Noir Nook: Five Things I Love About Martha Ivers
When you think about femme fatales in film noir, who are the first dames to come to mind? Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity, certainly, and Kathie Moffat from Out of the Past? Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice? Kitty from The Killers? Definitely.
You may not automatically think of the character brought to life by Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), but for my money, she’s just as deadly (and equally as badass) as any of the aforementioned dames. This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at why I love this character and why she deserves to be mentioned any time the conversation turns to fatal femmes. (If you’ve never seen this feature, watch your step – there are spoilers ahead!)
- Martha as a youngster
When we first meet Martha, she’s around 13 years old and has just been brought home by police after her latest attempt to run away from the home where she lives with her wealthy, imperious aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson). Fearless, forthright, and strong-minded, Martha hates her aunt, and the feeling seems to be mutual – Mrs. Ivers disparages Martha’s father, calling him a “nobody,” and positing that “the best thing he did for [Martha] was to die.” And in response, Martha repeatedly tells her elder to shut up and at one point threatens to kill her – a threat which, as it turns out, wasn’t idle.
- Martha as a domineering wife
We catch up with Martha years later, as the spouse of Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas), who is running for re-election as the town’s district attorney. Before we even lay eyes on Martha as an adult, we get an idea of the kind of wife and woman she is. At a local garage, we hear Martha speaking on the radio, giving a stump speech in place of her “suddenly sick” husband. The garage owner opines that O’Neil will most certainly win re-election, and then go on to become governor and even president. “Gonna be whatever his wife wants him to be.” And when we see Martha and Walter together after her radio appearance, we are even more convinced that Martha wears the proverbial pants in the family. She impales her weak-willed husband with a withering gaze and chastises him for his inebriated state: “Don’t you think you owe me an explanation?” she demands. “When did you get drunk, where did you get drunk, why did you get drunk?”
- Martha as a businesswoman
Martha is not only a kingmaker where her husband is concerned – but she also owns the mill that employs the majority of the town, and is the area’s “best-loved civic figure.” After inheriting the mill from her (hated) aunt, Martha used her intelligence and understanding of human nature to not only increase her personal wealth, but to make much-appreciated improvements to the town, increasing the number of employees from 3,000 to 30,000, and donating thousands of dollars to build schools and hospitals. Undeniably impressive.
- Martha as a rival
In addition to Martha and Walter, the plot of the film encompasses two other characters: Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), a childhood chum of Martha and Walter’s who returns to the town after a freak car accident nearby, and Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), a troubled young woman who meets Sam shortly after her release from jail for petty theft. Sam is plainly attracted to Toni, but Martha possesses a matchless, overpowering appeal – a fact that was made obvious during the first and only encounter between the two women. In Sam’s hotel room, Toni is playfully modeling an inexpensive outfit that she purchased – shorts and a midriff, with a removable skirt – when Martha sweeps in, all fancy and refined, informing one and all that she owns the hotel. “So this is the girl,” she says, giving Toni a dismissive glance. “The sunsuit looks very well on her, Sam – she’s got just the figure for it. She’s a very pretty girl.” Even though Sam later rebukes Martha for her contemptuous treatment of Toni, it’s plain that Martha is the victor of this round.
- Martha as a femme fatale
Our first hint that Martha is more than just a scornful wife and a savvy business owner comes soon after we encounter her as an adult. In an exchange with Walter, we learn that she allowed an innocent man to be accused, convicted, and executed for the death of her aunt – the death for which Martha was solely responsible. “The man they executed was a criminal,” she tells her guilt-ridden husband without blinking an eye. “If he hadn’t hanged for that, he would have hanged for something else.” And later, she uses her feminine wiles in a flagrant attempt to get Sam to kill Walter. She first sets the stage, telling Sam that she’s fearful of her husband, who is drunk again. And then, when Walter falls down the stairs, she instructs Sam, with nary a hint of subtlety, “Now, Sam, do it now. Set me free – set us both free. Everybody knows what a heavy drinker he was. Oh, Sam, it can be so easy.” Talk about fatal femmes.
If you’ve never seen Barbara Stanwyck as Martha Ivers, do yourself a favor and check her out – you can find the film on YouTube. And if you already know all about this unforgettable femme, treat yourself to a re-watch!
You only owe it to yourself.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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