Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #23: Iverstown (Scene from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers)

149 posts in this topic

I think everyone else has pretty much nailed down the analysis of this scene but I have one observation to add. Although they're in the elected DA's (Kirk Douglas) fancy office, Walter seems to have the least power of the three people in the scene. Sam (Van Heflin) comes to Walter to ask a favor but assures him that he WILL come through. Sam obviously has something on Walter. Martha, once she recognizes Sam, focuses on Sam and ignores her husband's negative reactions to their overly intimate exchange. Sam feels there's something wrong about Walter calling Martha his wife and she indicates with her comment about missing the circus train that she may not be happy in her marriage right in front of Walter, her husband. Walter tells Sam to "ask Martha" about his chances of winning the election as if it is she and not he who has the power to make that happen. Walter's drinking is further evidence of his weakness. They are all obviously childhood friends but something has occurred in the past that is factoring into the present dynamic.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Wk 7 The Strange Love of Martha Ivers


-- Discuss the scene in terms of its acting and staging. In this brief scene, what do you see as the interpersonal relationships between Sam (Heflin), Walter (Douglas), and Martha (Stanwyck)? If you have seen the entire film, avoid larger points about the plot, and focus simply on what you are seeing just in this scene. The beginning of the scene has Douglas sitting in a power position, above Heflin. Heflin’s physicality, the power within his “ease” is evident. They know each other from the past, “17 or 18 years ago”. There’s a lot of cryptic conversation where each throws a barb at the other about “gambling”. Clearly they have opened up some old wounds. “Martha” is mentioned. The three have some history together. Walter needs a drink. Sam is judgmental because it is early in the morning. They are now standing, facing each other near the office bar. Sam is taller. Walter seems younger and weaker than he did a few moments ago. Having Heflin, already an accomplished actor, play opposite Douglas, making his movie debut, heightens this inequity between the two men. Douglas does his best to hold his own, but it’s clear that if he wanted to, Heflin could wipe the screen with him. Very good for the characters’ interplay. Heflin seems to be concealing a seething disdain deep beneath his surface that pops out occasionally and surprises us, but oddly enough, not Douglas. The history telegraphs to Douglas anything Heflin might say. He doesn’t ask Douglas for a favor, he tells him: “Oh you can do it, and you will,” indicating some past debt left unpaid. Douglas seems scared for a second. Heflin shifts gears with “for old times’ sake” and diffuses the moment.   Douglas agrees. For now. They drink. These two clearly have a history where Heflin dominated Douglas. When Martha arrives, Douglas tells his secretary to have her wait. When Heflin expresses interest in seeing her, Douglas hesitates, a suppressed hateful look in his eye, but thinks the better of it and tells her to come in. Heflin’s back is to the camera. His body dominates the shot. Martha enters, and all during this sequence when the two-shot of Heflin and Douglas is shown, Douglas is in the background with a look of nothingness, loneliness and sickness, dread, and yes maybe even nausea on his face. The focus is deep enough that we can see both men clearly. He definitely is worried about what will happen when his wife sees this guy. When Martha hears the whistle, she turns around and seems to be a young girl again. She approaches Sam with a squeal of delight, guileless delight. Seeing any character of Miss Stanwyck’s without guile is truly a revelation, even if it’s only for an instant! All through the time Heflin and Stanwyck are getting tactile with each other, Douglas is a statue in the background. His hand is on his intercom. It looks like he would set if off if it were a bomb activation device. Stanwyck is clearly attracted to Heflin in a big way, and most likely was in the past as well.  She uses double entendres, talking about Heflin always being “big” for his age. Douglas goes for another drink. He now looks like he might cry very angry tears. Heflin clearly still thinks of Martha as “his girl” when he tells Douglas that it sounds funny when Douglas thanks him for the complement “for my wife.” Stanwyck doesn’t mind this at all. The way she’s looking at Heflin and touching him it’s clear she’s running through motel phone numbers in her mind. The intercom rings, and Douglas slams his drink on the bar, not enough to break anything, but just enough to make everything rattle. It is clear that Heflin’s visit/return has “rattled” him. She puts her arm through Heflin's to walk him to the door, very comfortable with the physical connection, indicating that these two may have been intimate years ago. Heflin asks her “aren’t you glad you missed that circus train,” implying that doing so gave her this nicer life (with Douglas). She replies, “I don’t know.” A very cold thing to say in front of her husband. On his exit, Heflin orders Douglas with a pointing finger, “you will do that for me, won’t you.” Douglas poses “I’ll try.” Heflin asserts, almost as an order, “you do that.” Further barbs are thrown poor Douglas’ way when Stanwyck says “a sure thing’s never a gamble” indicating her husbands election win on the surface, but implying her staying off the circus train was not and marrying Douglas was. Heflin throws back, “what odds’ll you give that that’s a fact!” indicating Douglas might have actually been the "booby prize," and a ride on a dirty filthy circus train was preferable to life with him.   Heflin exits. Stanwyck looks longingly at him after he leaves. As she closes the door with purpose, we see her walk assertively and quickly toward her husband, indicating that a heated scene will follow. The music suggests this as well.


