Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The (1946): Lewis Milestone’s Film Noir, Starring Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas made his screen acting debut in Lewis Milestone’s dark and perverse noir melodrama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a Barbara Stanwyck star vehicle made at the height of her popularity (two years after appearing in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity).

Producer Hal B. Wallis was in New York looking to sign new talent. Humphrey Bogart and then new wife Lauren Bacall suggested he check out a play which featured Bacall’s old school classmate, Issur Demsky (Kirk Douglas’s birth name).  Douglas’s more characteristic screen image as a tough, tenacious guy would emerge several years later.

The screenplay, written by future director Robert Rossen and Robert Riskin (uncredited), based on John Patrick’s short story, “Love Lies Breeding,” is dominated by greedy schemes and nasty, immoral figures on both sides of the law.

The tale begins in 1928, centering on the central figures as children and a family tragedy, before switching after 15 minutes or so to 1946, when most of the tale is set.

On a rainy night in September in the Pennsylvania factory town of Iverstown, we observe Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson), a young girl yearning to escape the control of her wealthy and domineering aunt.  Unfortunately, she is caught trying to run away with her friend, the poor street-smart Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman).

Later that night, Sam and Martha decide to try again. When her beloved cat gets loose, Sam goes to retrieve it. Sam slips out unnoticed, but Mrs. Ivers finds the cat on the staircase and attacks it with her cane. Martha then grabs the cane and strikes her aunt causing her fall and death down the staircase. This incident is witnessed by Walter O’Neil, the son of Martha’s tutor (Roman Bohnen). Martha lies about the incident to Mr. O’Neil, and Walter supports her.

Stanwyck is perfectly cast as the ruthless Martha, a wealthy, powerful femme who controls the small town of Iverstown, Pennsylvania, after inheriting a large family fortune.

Martha lives with her nebbish hubby Walter O’Neill (Kirk Douglas), a district attorney about to run for mayor.  Walter’s strong father (Roman Bohnen), a working-class man, had arranged for the marriage with Martha.  But once married, Walter is no more than a pawn in a corrupt town governed by Martha and her entourage. The marriage is sexless and meaningless–Martha is involved in various adulterous affairs, which sends Walter to depression and the bottle.

The duo shares a dark secret of Martha’s past. For years, she had assumed that her then boyfriend Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) had been a witness to her killing of her aunt (Judith Anderson) with a heavy cane. To protect the family name, an innocent man was framed and executed.  Later, however, it turns out that the only witness to the crime was another guy, Walter as a youngster.

Things change, when Sam returns to town, setting off a chain of events that results in the collapse of the Ivers clan. Complications arise when Sam falls for Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), a vulnerable girl recently released from jail.   When Toni is picked up by the police and is sent back to jail, Sam visits Walter’s office pleading for her release.

Martha and Walter think that Sam had returned to blackmail them, so they devised a plan to ward him off.  Sam then begins to suspect that something is fishy about the couple.  He examines newspapers and concludes what we have known all along, that an innocent man was sent to the gallows on perjured evidence.  The film’s plot is a senseless potboiler, and the title is never made clear.  Does it describe Martha’s perverse love for Sam?  No matter.

Well-directed by the versatile pro Lewis Milestone (better-known for the Oscar-winning anti-war film, “All Quiet on the Western Front”), “Strange Love” is well-crafted in every department, with art design by Hans Dreier, costumes by Edith Head, cinematography by Victor Milner, and best of all, score by Miklos Rozsa, who contributed to the best noirs at the genre’s golden age.


End Note

Robert Rossen, credited with the script, would go on to make a splashy career as a director (the Oscar-winning “All the King’s Men,” 1949), and so would Robert Aldrich, who here serves as assistant director, and Blake Edwards, who plays a bit part.


Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Story: Jack Patrick (pseudonym for playwright John Patrick)


Released by Paramount, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers played at the 1947 Cannes Film Fest, where decades later Kirk Douglas would serve as president of the jury.



Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck)

Sam Masterson (Van Heflin)

Walter O’Neill (Kirk Douglas)

Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott)

Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson)

Mr. O’Neill (Roman Bohnen)

Martha as a girl (Janis Wilson)

Sam as a boy (Darryl Hickman)

Secretary (Ann Doran)

Hotel Clerk (Frank Orth)