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Monday, April 4, 2016

Lewis Milestone | The Strange Love of Martha Ivers



turning back
by Douglas Messerli

Robert Rossen and Robert Riskin (screenplay, based in a play Love Lies Bleeding by John Patrick), Lewis Milestone (director) The Strange Love of Martha Ivers  / 1946

Lewis Milestone’s film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a wonderful film noir with an outrageous plot and an utterly meaningless title, particularly since we are never able to determine what or who it is that Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) really loves. Her husband, Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas in his very first on-screen performance) reports that, despite her marriage to him, she has had numerous other affairs; and we suspect her sudden attraction to her childhood boyfriend Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) has more to do with protecting herself from blackmail or just her hatred of her husband than it has to do with real love. 
     Certainly she seems to love power, having used her inheritance from her much-hated aunt (Judith Anderson) to build a large factory that employs thousands. She has amazingly turned the formerly sleepy town of Iverstown into a bustling city, and she is determined that, despite her disinterest in his love, to turn her district attorney husband into a successful political candidate. When he bows out of a speech due to a previous appointment with a bottle of scotch, she is quite ready and willing to speak in his place.
     By the end of the film, we might imagine that Martha Ivers’ real love, which, perhaps, a bit more strange, is death itself, which she has managed to evade by lying and luck.
      For Martha is a child-murderer, having detested her domineering aunt so much that she has attempted to run away from home several times with the younger version of Sam (Darryl Hickman). Each time she is tracked down and brought home by the local police, but this time—the first long scene of this melodrama—the aunt not only berates her, but attempts to beat to death the girl’s beloved cat; instinctually, the young Martha (Janis Wilson) grabs the old woman’s cane and cracks it over her aunt’s head, her guardian falling down the long mansion’s staircase to her death.
      The only problem is that the young Walter (Mickey Kuhn) has stood above her on the stairs to witness the act and the young Sam, perhaps seeing what happened, has fled. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for her, the terrified young Walter backs up her lie about an intruder who has killed the aunt, and his tutoring and greedy father (Roman Bohnen) sees a good situation in backing up her story: for the elder O’Neil, who suspects the truth, it means a wedge he can use against the child to insert his son into culture and wealth.
       Is it any wonder that, years later, the clever beauty is dissatisfied with her life? Even her perhaps comprehensible childhood “lie” has been turned into yet another murder, as the police gather up a stranger and accuse him of the aunt’s murder; Walter and Martha back each other up again, sending the man to his death.
     By the time the somewhat plodding storytelling of the past is over, we eagerly await for the other shoe to drop. And sure enough, with a sailor hitchhiker ensconced in his car (a brief appearance by later film director Blake Edwards) Sam crashes into his fate as he stares into a sign welcoming him back to his hometown. Evidently, he’s forgotten that the Pennsylvania berg might be on the map in his journey, as vaguely puts it, to “the west.” 
      He’s now, evidentially, a professional cynic and sometime gambler, but one who’s apparently got a wad of cash in his back pocket. It’s all very vague, and we have no idea whether to like him or not. That is until he meets the very down-and-out Toni Marachek (the great film noir beauty Lizabeth Scott): her lustrous hair and dusky voice (which, evidentially, producer Hal B. Wallis was so taken with that after Milestone finished he ordered up more close-up scenes)—despite the fact, as she struggles to tell him, that she has just  been paroled from prison—is enough for Sam to invite her into his hotel; yet we know he’s good, when he doesn’t bother to share her bed, leaving the passed-out girl to snuggle up under his tucked-up covers—with dreams of the sailor-boy, we can only wonder? 
