Today is Saturday in the seventh week of 2020. It is now time for the eleventh article in my series about new Code films, 100 New Code Films. Last week, I only watched and reviewed one new Code film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I must watch and review two films in all but four weeks this year to reach my goal of seeing 100 new American Breen Era (1934-1954) films during 2020. Last week was the second of those four one-film weeks. This week, I will be back with two reviews.
Today’s topic is The Strange Love of Martha Ivers from 1946. On February 5, Kirk Douglas, the magnificent classic actor of the Golden Era of Hollywood and beyond, died at age 103. Despite his advanced age, his death was a tragic event for film fans throughout the world. He leaves behind him a legacy of a brilliant career which lasted six decades and a family which included many actors. In honor of his memory, I decided to watch a new Code film which he made. I discovered that his film debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, is included for free with Amazon Prime, so I chose that as my first new Code film of the week. I watched this film today.
A gambler stops in his hometown after years of absence to get his car fixed. He meets and befriends a girl who shares a similar history of hard breaks, so they plan to drive west together the next day. When she is arrested for jumping parole the next day, he visits his childhood friend, now the district attorney, to ask for her release. The district attorney is a spineless alcoholic who is married to another childhood pal, a beautiful woman who wanted to run away with the gambler to get away from her manipulative aunt. She now owns the town, but she only married her husband because he shared a dark secret with her. Has the gambler, the man she really loves, come back to betray their secret?
This movie stars Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, and Kirk Douglas in his film debut. Supporting actors include Judith Anderson, Roman Bohnen, Ann Doran, and Frank Orth.
This movie was directed by Lewis Milestone. It was produced by Hal B. Wallis. The production company was Paramount Pictures. The screenplay was written by Robert Rossen from an original story by Jack Patrick. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story for John Patrick. It was also nominated for an award at the Cannes Film Festival in the feature film category.
This is a perfect Code film. It is such because it handles some very serious, controversial, and potentially dangerous topics with brilliant finesse. Topics such as murder, blackmail, a loveless marriage, extramarital love, alcoholism, political corruption, and suicide are in the plot. I truly feel that, if this film were made in any era except the Breen Era, it would have been extremely unacceptable. If it were pre-Code, it would have been salacious, bloody, and unredeemable. As a Rating Systems Era film, it would have been rated R for the immoral and graphic content included. Because it was made under the Code, it is totally acceptable. During the sequences with action and violence, nothing is shown. There is also expert handling of the romantic situations. It is subtly implied that Kirk Douglas’s Walter O’Neill, the district attorney, and Barbara Stanwyck’s Martha Ivers, the cold woman who runs him, have a loveless marriage in name only. However, this situation is only illustrated through a subtle reference. The relationship between Van Heflin’s Sam Masterson, the gambler, and Lizabeth Scott’s Toni, the downtrodden girl he befriends, is very proper, although it could have been otherwise. She is lonely and destitute, so he gets her a room at his hotel. After they have bonded at a café, he offers to drive her out west. Then, she ends up in a room which adjoins to his. I had a few moments of doubt, but nothing improper was even implied. He took a shower, leaving her to read the Bible in his room, which I felt was an interesting compensating moral value. When he came back, she had fallen asleep on his bed, so he gently covered her with a blanket before going to spend the night in her room. He was a total gentleman throughout the film. He didn’t lose his record even when the beautiful, discontent Martha began throwing herself at him. Although she clearly wanted to have an affair with him, he never did anything more than kiss her. There is a lot of evil in this film, but it is all punished. This movie shows that you can’t live a lie and that hiding a sin can’t keep it from destroying you.
I highly recommend this film. It is a masterpiece of emotional acting. This is not a fun, lighthearted, or cheerful little film to watch. It is very dramatic and moving. If you watch this film, it will make a deep impact on you. The acting is phenomenal. In the title role, Barbara Stanwyck delivers a powerful performance as the ruthless woman who was hotblooded, selfish, and manipulative as revenge for the cruelty and manipulation she received from other people. Van Heflin is a compelling hero as the tough but ironically tender gambler who finds himself in the middle of a combustible situation with two powerful people who fear he could ruin life as they know it. Lizabeth Scott is a new face to me, but I sympathized with her unlucky yet very emotional character, who had no qualms about letting Sam know how much she likes him. Her character in this film is as unique as her looks, a bit harsh at first but very soft and sweet as time progresses. Complete with Kirk Douglas, whom I will discuss at length in the next section, this cast is a powerful foursome. I was very impressed with the three young actors who played the ill-fated friends as children. They were all excellent actors, and they looked remarkably like the older actors they were matching. The cinematography was very effective, including the use of lighting and shadows, which is fitting in a film noir like this. The score was a chilling background. The unique story, compelling performances, and subtle stylistic choices make The Strange Love of Martha Ivers a suspenseful and deep film.
This was Kirk Douglas’s film debut. At age twenty-nine, he was introduced to audiences as Walter O’Neill, the husband of the vicious, troubled Martha Ivers. His performance in this film is not that of a newcomer or an inexperienced performer. He had acted on the stage in New York and on radio before World War II and returned to that after serving in the Navy. Then, Lauren Bacall, a friend and fellow student of his from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, introduced him to Hal B. Wallis, who was looking for new actors. This meeting led to his casting in this role, which began his vast film career.
Mr. Douglas’s performance as the “scared little boy” who has grown up to become a spineless puppet of his wife’s wishes is extremely impacting. He is so convincing as this man who is passionately in love with a wife who married him to hide an ugly deed, who drinks obsessively to dull his guilt and misery, who is ruled by memories of his greedy father’s dream for his life, and who is insanely jealous of Sam, the man for whom he sees love in his wife’s eyes. Under the weakness of this spineless character, you can see the strength of Kirk Douglas’s real personality, which embodied his later characters. He adds so much to this film. He is definitely equal to Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin, who both had years of film experience. He clearly was a well-trained, hard-working actor who was natural on screen.
Kirk Douglas was one of the last living actors from the Golden Era of Hollywood after Doris Day’s death. His death leaves very few, especially men. He lived a full and inspiring life. Although he is no longer living, his memory will live forever through the wonderful movies he made, like this one. As we are honoring the end of his life, we can keep his work alive by watching The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which was just the beginning for this incomparable actor. Rest in peace, Mr. Douglas.
Click the above image to buy this movie on DVD at Amazon and support PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program!
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!