-- From this early scene, what are some of the noir themes that you expect will play out in this film? Life’s hard knocks: some win, some lose. Unrequited love. Love triangles. Things are not what they seem. This is the office of the district attorney. He’s a drunk, and possibly cuckolded. His wife runs him, clearly brought out when he says “ask Martha” in response to Heflin’s question if the election is a sure thing. The music accents each negative dramatic moment. Setting as a statement: Douglas seems oddly small behind his desk; the window is huge, as is his desk lamp. They don’t so much appear huge as he appears small, like he doesn’t belong, in over his head. Imagery: When Heflin tells Douglas that he’d like to see Martha, first of all he dominates the frame and the window. When he puts his cigarette out in the ashtray, he looks directly into Douglas’ eyes as he takes his sweet time putting it out, rotating it, squashing it, crushing it. The feeling is that he’s telling Douglas he can, or at least wants to “extinguish” him as well.


-- What other films or settings in the Summer of Darkness lineup remind you of Griel Marcus' observation that "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city?" These films expose the “underbelly” of the “heartland.” Tomorrow is another Day, Gun Crazy, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Act of Violence, The Stranger, They Live by Night, The Killers, Out of the Past, Mildred Pierce. These are ones that take place at least in part in small towns and/or in middle America.  I'm sure there are many more that I don't recall at the moment.  Off the list, Santa Rosa is a prime example in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt."


  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The tension is so thick in this scene you could cut it with a knife. Walter (Kirk Douglas) is very touchy from the beginning. He seems to alternate between smugness and embarrassment: smug because he “won” Martha and is now married to her, and embarrassed perhaps because he may owe his power and position to his wife. After all, we see her wearing expensive furs when she later appears, and it’s unlikely the couple would be that rich just on the husband’s salary as a D.A. and we know from reading the professor’s introduction that this all takes place in Iverstown, suggesting her family owns the whole town. Even before Martha comes into the scene, it’s made clear that the three characters all have a past together, back from when they were kids/teenagers. Heflin’s character (Sam) is confident that Walter will help him – either because of something to do with their shared past, or perhaps because he senses that Douglas may be corrupt or at least can be manipulated easily. Sam himself seems clever and manipulative. He acts friendly and modest at first, but soon becomes bossy and demanding when requesting the favor he came for (“You can do it – you will – for old time’s sake”). He seems to hold power over Walter for some reason – again, perhaps from their past – and seems confident that Walter will do the favor just so Walter can get rid of him. I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned this, but when Walter is pouring Sam a drink, Van Heflin is holding his glass in a very interesting way – he’s got two fingers extended toward Douglas, just like when a person makes the gesture of holding a gun on someone. This occurs from 1:02 to 1:06. When I saw it, I couldn’t help thinking it may be foreshadowing. Either that, or perhaps just Sam again symbolizing this scary power over Walter – maybe he has the power to destroy him. All this happens before Barbara Stanwyck even enters the scene, and then when she does, it gets even tenser. When Martha comes in, Douglas recedes to the background – he seems smaller, less in control – and he is also fuming. It’s obvious that Sam and Martha had been very close to one another when all three had that shared past as kids/teenagers. And perhaps Walter was the low man in that triangle back then, although now he’s the guy who has finally won her. It’s clear that Martha still has strong feelings toward Sam – she’s ecstatic when she finally recognizes him, and hugs him with abandon. Sam is clearly pleased to see her, too, but he also seems manipulative with her. He stands too close to her, sticks his hands in his pockets like a teenager or young boy would do, and makes himself appear the way he must have been when they knew each other in the past. It seems that his reappearance in Walter and Martha’s life is going to really shake things up. Obvious noir themes will be jealousy, betrayal, corruption, along with fate and the idea that nothing is certain and no one knows how their lives will play out, or whether they even have any kind of control over their own lives. The multiple references to gambling make this last theme so clear. At the end of the scene, when Martha says, “A sure thing is never a gamble”, Sam knows (and we know too) that this is never true – especially in noir city...