       Throughout this film, Iverstown seems to be suffering numerous rainstorms, which reiterates its Pottersville-like quality—the mythically corrupt city of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life of the very same year—suggesting a world where no one is safe and everyone is out drinking in bars to forget it. Even the local garage-man to whom Sam takes his car to get repaired is a curmudgeon. And hardly anyone other than Toni whom Sam encounters might be described as “nice.” Toni has been given a ticket to get out of town, and her odd refusal to catch her train or a later bus, puts her in jeopardy for refusing to follow the rules of parole, and by morning—despite the innocence of their encounter—she is arrested again and threatened with three more years. Even her original crime, when we hear it, seems trumped up, something to do with accepting a fur coat from a former lover. 
       Sam’s visit to his continually terrified childhood acquaintance, Walter, as he attempts to plead for help in getting Toni released leads, in this paranoid world, only to the district attorney’s certainty that Sam has returned to blackmail him and his wife. His wife’s apparent pleasure in once again seeing her old friend further stokes his jealousy. He releases the girl, but demands that she participate in a double-cross, which leads to Sam’s being beat up by several thugs and left far out of town for dead.
      Yet Sam survives—he’s always been the toughest boy in town—and returns, bitter about Toni, but fair enough to hear her out. Once again, she misses her bus, and, even if the skies are not as dark over Iverstown, its denizens are just as unfriendly, as the well-dressed Martha swoops down to pick up her self-declared “prize”: Edith Head’s costumes express volumes, the innocent Toni having selected, with Sam’s money, a new polka-dotted tie-top and white shorts, while Martha wears a regal and stylish hooded outfit that she couldn’t have possibly purchased from her own city dress shops. The scene says everything, and Toni knows it; by the time Sam stumbles home after his hilltop outing with his old love (repeated in the later film about small-town secrets, Peyton Place), she knows that he’s fallen back into a past that could never have been. The kiss she witnesses from the window of her smoke-filled bedroom sends her running in the direction which she has so long refused to move.
      Strangely, for all of the O’Neils’ fears, Sam has known nothing of Martha’s involvement with her aunt’s death. Only Toni’s innocent urging that he look up his family, leads him to discover the truth of the situation. He has not seen, nor been corrupted by past events; but is nonetheless implicated no matter what he might say, with the frightened Walter determined to either pay him off or get rid of him to maintain his own unbearable status quo. 
      The final meeting with Walter and Martha in their redecorated mansion is worthy of later greater melodramatic directors such as Douglas Sirk, with the suspicious and untrusting Walter fumbling to kill Sam, and with Sam easily removing the gun from Walter’s weak hands. A few minutes later, when the drunken Walter stumbles, almost as had Martha’s aunt, down that grand staircase, Martha suddenly is ready to kill again, demanding, somewhat as did Regina in The Little Foxes (another small town drama about dictatorial city leaders of 1941), that Sam let him die. But Sam is good, and like a sort of Christ, lifts up the weakling and terrified rabbit, Walter, into his arms, rescuing him from his wife’s revenge. The romance is over! But perhaps the comedy has just begun.
      Martha trains her gun on Sam, threatening to do him in if he dares to leave her. She might succeed, suggests Sam, if only this time, once more, Walter will be willing to collaborate her story of home intrusion. 
     With things at a standstill, Sam leaves, as before, but this time forever; while Walter, taking up the gun and embracing his wife in a rare caress, puts the gun to her head, she acquiescing and even helping him to pull the trigger. Yes, perhaps her strange love has all along been  death. 
      Hearing the shot, Sam turns back yet again, as he and Toni have done over and over, only to watch Walter put the gun into his own chest and shoot once more. 
      The past has been rectified, and suddenly, with Toni’s third and final return, he and she can move off with presumed love. In fact, this film might be described as a series of backward movements, as both the “outsiders” and the citizens, turn again and again back into tortured spins. This time, however, Sam warns Toni, like Lot’s wife, not to look back. Wherever the “west” is, it is not in Iverstown or the hundreds of other hometowns represented in films throughout the 1940s as places anyone with good values and love simply had to escape. As Thomas Wolfe argued, “you can’t go home again.” Well, maybe you can, if just to rid of the ghosts!

Los Angeles, April 3, 2016


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