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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

In director Lewis Milestone's sordid, noirish, B/W melodrama, it told about three childhood friends who were brought together 18 years later for a climactic denouement regarding a murderous and guilty secret from the past, in the small Pennsylvania town of Iverstown (pronounced "Iverston"). The themes of the complex romance thriller included the corruptive influence of money, greed, murder, "strange love" (a loveless marriage haunted by secrets from the past), betrayal, and blackmail.

The Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Robert Rossen (and uncredited Robert Riskin) was adapted from American playwright John ("Jack") Patrick's original and unpublished short story "Love Lies Bleeding." It was the film's sole Oscar nomination. The fatalistic film noir with a great score by Miklós Rózsa and moody cinematography by Victor Milner, highlighting corruption in post-war small-town American, marked Kirk Douglas' debut film appearance.

  • the film opened on a stormy night in the Pennsylvania steel factory town of IVERSTOWN in the year 1928 (identified by a prologue title card); young 13 year-old orphaned heiress Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson as girl) was again attempting to escape on a freight train with her only friend - street-smart, poor, tough, independent-minded boyfriend Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman as boy); although Sam was able to escape from the alerted authorities, Martha was caught and was being returned home to the Ivers' gothic mansion for the 4th time; there, she was being cared for by her domineering, mean-spirited, tyrannical, wealthy Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson), her official guardian, and the owner of the town's biggest factory
Orphaned Martha's Failed Attempt at Running Away with Tough Kid Sam on a Freight Train, To Join a Traveling Circus

Young Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson as Girl)

