil’s love for his wife is sick and corrupted. He knows she despises him, but he’s going to hang onto her no matter what it takes. Lizabeth Scott stars as Toni–the girl Sam meets on his first night in town. Scott enjoyed an all-too brief career but chose to stay out of the limelight shortly after an expose in Confidential magazine. Scott reminds me very much of Lauren Bacall, and this may sound like heresy, but I prefer Scott. She’s rough around the edges and seems to be the genuine article. If Bacall hangs out with low-lifes, she is just slumming, but Lizabeth Scott seems to belong with the dregs of society–just waiting for some man to rescue her and take her home. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to envision her as Toni–the hard luck girl who’s just released from jail.
Barbara Stanwyck is, of course, one of film noirs great leading ladies. She’s ice cold and cruel in this role. But there’s more to Martha than meets the eye. In Martha’s first hysterical scene with her aunt, we get a glimpse of the hard, heartless woman she’ll become. And yet Martha claims to love Sam–but her love is twisted and sick too. She’s not capable of loving anyone in any normal sense of the word. Van Heflin as Sam–is a cipher. He’s a WWII veteran with a checkered past. As a child, he dominated Walter, and when Sam blows back into town, he picks up where he left off. Yet ultimately, Walter and Sam seem to recognize each other’s position. The relationship between Martha, Sam, and Walter dominates this fascinating film. The DVD is excellent quality. For film noir fans, I wholeheartedly recommend The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It’s a fantastic film