Silver Screen Standards: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Our new house got a surprise addition last month when a neighbor showed up with a little stray kitten in her arms. Mojo Jinx Mephisto is now an official member of the family, bringing the total number of cats up to three, and I spend a lot of time with at least one fuzzy companion asleep on my lap. That gives me ample opportunity to contemplate cats in classic movies, but the one that I think about most is the kitten in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a film noir gem starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas. Directed by Lewis Milestone, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a terrific noir picture with powerful performances from some of the genre’s biggest stars, but its opening stands out for its focus on the childhood of a femme fatale and the process by which she becomes a dangerous woman whose love is both strange and fatal to those around her.
While Barbara Stanwyck plays the adult Martha through most of the film, Janis Wilson tackles the role of the young Martha during the dramatic opening sequence, in which we first see Martha trying for the fourth time to run away from her wealthy but vindictively cruel aunt (Judith Anderson). Wilson, who only appeared in seven films during her brief acting career, is a provocative choice for the teenaged version of Martha because she looks quite a lot like Judith Anderson, with sharp angles to her face and eyes narrowed in calculation. She’s no angel even at thirteen, but we get enough of her backstory in the opening to understand that Mrs. Ivers has already been hard at work destroying her niece’s innocence and capacity for simple happiness. Mrs. Ivers insults Martha’s parents, saving particular scorn for the penniless young man, Mr. Smith, who married Martha’s mother and carried her away from the Ivers family home. Determined to eliminate every tie between Martha and her dead father, Mrs. Ivers has even had Martha’s surname legally changed to Ivers instead of Smith. It’s no wonder that Martha keeps trying to escape her aunt’s clutches, but the Ivers family is so powerful in Iverstown that only Martha’s young friend, Sam (Darryl Hickman), is brave enough to help her.
Throughout this first act of the story, Martha’s kitten functions as both a plot device and symbol. The film opens with Martha and Sam hiding out on a train as they hatch their latest escape plan, with Martha clutching a tabby kitten named Bundles close to her. Like Martha, the kitten is half-grown, not a cute little ball of fur anymore but clearly so beloved by Martha that she cannot bear to leave it behind. We soon find out that Mrs. Ivers, of course, hates the cat, and Martha has to keep it well away from the vicious old lady. Like Martha’s father and Sam, the cat is viewed by Mrs. Ivers as a worthless interloper, but the cat is also like Sam and the late Mr. Smith because Martha truly loves them. We can read the kitten as a symbolic stand-in for both Martha and her father and friend. It’s inevitable, then, that Mrs. Ivers takes the first opportunity to beat the kitten mercilessly with her cane. The camera doesn’t show us the harm inflicted on the kitten, but we hear Bundles yowling in agony as Mrs. Ivers strikes with an expression of pure hatred on her pinched face.
This act of extreme cruelty finally sends Martha over the edge; she snatches the cane from her aunt’s grip and strikes the old woman with it, causing Mrs. Ivers to tumble to her death at the bottom of the stairs. Act One ends with Martha, now the sole heir to the Ivers fortune, freed from her aunt but controlled by her opportunistic tutor, Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), who helps to cover up the truth about Mrs. Ivers’ death so that he can marry his son, Walter, to Martha and thus gain access to the Ivers wealth.
This opening sequence gives us a lot to ponder about the creation of a femme fatale. At thirteen, Martha is already hardened, manipulative, and rebellious, but she’s still a child capable of deep, pure love for her kitten. Her bad qualities are partly her aunt’s influence making her more like her aunt and partly her attempts to resist that influence. If you’ve ever held a kitten, you know that kittens are curious, contrary, vulnerable, and full of wide-eyed life, very much like an adolescent human. They’re so easily hurt but are recklessly brave in spite of it, eager to experience everything life has to offer. Martha’s kitten embodies those qualities in Martha as well as her ability to love something for its own sake. Mrs. Ivers wants to destroy everything alive and good about Martha, qualities symbolized by the kitten, but Martha’s ultimate act of defiance ironically signals the death of everything Martha was really trying to protect.
For cat lovers like myself, it might be deeply gratifying to see brutal Mrs. Ivers beaten with her own cane – it’s poetic justice, after all – but it seems like Martha is doomed no matter what she does. If she lets the old lady kill her kitten, she loses, but if she strikes back to protect or avenge it, she still loses. That’s the kind of world film-noir presents, where you can’t save your kitten and you can’t save your soul, even if you try. Martha learns that lesson early in life, and it explains her behavior as an adult. Everything she does later stems from that night when seeing her aunt’s cruelty to an innocent kitten changed her from a victim to a killer with no way back. When her old friend, Sam (Van Heflin), turns back up in Iverstown many years later, the consequences of that night catch up with Martha in dramatic fashion, but something in her has already been dead for a very long time.
Because The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is in the public domain, you can easily watch it online or find it on a streaming service. The film marked the silver screen debut of Kirk Douglas and earned an Oscar nomination for its original story by John Patrick. You can see more of Janis Wilson in Now, Voyager (1942), Watch on the Rhine (1943), and My Reputation (1946). For more cats in classic film noir, check out This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Third Man (1949), or delve into horror noir with Jacques Tourneur’s iconic Cat People (1942).
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a Ph.D. in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.