Young Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman as Boy)
  • meanwhile, back at the mansion, the scheming Mr. O'Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha's greedy and obsequious tutor and also the father of prim, timid and bespectacled young student Walter O'Neil (Mickey Kuhn as boy), spoke with Miss Ivers to credit his son (although later discredited) for reporting the location of Martha's attempted escape; the Aunt was well aware that the status-seeking Mr. O'Neil was continually angling to acquire favors and the Ivers' wealth and influence, so that his son, who was also being tutored in the house with Martha, could receive a scholarship to attend Harvard; instead, the Aunt was contemplating sending Martha away to school
  • upon her return by a detective, the defiant Martha ("I'm sorry I was caught") was harshly scolded and slapped across the face by her Aunt for being disobediently insolent and ungrateful
  • two incidents caused Martha to become violently angry during the night's raging thunderstorm; her hard-hearted Aunt Ivers insulted Martha's dead, low-class millhand father (named Smith) by ordering that her last name be changed to "Ivers" (reflecting her maternal heritage): ("I'm trying to wash the dirt and grime off you. Make an Ivers out of you again....Your name is Ivers. I've had it changed legally....Your name is Ivers, the same as your mother's was, before she was stupid enough to marry...")
  • the second incident occurred during a power outage, when Sam, who had eluded the police, arrived to bid Martha goodbye: ("I came to say good-bye. I thought it over, Martha. It's better for you here"); Sam knew he was threatened with reform school if he was ever caught; when Martha insisted on leaving anyway, Sam agreed to take her with him again; in the darkness downstairs, Sam hid as Martha's Aunt appeared, but it was unclear whether he remained in the house to see what happened next
  • on the curved flight of stairs, the Aunt caned to death Martha's beloved kitten named Bundles; as Walter looked on, the outraged niece Martha sought revenge for her cat's death by bludgeoning (with the same cane) her Aunt Ivers on the stairs, where afterwards, she tumbled to her death by breaking her neck
  • the murder was definitely witnessed by Walter O'Neil, who was at Martha's side looking on; however, it was uncertain whether Martha's boyfriend Sam had actually seen the murder, or had fled outside through the front door just before it occurred
In the Front Hall Lobby, Martha Told Her Version of What Happened (Backed by Walter) to Walter's Father Mr. O'Neil
  • after Mr. O'Neil pronounced the Aunt dead, Martha lied about the killing to conceal her guilt: ("We were upstairs. We heard a noise and we came down. We saw a man, a big man. He was leaving. Out of that front door, he left. See, it's open. She was lying there"); the weak-willed Walter was urged by Martha to corroborate her story to his father, but later in private, the boy expressed worry about Martha's lies: ("You'll never get away with it. Never") and he wondered about the presence of Sam: "But Sam. What about Sam? He was in the house. He saw it," but Martha assured him twice: "Sam will never tell"
  • in Martha's upstairs bedroom, Mr. O'Neil urged the two to keep to their story, although he knew the idea of a mysterious intruder was falsely manufactured: ("When the police come, you will tell them exactly what you told me. Do you understand, Martha?...And you, too, Walter?"); he assured Martha ("you poor child") that she would be taken care of; he also knew that the O'Neils would benefit by playing along; Martha listened as a train whistle signaled that Sam had successfully fled from town to join the circus
  • off-screen, Walter and his father presented Martha's revised version of the murder to the police [Note: in exchange for their help in denying Martha's involvement, O'Neil blackmailed Martha into marrying his son Walter to ensure his own family's financial future.]
  • the next scene was prefaced by a title screen: "IVERSTOWN 1946"
  • the love triangle clashed again when the three principal characters were brought together 18 years later in the steelworks town of Iverstown. The three were:
    • Sam Masterson (Van Heflin as adult), Martha's former beau (whom Martha was still attracted to), a decorated wartime soldier in WWII ("Africa, Anzio and Normandy"), drifter and gambler (evidenced by his frequent coin-rolling trick on his knuckles)
    • Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck as adult), an aggressive, single-minded, predatory, self-interested, and determined femme fatale; due to her inheritance, she had become considerably wealthy, and ran the family's industrial steel mill in town
    • Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas as adult, in his film debut), a depressed, impotent and sexually-weak man now lovelessly married to Martha; he was an alcoholic District Attorney - who with Martha's influence, dominated everything in Iverstown
  • passing through Iverstown to visit the house where he grew up, Sam was forced to remain in town for at least a few days for repairs to a busted radiator after distractedly crashing his car into a town's lamppost on a curved road, while giving a ride to a hitchhiking, slumbering Sailor (Blake Edwards); in the film's major sub-plot, now that Sam was in town, he was informed by the Garage Manager Dempsey (Walter Baldwin) that politically-aspiring DA Walter O'Neil was "gonna be whatever his wife wants him to be" - Walter was married to the wealthy and domineering Martha who "came into the whole works after the old lady died"
  • Sam became acquainted with sexy, husky-voiced and pretty blonde Antonia "Toni" Marachek (Lizabeth Scott) who was seated on the steps of a boarding home for women (later revealed to be Sam's boyhood home), and awaiting a taxi to take her to an 11:30 pm bus to travel to her hometown of Ridgeville; Sam joined her in the cab but she missed her bus; after meeting the befriending Sam, the lonesome blonde changed her plans, and hinted at going westward with him: ("Have you ever been out West before?"); she inquired "What's it like?"; with sexual innuendo, he raised his hands high into the air: "Big!"
  • during drinks, conversation, and cigarettes in a nearby bar until curfew, Sam described his broken-home childhood with an alcoholic father, while Toni told how she had a similar awful upbringing; he suggested she might like to travel onward with him to the West Coast: ("I don't think you'll take up too much room in my Stanley Steamer")
  • meanwhile, Martha Ivers was introduced with a clap of lightning as she entered the Ivers' mansion from a chauffeured car, and found her dissolute husband Walter upstairs after he missed his evening's appointment to speak to a Citizens' Forum due to his condition - Martha had taken his place to speak in the radio studio; Walter mentioned how his father had died 4 years earlier; he then recalled how as the public prosecutor, he had been compelled by his "greedy" father to demand that the state take the life of an innocent man (by hanging) for the brutal murder of Mrs. Ivers; the cold-hearted Martha was unphased by the injustice: ("The man they executed was a criminal. If he hadn't hanged for that, he would have hanged for something else"); it was clearly obvious that the unhappy and alcoholic Walter loved Martha: ("Tell me, Martha, what shall I do about my love for you?"), but she despised him
  • after midnight, Sam and Toni checked into adjoining rooms (#23 and #25) at the Gable Hotel; after she took a shower and smoked more cigarettes, Toni briefly explained how she had just been released from jail, but Sam was unphased about his travel plans with her: "Like I said, we leave tomorrow"
"Cheesecake" in the 1940s
  • the next day, Sam was awakened by two cops from the office of the Chief of Police, to inform him that Toni, who was on parole after charges of theft, had been arrested for violating her probation (she was supposed to immediately return to her hometown of Ridgeville with the bus ticket given to her) and could face her five-year sentence; she was caught an hour earlier at the depot where she was trying to cash the ticket; Toni also claimed she had been hired by Sam: ("Said you were her employer") - they suspected that she was prostituting herself; after they left, Sam saw the day's newspaper with a picture of Walter O'Neil, promising to clean up "vice" in Iverstown; Sam scoffed: "The little, scared boy"

