Introduction to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
By Robin Swicord
I grew up in a small coastal town in the Florida Panhandle, on the Gulf Coast, in fact it’s an area that is at the moment gravely threatened by the current oil spill. When I was a child, the small TV station there was as- yet unaffiliated with a network like ABC or CBS or NBC. Their broadcast area was fairly limited, they were just a little station – initially their programming was made up of a local “farm” report, and perhaps in the early evening a couple of local newscasters giving the mostly local news, and here and there a few syndicated programs. Their broadcasting hours seemed to be fairly sporadic, and a good deal of the weekend programming was old black and white movies, with local commercials cut into them. That was television in my house. Then when I got to college I met people who had grown up watching “Captain Kangaroo” and “Howdy Doody” – which was amazing to me, because when I turned on the TV, I saw “To Have and Have Not” and “Detour.”
Growing up watching these movies was the best film education a kid could have. I became a lifelong – literally lifelong – fan of film noir. And from a writing standpoint, one of the things that I loved most about noir was the embedded importance of back story.
Noir movies are peopled with folks trying to elude a secret past that they can never escape – that hidden back story. No matter where the story takes us, we can never get away from the thing that happened well before the movie even starts. The tentacles of the past extend with a sense of forboding into the present, arranging the fate of people we unfortunately come to care about a great deal. Noir is us watching a train wreck in very slow motion – but the problem started waaaay back down the tracks.
From the first frame of “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” we know before we even begin that something is about to go terribly wrong. We know because of the rain, the garish neon, the vulnerability of the little cat Bundles, and because the railings of the banisters inside the Ivers house when illuminated by flashes of lightning cast a shadow that looks like prison bars. In noir, the camera tells the story. But those images are given by the screenwriter, written on the page. It’s visual story-telling.
Martha Ivers begins, radically, in that usually obscured back story – it begins in childhood, with three people: The unhappy and angry young heiress Martha Ivers, who will grow up to be Barbara Stanwyck, titan of industry; the streetwise kid Sam Masterson, who will grow to be Van Heflin, the streetwise professional gambler, and the scared and lying pleaser Walter O’Neil, the tutor’s son, who will grow up to be Kirk Douglas, a man of power and yet, personal cowardice.
It’s Kirk Douglas in his first film role – Let’s get that out front and center, for me that’s the head line for this move: It’s Kirk Douglas’s first film role. You will see young Kirk Douglas hold the screen against Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin like he owns the place. He loves the camera, and the camera loves him. Douglas visibly feasts on the complexities of his role, the bravado and the cowardice – and you can also see how much Van Heflin pushes Douglas, you sense how much Van Heflin is enjoying taking this kid out for a run just to see what this baby can do.
The story begins in childhood, as I’ve said, most unusually for a noir thriller, and we watch events rapidly transpire which set up a boatload of complicity. The secrets held from that rainy night come to warp the adult lives of those three kids – and the story we get to watch is what happens when fate reunites the three people again, eighteen years later.
The grown-up Sam Masterson, tough guy and gambler, stands in Stanwyck’s childhood bedroom, and idly picks up a plaything. He says a throw-away line, a casual line, delivered with a casual little smile, “Little girls grow up, but they never get done playing with dolls.”
That’s the driving line behind the most important narrative question: Is Stanwyck toying with him? Or is she merely a victim of the past, who needs his rescue again?
How bad is she? Or is she bad at all? That’s the tension.
In “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?,” the siren of that nostalgia-noir film, Jessica Rabbit, delivers a line that remains possibly my favorite line ever in a movie: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
The noir siren is tough, she wears dark lipstick – and you can ask my mother, dark lipstick is a sure sign that you’re a bad, bad girl – and she’s unapologetic about her desires. She wants what she wants when she wants it. And when that siren is Barbara Stanwyck, I’m a goner. She brings nuance to every line and every moment – by my lights, she invented subtle. The noir siren is sometimes filthy rich, like Martha Ivers, or dead broke, like the Lizabeth Scott character, scrabbling for a foothold – but whatever her situation, the noir siren always has power.
Even in the middle school years, apparently. When Martha Ivers is a school girl – you’ll see her, she’s 11 or 12 years old apparently, she comes out of her dressing room and turns her back to the tough kid Sam Masterson, and says, “Button me up, Sam.” The noir siren is always trapped in her situation – that’s part of her appeal to the noir chump, the innocent guy who happens onto the scene – “Maybe I can save her,” he thinks, altruistically – but at the same time he’s reading what we’re reading about this caged woman: She’ll do whatever it takes to set herself free.
The difference is, he thinks, “This could be a good thing for me,” and we’re thinking, “Bad thing, pal.”
What makes “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” so different from other films in this genre is that we see her being wounded: We see the past that drives Stanwyck to be the way she is. Noir isn’t usually that interested in how a girl ends up the way she is. The typical film opens with, let’s say, the hero comes to town. Pretty soon he meets the unabashedly bad girl, the ambitious woman whose survival instincts are keenly honed – and that’s all we get of her usually. It takes the film “Chinatown,” written by Robert Towne, to explore the why: We see Faye Dunaway apparently setting up Jack Nicholson, and we’re conditioned by watching film noir to think the worst of her. “She’s setting him up! It’s a trap!” And then by Act Three we finally learn, she’s telling the truth – just not the whole truth – about the powers arrayed against her. The part that she withholds, the bit about being raped by her father, about giving birth to her own sister – that part, when finally forced to the surface, explains everything that we don’t understand about the story, and about her. And for me, weirdly, the first time I saw “Chinatown,” in the theatre, that revelation shed a light backward on all the noir films of my childhood – all those delicious scary ruthless bad girls who behave in seemingly irrationally evil ways. Hurt people hurt people.
“The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” forces us to look at the beginning that shaped all three people, but especially made Martha who she is. But here’s what’s cool for me about this movie – Seeing that past not hidden, not merely alluded to, but played out before us, mysteriously has the effect of confounding our judgment even more, in critical moments.
I’ve seen this film a few times, and recently watched it on DVD a few more times. On my third viewing of the DVD, I connected to the enigma buried in the title: “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” What’s “strange”? Is it her personal love for a certain man – or certain men – that is meant to be so weird? Or is the title pointing out how strange it is that a certain man – or men – could love Martha Ivers?
Or does the title refer to Martha Ivers’ strange – as in perverse – way of showing her love?
That’s your parking lot puzzler for the evening, work it out later on the way back to the car. Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy the movie – there’s a lot to watch here, not the least of which is Van Heflin’s extraordinary grace and skill as an actor, as he goes one on one with scene partners as varied as the high-powered Barbara Stanwyck, a green but very game Kirk Douglas, and an emerging starlet of the hour, Lizabeth Scott, who is here with us tonight, and who of course went on to make many films in this genre. In this film I thought she looked like the glorious love child spawn of Veronica Lake crossed with Lauren Bacall. It’s a wonderful cast – and a strange and wonderful movie – I’d say they don’t make ‘em like this one any more, but actually, they don’t make anything like any movies we love these days. But…“We’ll always have Paris.” Enjoy the film.
Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”
Screenwriter Robin Swicord and actress Lizabeth Scott.
Screenwriter Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Jane Austen Book Club”) introduces “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”
Academy director of special projects Randy Haberkamp and actress Lizabeth Scott speak about “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”