  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Discuss the scene in terms of its acting and staging? In this brief scene, what do you see as the interpersonal relationships between Sam (Heflin), Walter (Douglas), and Martha (Stanwyck)? If you have seen the entire film, avoid larger points about the plot, and focus simply on what you are seeing just in this scene.

 

Interesting staging and interaction between the trio. There seems to be a separation between them as friends until the three of them all become aware of their past. The pauses and interplay point out the etiquette and social conduct adults would be expected to hold, but when Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) lights up from awareness we can feel the child in her come back. It's difficult to not discuss the movie further without giving plot points etc. so I would just suggest the triangle emerges and holds as a visual motif/construct after the two males feel each other out for their life worth. It's an easy read but the woman physically comes between them in this dynamic and likely socially speaking as well.

 

From this early scene, what are some of the noir themes that you expect will play out in this film?

 

You would expect Sam to go after Martha in the B-movie set-up but having seen the movie it becomes a little more complex. I'd say that b-movie stories of today stole from these archetypes then. Interesting this was Kirk Douglas' first role. Had no idea.

 

What other films or settings in the Summer of Darkness lineup remind you of Griel Marcus' observation that "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city?"

 

The Killers

The Postman Always Rings Twice

 

I'm sure there's a ton more but those two come to mind. I'd argue that film noir had a way to show the harsh truths of any idyllic location and that's what made them film noirs. If the small town - "aww shucks" is all we can reference we would not have film noir. The contrast between the "safe" locations and the dark nature of film noir makes it all the more compelling.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Very often noir succeeds not by showing you things, but by not showing you things. It is the things that are obscured, hidden in the shadows, or happening just off-screen that the viewer finds intriguing. This is also true of plot and dialogue.

Knowledge is currency in the film noir world. The plot often moves forward based on a character trying to gain knowledge from another character, or by using the knowledge they have to get the better of someone else. The viewer is intrigued by either possessing knowledge that a character doesn’t have, or by trying to solve the puzzle right along with the central character.

This scene uses noir’s best friend, subtext, beautifully. They talk about old times, gambling, drinking, breakfast, girls, being kids, and circus trains, but that’s not what they’re talking about at all. The true meaning is in the subtext. It’s friendly on the surface, but Sam makes veiled threats and Walter clearly doesn’t like it. Martha is impulsively delighted to see Sam, but her demeanor quickly changes when she suspects he wants something. “Anything else you remember?” and “Lots of the things,” are benign pieces of dialogue, but to the characters they’re loaded with importance. The viewer may not know exactly what the characters are thinking, but it’s the not-knowing that piques the viewer’s interest.

  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The relationship between Sam and Walter seems to be friendly enough - for a few seconds.  They chat like old friends.  But after that first few seconds, we see a slight difference.  Sam is at ease, resting comfortably, lying back in the big armchair.  But Walter is sitting a little higher than Sam, looking down on him.  Walter starts to show signs of tension, questioning more like a DA than an old friend.  He says, "All life is a gamble."  A seemingly innocuous statement, but Douglas delivers the line markedly, evenly, with an unbroken eye contact that somehow seems challenging.