Sam Meeting with Walter in His DA's Office To Intervene for Toni

Sam Greeted Passionately by Martha, While Walter Jealously Watched From the Side
  • Sam immediately ventured over to the DA's office, and congratulated Walter on marrying Martha; he then appealed to Walter to request his influence in helping Toni's case; during Sam's visit in the office, Martha happened to stop by and was overjoyed to passionately greet Sam (as Walter stood by jealously watching); she had never given up her love for Sam it appeared; with a double-entendre, Sam mentioned his size: "I always was big for my age, you remember?", while he complimented Martha's beauty: "I never figured that a skinny little mutt would grow up so beautiful"
  • with Sam in town, both Martha and Walter naturally assumed and feared that Sam had purposely shown up with knowledge of their awful crime in 1928 and would try to blackmail them regarding his witnessing of the Aunt's death years earlier: (Walter: "Couldn't you see blackmail in his eyes?"); the cool-headed Martha ordered Walter to "release the girl" - hoping that it would spur Sam to leave town
  • shortly later, Sam visited privately with Martha in the Ivers' home - and they proposed swapping stories of their past; during a house tour, Martha explained how after her Aunt died, Mr. O'Neil and Walter moved into the house; Mr. O'Neil "took care of everything"; after finishing college, she married Walter, but she denied answering Sam's further question: "Why did you marry him?"; during Sam's rendition of his past history, he explained how time at the circus was followed by gambling; in Martha's upstairs bedroom (the only unchanged room in the house she told him), they both implied that they had lost their virginity to each other there, and Sam dismissed their previous love for each other: ("We were just a couple of kids"); Martha became sentimental: "We're not kids now," but Sam was ready to forget their past: "No, Martha, we're not kids. No time for dreams"
  • as they talked about Martha's marriage to Walter, Sam felt that he understood how uneven and one-sided their love was: "I understand, Martha...I watched the way he looked at ya"; when she fished for the 'real' reason he was back in town, he asserted that he had no interest in remaining in Iverstown; for "old time's sake," she wished to kiss him and he agreed, but then he drew back after a brief peck and was ready to leave
  • meanwhile, a full background check ordered by Walter was completed on Sam - he was a "big shot gambler," often broke, but always seemed to have money from some unknown source; also, Sam had "many arrests, no convictions. Beat a murder rap in Frisco. Self-defense. Has a war record few can equal"
  • Walter learned that Martha (who was still in love with Sam) made a secret phone call to the garage to keep Sam in town as long as possible; he met with the "young lady" Toni - and in exchange for her not being sent back to jail to serve her 5-year sentence, he put pressure on her to betray Sam and set him up for a beating, to get Sam out of town

Joe (John Kellogg) Falsely Claiming to Sam That He Was Toni's Husband
Toni Released From Jail - But She Had to Agree To Walter To Set Up Sam For A Beating
  • after her release, Toni met with Sam for dinner in a restaurant, when she explained how she was originally falsely charged with theft of a fur coat; a tough guy named Joe (John Kellogg) came to their table and claimed that he was Toni's husband; Sam was naturally disgusted and dismissed both of them: "Well, brother, you can have her. In spades. Now beat it. (To Toni) You, too"; Sam went outside to meet Joe for a fight, where he was assaulted by three thugs (Walter's 'private detectives') in a vehicle and dumped in a ditch 23 miles from Iverstown
  • after reviving, Sam flagged down a bus and was returned to Iverstown's bus depot where he spotted Toni preparing to leave town; he grabbed her from a departing bus and demanded an immediate explanation: ("I oughta beat it out of ya!"); she explained how the DA Walter O'Neil kept asking her questions about why Sam had returned to Iverstown; she told how she was set up to be freed if she cooperated with getting Sam to leave town: "They just wanted to scare you. O'Neil doesn't want you in town. They said if I didn't play with them, I'd go back to jail"; Sam forgave Toni and then refused to be intimidated by Walter: ("They got me, whether they like it or not, they got me...I don't like to get pushed around")
  • Sam revisited the Ivers' mansion to directly confront the weakling Walter in his downstairs study - Sam disarmed him when he reached for a gun in his desk by slamming the drawer on his hand, and then knocked him out; Martha was summoned to join them; after being revived, Walter admitted that it was solely his idea to hire private dicks to 'work Sam over' to scare him into leaving - and then to Martha's horror, bluntly stated: "We're ready to listen to the current quotation on blackmail" - he had revealed to Sam the true reason for the beating - fear of blackmail; when Sam asked which one he should deal with, the crafty Martha volunteered: "Be at my office at the plant at 3:00"; Sam angrily told Walter he would kill him if he threatened him any further

