In Iverstown, in 1928, as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) begins, a young girl named Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson) has run away from her cruel aunt (Judith Anderson). She has taken her kitty with her, & is being assisted on their intended hobo trail by the rowdy young Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman), a lad from the wrong side of the tracks who has no desire to remain in the abusive town.
Another playmate, young Walter (Mickey Kuhn), betrays the runaways & Martha is returned to the harsh matriarch.
Wild Sam runs away alone to join the circus, not knowing what happened in the Ivers house minutes after he was gone. Cruel Aunt Ivers beat Martha's kitten to death, & Martha reacted by grabbing the walking cane away from the bitter hag & beating her to death.
Her young companion Walter was witness to this horrific event, & they both believed Sam witnessed it, too, though he was gone a little before it happened. Walter's father, a self-serving attorney (Roman Bohnen), counsels the children never to speak of what happened, & he becomes the legal guardian of child heiress Martha.
The kids were counselled to adhere to their trumped up story that "a big man" broke into the house & killed Aunt Ivers. Years later, a handiman is arrested for the murder of the wealthy old woman, & Martha (now played by Barbara Stanwyk) gives convincing testimony that results in an innocent man's hanging.
Martha had eventually married Walter (who has turned into a whiny Kirk Douglas). Supported by his wife's inheritance, Walter has risen in the political world, & is District Attorney. But he has never gotten over the injustice of "the big man" who hung for a murder he did not commit. He has become a furtive drinker, but pulls himself together in public, & has every likelihood of winning the race for higher office.
After all these years, Sam (now played by Van Heflin) returns to Iverstown. He intends to stay only long enough to have his broken-down car fixed. His reappearance triggers the worst emotional crises in Martha, who carries a torch for her childhood sweetheart, & also in Walter, who knows Martha has always remembered Sam as her knight in shining armor while Walter was only the tattle-tale.
At the same time they both fear he witnessed the murder of the Ivers matriarch & has returned to blackmail them for his continued silence.
Martha isn't really a femme fatale, but the somewhat understandable slaying of her evil aunt has certainly warped her, binding her to a weak man she cannot love. The love-circle that results is, then, Walter whose love for his wife is unrequitted; Martha who romanticizes but fears Sam & wants to seduce him; & Sam who loves Toni (Lizabeth Scott), a woman he met on the road who has just gotten parolled from prison for a crime she did not commit.
Sam & Toni are honest & in love, but Walter the district attorney threatens Toni with being tossed back in prison for violating her parole if she doesn't help get rid of Sam. Sam is in consequence beaten & dropped off on the side of the road twenty-five miles out of town. He is too stubborn a war hero to let it go at that, & walks back into town to see this thing to its end.
A lot of tension & suspense is generated by our worry that Walter's paranoia & Martha's desire for Sam will get Sam in deep trouble. Toni is heartbroken by her own weakness in betraying Sam. In the confrontation between Toni & Sam, he rightly forgives her, being indeed a knight in shining armor, & not blaming her for being broken when those with more power started pushing her around.
Authority pushing people around is something Sam cannot abide, & he intends to get to the bottom of his childhood friends' unpleasant actions.
The last act gets increasingly suspenseful as Martha & Walter demand of Sam how much blackmail money he wants. It's the first time he heard about any intended blackmail, but he's angry enough to let them believe he indeed knows more than he knows. He afterward visits the newspaper morgue which helps him put together the whole history of the thing, & then vengefully pursues blackmail after all, clouding who in this deeply lyrical tale is most the villain.
Nihilism & cynicism comes to the fore with Martha's love of her memory of Sam slammed against her horror of his final blackmail. Sam couldn't blame Martha for killing her wicked aunt in defense of a kitten, but railroading an innocent handiman for the crime was true evil.
Sam despite all has been attracted to Martha, even though Toni is the more sensible choice for him. He's torn between them. We know which choice he should make, & probably he does too. Walter meanwhile is an entirely broken man, realizing none of the choices are his to make.
The final revelations about Martha & Walter are horrific & shocking, making The Strange Love of Martha Ivers an amazingly dark film, with a couple of the grimmest final minutes in all film noir.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl