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Monday, August 01, 2016

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Kirk Douglas' first film was a melodrama from 1946, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which was a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle directed by Lewis Milestone. It's of a type that we don't see anymore, heavily scored with music stings, and with women that don't know their own hearts.

The film begins with a prologue. Young Martha has run away from her mean old aunt, who happens to be filthy rich (the town is called Iverstown). She is helped by Sam Masterson, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. She's caught, and her teacher and his son, Walter, try to get in the good graces of the old lady.

Later than night, during a rainstorm, Sam comes back to steal Martha away to a circus train. But they make too much noise, and the old lady comes across Martha's cat, which she beats to death with a cane. Martha grabs the cane and kills her aunt.

Flash forward about 18 years. Martha is now Stanwyck, and she is in control of everything. She married Walter (Douglas), who is now district attorney, but is a weakling and a drunk. Sam (Van Heflin) comes back to town and has car trouble. While there he meets a woman (Lizabeth Scott) just out of jail, and he becomes attracted to her and tries to help her out by looking up his old friend, Douglas.

Stanwyck and Douglas think he's trying to commit blackmail, because he knows who killed the old lady (an innocent man ended up getting hung for the crime). Stanwyck still has feelings for him, and Heflin does, too, although he is falling in love with Scott. What a tangled web!

The rather lurid plot is aided by the performances, especially Stanwyck--no one could play a cold-hearted bitch like she could, and Douglas. Here's a man with the shoulders of a linebacker playing, in the words of Heflin, "a scared little kid." He's desperately in love with Stanwyck and also wrapped around her finger, and hates himself for it.

I'm not sure what makes Martha Ivers' love strange, It was based on a story (as so many films were in the those days) called "Love Lies Bleeding," which was later made good use of by Elton John.

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