Monday, September 19, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) at UCLA

Sunday night was a great evening for film noir fans at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater.

The occasion was a double bill shown as part of the ongoing Kirk Douglas Centennial Celebration. 35mm prints were screened of Douglas's first two films, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and OUT OF THE PAST (1947). I'd never seen OUT OF THE PAST on a big screen, so that was a particular treat.

The Film Noir Foundation's Alan K. Rode (below right) provided his usual informative and engaging introductions. He also shared a brief interview he filmed with Douglas a few years ago in which Douglas reminisced about MARTHA IVERS, his first film. He said that Van Heflin was supportive but Barbara Stanwyck was initially cool, until later on she said, "You know, you're a pretty good actor." Eventually they became friends.

Douglas had originally thought he'd have Heflin's part but when he learned he was actually set to play Stanwyck's wimpy alcoholic husband, he went along with it.

I'd never seen MARTHA IVERS before and had little idea what to expect going in. As the movie begins, young Martha (Janis Wilson) is going to run away from her wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson), aided by Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). Her plans are thwarted, and when the aunt beats Martha's cat -- a truly disturbing scene for animal lovers -- Martha reacts and the aunt falls to her death.

The cause of death is covered up by Martha's tutor (Roman Bohnen) and his son Walter (Mickey Kuhn), the only ones who know what happened. I couldn't help thinking that if Martha had confessed, she would have gotten off with a manslaughter charge and a light sentence, given the totality of the circumstances...but instead they sweep it all under the rug and let an innocent man be executed for the death.

Many years later Sam (Heflin), who disappeared the night of the death, returns to town, where Martha (Stanwyck) is now married to the district attorney, Walter (Douglas). Sam begins a relationship with a new parolee he randomly meets, named Toni (Lizabeth Scott), but finds himself drawn back into Martha's web.

Martha and Walter both seem to think Sam knows about something and is going to blackmail them...

MARTHA IVERS is an engrossing movie, although I didn't especially care for its rather gothic and very troubling opening sequence. After that it settles down into an interesting, intricately scripted four-person character study, as Sam juggles getting to know Toni with simultaneously reacquainting himself with the rather peculiar Martha and Walter.

I've never been a particular Douglas fan, but it was very interesting contrasting his acting in MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST. I was especially impressed with the continuity in the performances of Kuhn as the young Walter and Douglas as the older version of the character, as they are so well matched. Douglas's weak, emotionally flabby Walter is such a polar opposite from his controlling Whit in OUT OF THE PAST that one almost wonders how he came to be cast in his second film! He grew in my estimation after watching these films back to back.

Heflin and Stanwyck are always solid pros. Douglas said in the video that Stanwyck improvised her final moments in the movie, a scene that's a bit shocking.

This was Scott's second film, and we were told producer Hal Wallis inserted some additional flattering closeups of Scott near the end of production. She's always interesting in an off-kilter sort of way, a unique actress who was well-suited for her part as a rather mixed-up woman.

That's Blake Edwards in an early role as a hitchhiking sailor in Heflin's first scene. The cast also includes Ann Doran, Frank Orth, Olin Howland, and James Flavin.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS was directed by Lewis Milestone from a screenplay by Robert Rossen. It was filmed in black and white by Victor Milner. The running time is 116 minutes.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS was a Paramount Pictures release which fell into public domain and is available in many DVD editions. Various editions can also be rented for streaming on Amazon.

2 Comments:

Blogger Jerry E said...

What an evening at UCLA, Laura! Two fine noirs (one exceptional).

And a great foursome leading the cast here. Wish I coulda been there!!

2:03 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Jerry! It was a wonderful night. I especially loved the chance to see my beloved Bridgeport, CA, on a huge screen in OUT OF THE PAST!

Wouldn't it be fun if you could visit CA and see a movie at UCLA one day?!

Best wishes,
Laura

2:59 PM  

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