Walter Revived After Being Knocked Out by Sam After Reaching For a Gun

Walter to Sam: "We're ready to listen to the current quotation on blackmail"

Martha: "Walter!"
  • later, as she tended to Walter's injured hand, Martha regarded Walter's handling of the situation as "stupid" since Sam was planning on leaving town anyway: ("Yesterday afternoon he told me he didn't want anything. That he was going away. lf you had let me handle it..."); fearing that he might lose Martha to Sam, the suspicious Walter let her know that he knew about her secret phone call to the garage to keep Sam in town
  • the next morning, Sam shared with Toni what had happened, but remained puzzled about Martha: "Why should a beautiful, rich girl stay married to a guy she's not in love with?"; with slight jealousy, Toni sensed he had feelings for Martha: "You sound like you're in love with her"; Sam and Toni prepared to leave town that evening if his car was fixed
  • to see if there was any merit in their fear of blackmail before the 3:00 pm meeting with Martha, Sam (with Toni) researched the date that he left town (September 27, 1928) in Iverstown's archived newspaper "morgue"; he discovered that the case of the death of Martha's Aunt was unsolved for many years, but then an innocent Ivers' ex-family workman was accused, condemned and executed as the intruder who had committed the murder; at the time of the trial, Walter was engaged to Martha, the niece of the victim, and suspiciously handled the defendant's prosecution and execution (by hanging)
  • in his meeting with Martha, Sam proceeded to politely blackmail her, asking for one-half of Martha's mill factory to make himself an equal partner; he returned to the hotel to tell Toni that she had brought him good luck: ("The dice came up seven"); as Toni modeled her new outfit, Martha intruded between them - the film's 2nd love triangle; she complimented Toni: "She's a very pretty girl"; after leaving to go for dinner and dancing with Sam, Martha persisted with questions about Sam's romantic interest in Toni

Sam and Martha Viewing the City Lights From a Vantage Point

Martha Inadvertently Confessing to the Murder of Her Aunt, And Sam's Statement: "I wasn't there, Martha"

Martha's Shock - Asking Sam: "You, you weren't there?"
  • late that evening after driving to a hillside viewpoint to see the city lights, Martha inadvertently confessed to caning her Aunt Ivers to death, while assuming that Sam was present and might have stopped her; and then at this crucial point in the film, Sam admitted that he did not witness Aunt Ivers' death: ("I wasn't there....I left when your Aunt came into the hallway. I didn't want to stick around. I was in enough trouble as it was. I never saw what happened. I never knew until tonight about your Aunt or that man. The one they hung. The man that you and Walter killed"); Sam held off Martha as she tried to burn him with the end of a small burning log from a nearby campfire (he held her arm behind her back), but then she went limp and surrendered to a kiss

Martha Explaining to Sam How She Shifted the Blame for an Innocent Man's Death Toward Hating Her Husband Walter
Sam Resisting Martha (and Kissing Her) When She Attacked and Tried to Kill Him, After She Had Confessed to Killing Her Aunt
  • Martha feared that Sam would eventually turn against her, but her passionate love for him prevented her from retaliating against him; in detail, she explained to Sam how she had been coerced by Walter's father to cover up the crime: ("It wasn't long when I found out why Walter's father believed my story. It was as if my Aunt had never died. He took her place. He wanted to make something of his son and I was tied to them both from that time on....he made me part of another crime. My testimony sent an innocent man to the gallows. And he used that to make me marry Walter"); afterwards, it wasn't unusual for Martha to shift the blame (and hatefulness) to Walter for prosecuting an innocent man; the scene ended with another passionate kiss; after Martha drove Sam back to the hotel, Toni watched from an upper window as they kissed goodnight; Toni's and Sam's future together was hanging in the balance
  • in a climactic conclusion, the three principals met at the Ivers' home to settle matters; Martha's drunken husband Walter admitted why Martha married him - even though she didn't love him - "because she felt that way, I would never tell"; Sam defended Martha, blaming Walter's father for their forced marriage, and then asked: "How long do you expect her to go on paying off?"; Walter answered: "Forever" - and then Walter predicted his own death, and also blamed Martha for setting up the innocent man to die: ("She'll try to get you to kill me, like she got me to send an innocent man to the gallows"); Martha claimed Walter was lying, and that everything Walter had acquired was due to her own influence and power; she begged: "Let me go"; Walter rose slowly and accused his wife of being crazy: "You're insane, you're out of your mind"; Walter grabbed Sam's coat as he asserted: "It'll have to be you or me. And unless you do it now, it'll be you"
  • as Walter drunkenly staggered from the room, Martha put her arms around Sam's neck and asked: "You believe me, don't you?"; they listened as Walter fell down the ubiquitous staircase in the home and was knocked unconscious

On the Staircase: "Now, Sam. Do it now!"

