Strange Love Ensnares Four Sizzling Stars In Dark American Setting
DIRECTED BY LEWIS MILESTONE/1946
STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 20, 2022/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, directed by Lewis Milestone, written by Robert Rossen, and scored by Miklós Rósza, the credits list behind the camera of this sterling mid-1940s melodrama strongly support the keylight filtering of ace cameraman Victor Milner, shadow-sculpturing the features of its quadrangle of stars, which includes Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott in her second feature, and Kirk Douglas in his screen debut. From a 4K scan of the original print’s 35mm fine grain, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers comes to Blu-ray this September in its best yet home video presentation from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
Starting production as “Love Lies Bleeding”, from a story by John Patrick, the censorship evasion of the delicate sensibilities of notorious Production Code head Joseph I. Breen began at the scripting and pre-production stages. Which was quite normal for Hollywood films of the period, but what ended up on screen at its 1946 Fall premiere remained as potent for its frank sexual content, per its re-titled title, as its unequivocally dark and pessimistic view of postwar society. One of many films of its era to turn down the lights both morally and aesthetically on its hardboiled storytelling, its setting in the grimy factory town of Anywhere, USA – namely, “Iverstown”, on a lost stretch of highway to Nowheresville, presumably – ultimately reflects tragically on our higher-end participants, and (possibly) more hopefully on our lower-end ones. That uneasy dialectic between black-and-white, shadow-and-light, and hard love-and-thwarted desire will become increasingly apparent to latterday viewers keen to the sensibilities of prime-era film noir, from one of the genre’s key entries.
The film opens in 1928, with a neon sign blinking “Iverstown” through the smoky haze of an industrial riverfront setting at night. Young Martha Ivers, adopted daughter of the wretched burg’s ancestral namesake (Judith Anderson), plans to run away with young Sammy Masterson, son of the town drunk (jailed), while young Walter O’Neil, son of Mrs. Ivers’ ambitious and unctuous secretary (Roman Bohnen), passively aids their mutual escape. (The younger versions of the characters we’ll later meet as adults are played by Janis Wilson, Darryl Hickman, and Mickey Kuhn.) On the stormy evening Martha and Sam attempt their escape from Iverstown and the Ivers Mansion, however, her evil guardian, discovering Martha’s intent, beats Martha’s beloved feline pet to death on the Ivers’ grand staircase during a power outage with her walking cane, and Martha takes her own fatal revenge with a fire-poker. Mrs. Ivers’ corpse lying at the base of the stairs as the lights resume, Sam has already beaten a hasty retreat out of town on a circus wagon.
Seventeen years later, in the “present day”, the adult Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) unintentionally returns to Iverstown after a decade-and-a-half of adventure, war, and peripatetic gambling. Giving a hitchhiking sailor a ride into some random town, Sam’s endless journey on America’s lost highways is interrupted when the unwelcoming Welcome sign of his hometown momentarily distracts his usually keen eye from the road and he crashes into a fence. In town, awaiting an undoubtedly length repair from a characteristically unhelpful repair shop, Masterson encounters a beautiful young woman named Antonia ‘Toni’ Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), a paroled thief as it turns out, with whom he takes an adjoining room at the local hotel. Breaking the terms of her parole by missing that evening’s bus out of town, Toni is arrested the next morning. Sam nobly intercedes on her behalf with Iverstown’s newly elected District Attorney, who turns out to be none other than a grown Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas). Moreover, weak-willed Walter has married the now leading lady of Iverstown, and formidable head of Ivers Industries, Martha Ivers herself (Barbara Stanwyck). Walter’s suspicions raised by the meeting, Martha’s long-dormant desire rekindled, and Sam’s keen warning sense on the defensive, while simultaneously a glowing moth flying into a romantic flame, the drama deepens where passion, secrets, corruption, and betrayal inevitably collide.
As played out under low-wattage streetlamps throwing feeble pools of light on rain-slickened streets, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers definitively evokes Noir City despite its ostensibly small-town setting. With Barbara Stanwyck romantically rolling over her nominal lovers like an elaborately coiffured steampress; Van Heflin solidly embodying Middle American “stolid”, back when that may have been a compliment; Lizabeth Scott, underutilized in her underwritten supporting role, but nonetheless effectively dreamwalking through the twilight proceedings; and finally Kirk Douglas in his first film appearing surprisingly weak and ineffectual to his subsequent screen outings, while his character feigns strong and confident; one really gets a sense through the noir’s lengthy 116 minutes, when most of its contemporaries clocked in under 90, of lives curling away on the desperate fumes of cigarette smoke and car exhaust, even as they step blinking and blindsided into overlit and overstuffed, fancy drawing rooms.
While the re-titled title, in relation to its first draft sucker-punch of “Love Lies Bleeding”, may make you wonder whether Martha is actually capable of love, and whether or not such such in fact has an object, is self-directed, or both, the Iverstown setting may be the film’s true character, with its smoke-belching factory extending well past its municipal borders out to its polluted rivers, waste dumps, death-trap highways, and beyond. Love, strange, bleeding, or otherwise CAN’T flourish here, and the other operative word re. Martha Ivers, “lies”, destroys in both its senses as surely as the inevitable dramatic collision of the aforementioned passion, secrets, betrayal, and corruption. The queer in the sense of strange quadrangle may ultimately lead to better roads for half its participants, but they’ll still have a long way to go before reaching a destination like Grover’s Corners or a Bedford Falls. Back in Iverstown, we’re at least halfway towards a Lumberton or Twin Peaks, and the long road out will undoubtedly remain a very bad stretch of highway for any number of its subsequent victims.
Decidedly not Our Town or It’s a Wonderful Life, more Pottersville for the latter than George Bailey’s hometown, the trio of David Lynch references coded above show Iverstown fastly approaching an even stranger setting for Martha Ivers’ Strange Love(s), anticipating a certain anti-Americana (screenwriter Robert Rossen would very soon be among those accused of outright anti-Americanism) that put the lie to idyllic portrayals of small-town life in these United States. Covering many of these topics in his feature-length commentary is film historian Alan K. Rode, who brings his considerable expertise to bear on the political and social context of the Hollywood community during this period as related to the social and political content of prime-era Hollywood features.
If Martha Ivers in her self-obsessed confusion of the poisonously personal with the putridly political herself anticipates Trump by about 76 years, coincidentally in the very same year the future 45th president was born, the miasmic microcosm that is Iverstown in 1946 has become the morbific macrocosm that is its strange legacy in 2022.
The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are not meant to reflect the visual quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release.