An odd film from director Lewis Milestone, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starts off in full-blown gothic-thriller style with a prologue set in 1928 that lasts more than 10 minutes. It’s all shadows and thunder and lightning—and grim Judith Anderson in something akin to her Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca (1940). Melodrama—effective melodrama—rules the scenes that set up the situation governing the rest of the film. Then the story leaps ahead 18 years to 1946 and completely shifts gears into the realm of post-war noir. The shift is sudden, but strangely not jarring, and it leads to one of the most effective and underrated noirs of that classic era.
The film’s gothic opening details the setup of how Martha Ivers (played as adolescent by Janis Wilson) becomes her adult self (Barbara Stanwyck). It all revolves around young Martha’s attempts to run away from her cold and domineering aunt (Anderson) in the company of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). Thwarted in her efforts—thanks in no small part to young Walter O’Neil (Mickey Kuhn)—she has an encounter with her aunt at the top of a dark staircase that results in her striking her aunt (understandably so in context) and causing her to fall to her death. Rather than admit the truth of what happened, she makes up a story about an intruder that the easily cowed Walter goes along with.
Eighteen years later Sam (Van Heflin) accidentally returns to town where he finds Martha is now a business giant to be reckoned with and is married to Walter (Kirk Douglas), whom she’s managed to turn into the town’s district attorney—and an alcoholic. Sam has only a passing interest in any of this and has become involved with Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott)—someone who like himself could use a break—upon his unplanned arrival. The interest level is different for Martha, who has romantic designs on Sam, and Walter, who is certain Sam is there to blackmail them over the long-ago accident—the stakes on which are higher since they subsequently let an innocent man hang for the crime. The trick is that Sam actually knows nothing about it.
What makes The Strange Love of Martha Ivers so compelling—apart from its curious hybrid nature—lies in the performances. The film has four leads that could scarcely be bettered, even if Kirk Douglas in his film debut is playing a character type he’d never undertake again. At the top of the list, though, is Barbara Stanwyck. This is a femme-fatale performance that even tops the one she gave in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)—if only by force of its complexity. She can go from suggesting suffering innocence to light and humorous to duplicitous schemer with the change of an expression. Much like the characters in the film, the viewer never quite understands how to take her, which is the source of her fascination. The one chilling thing that she does convey, however, is the never-spoken truth that her character has become the very thing she most hated: her domineering aunt.