Martha Watching Sam Carry Walter Into the Study to Revive Him

Martha Holding a Gun on Sam - Threatening to Murder Him For Leaving
  • the conspiratorial Martha urged Sam to heartlessly kill Walter and escape from him forever: ("Now, Sam. Do it now. Set me free. Set both of us free...Oh, Sam, it can be so easy"); however, Sam carried the limp Walter into the study to revive him - refusing to comply with her "sick" and twisted request to murder Walter: ("Now I'm sorry for ya....Martha, you're sick...Your whole life has been a dream...You're so sick that you don't even know the difference between right and wrong....I've never murdered")
  • Martha tried to justify her actions years earlier, and worried that if she told the truth, she would rot in jail; with a sense of entitlement, she denounced her horrid Aunt: "What was she?...A vicious, hateful old woman who never did anything for anybody," and also derided the innocent man who was hanged: ("A thief, a drunkard, someone who would've died in the gutter anyway"); she concluded: "Neither one of them had any right to live"
  • as Sam prepared to walk out of the mansion, Martha threatened to shoot him with Walter's gun- in "self defense", regarding him as an intruder: ("We can't let him go, can we?...We'd be fools to let him go, knowing so much about us") - Sam suggested that she might escape murder charges if Walter would corroborate her version of the story; however, Martha couldn't pull the trigger on him and shoot him in the back. As he left, he told them: "I feel sorry for ya, both of ya."
  • in the shock double-suicide and love-death ending, during a deadly embrace, Martha realized she was stuck with Walter for the rest of her life; he held his gun pointed at Martha's abdomen, and she helped by directing the gun closer to herself - and then they both pulled the trigger together; with Martha draped limply in his arms, after Martha again defiantly stated that her full name was Martha Smith, Walter shot himself to death
  • Sam witnessed the two deaths through a window, as he stood outside the mansion; he returned to the hotel where Toni had again (and fortuitously) missed her bus; as they drove off westward and passed the town's sign and city limits, Sam cautioned Toni: ("Don't look back, baby. Don't ever look back. You know what happened to Lot's wife, don't ya?"); he hinted that she would become "Sam's wife"

Martha's Mean Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson) - Her Guardian

(l to r): Mr. O'Neil, Aunt Ivers, and Walter O'Neil

Martha's Defiance Toward Her Tyrannical Aunt

At the Top of the Stairs, Walter and Martha Watching in Horror as the Aunt Killed Martha's Kitten

Martha With Her Aunt's Cane - Retaliating After the Aunt Bludgeoned Her Kitten

The Aunt Vainly Attempting to Defend Herself From Martha's Blows

Mr. O'Neil's Scheming with Young Walter and Martha to Prevent Her From Being Charged With Murder

18 Years Later

Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) Meeting Blonde "Toni" Marachek (Lizabeth Scott) in Town

Martha's Dissolute Husband Walter (Kirk Douglas)

Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) - The Dominant and Determined Femme Fatale

A Loveless Marriage Between Walter and Martha

Newspaper Picture of Walter - the DA of Iverstown

Walter and Martha Became Worried About Sam's Potential to Blackmail Them

In the Ivers' House, Sam and Martha Sharing Past Memories and Love

Martha: "We're not kids now" Sam: "No time for dreams"

A Sentimental Brief Kiss Between Martha and Sam "For Old Time's Sake"

Toni Explaining To Sam How DA O'Neil Had Set Sam Up To Be Beaten So He Would Leave Town

Sam's Puzzled Statement to Toni About Martha: "Why should a beautiful, rich girl stay married to a guy she's not in love with?"

Sam's Blackmail of Martha for One-Half of the Steel Factory

Martha Intruding Between Sam and Toni in Their Hotel Room

Sam to Walter About His Forced Marriage to Martha: "How long do you expect her to go on paying off?

Walter to Sam: "She'll try to get you to kill me, like she got me to send an innocent man to the gallows"

Walter to Martha: "You're insane, you're out of your mind"

Martha: "You believe me, don't you?"

Drunken Walter - Unconscious At the Foot of the Stairs (Where the Aunt Also Died)

The Film's Conclusion: The Deadly Embrace Between Martha and Husband Walter

Their Double Suicide Viewed by Sam From Outside

Sam and Toni ("Sam's Wife") Driving Westward Away From Iverstown


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