 


Walter breaks the tension by slapping Sam's leg and going for a drink.  Then Sam seems to challenge Walter when he asks for help for Toni - "For old time's sake."  We see the same marked, even delivery, the same eye contact.  What's up with this two?  


 


Enter "What's up":  Martha.  From the first moment she realizes who Sam is, she shows more than a reminiscent interest in a childhood friend.  After the hugging, she stands very close to Sam, at times looking down in self-consciousness.  She lays her hand on his lapel, creating a connection with him.


 


When Walter hears Martha is in the anteroom, his tension returns.  And when she runs to hug Sam, Walter's tension skyrockets.  This is definitely an old friendship with something more behind it.  He stays in the background of the scene at first, then actuallly moves off-camera to the other side of the room.  Ensuing shots show Walter alone at the bar, Sam and Martha chatting very comfortably.  When Sam says it's funny to hear Walter say "my wife", Walter grips his glass in a fist.   At this point, Martha looks as if she's embarrassed by or ashamed of Walter.  He returns to his desk in time for Sam to leave.  Sam says goodbye, and Martha takes his arm as if she's leaving with him.  She stops at the door, for one last long look.


 


I do see the theme of "power paid for by loneliness".  Walter is running for office (power).  But the interaction between Sam and Martha makes us wonder if Martha and Walter's relationship is very good.

  • Like 8

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I felt the need to post this separately.  It's not a response to a question, but it is more in response to the curator's note included before today's film.  It contains an interesting list of small Midwestern cities, including Canton, Ohio, my hometown.  I can speak a little to that, connecting local history to what we see in vintage films.

 

"Vagabond professional football leagues" brings up the names of Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs.  (Hence the disctinction we now have of being the home of the Pro Football HOF.)  Local history says that in the '20s, there was a indeed a lot of influence here from organized crime.  Al Capone was no stranger here, and the city used to have the nickname "Little Chicago".  Donald Mellett was a Canton newspaper reporter who was murdered by the mob because of his efforts to bring some members to justice - a tale right out of hard-boiled detective fiction.


During the Depression, and especially post-WWII, Akron, just to our north, was growing to be a giant in the tire industry ("Rubber City"), and Canton itself was developing into an industrial stronghold, with the Timken Company, (known worldwide for bearings and steel production) Hoover Company (sweepers - actually in North Canton), and many others.  My grandparents, along with many other Canton families, came here after WWII from small, rural communities in southern Ohio, looking for work in these factories.  They found it, and they stayed, building homes and schools.

When I watch many vintage films, not just films noir, I see reflections of what Canton and other Midwest cities may have been.  I don't connect Canton to its seedy, film noir-ish '20s days, probably because it's not the memories of those Cantonians I grew up around.  I heard more of the memories of the post-WWII people, those who came with the intention of raising families and building lives here.  So I tend to see it as Ithaca, the town from The Human Comedy.  I can easily imagine Mickey Rooney and Donna Reed delivering telegrams, going to the theater for a movie.  So how interesting that Saroyan developed Ithaca based on his hometown of Fresno, CA, but I see it as Canton, OH - Midwest through and through.

  • Like 8

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

. . .  when Walter is pouring Sam a drink, Van Heflin is holding his glass in a very interesting way – he’s got two fingers extended toward Douglas, just like when a person makes the gesture of holding a gun on someone. 

 

Yeah, it seemed to take on larger meaning to me at first, but I think he was merely indicating, "two fingers." This is how a bartender measures whiskey. (Or at least it used to be; I don't drink.) On the other hand, perhaps the director did have other intentions.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

i'm glad for these observations, it makes me wonder like the escapists films of the 30s - hollywood strikes again, were these scenes potrayed on film an actual reflection of the times? I can't answer that because i did not live during these times

 

I felt the need to post this separately.  It's not a response to a question, but it is more in response to the curator's note included before today's film.  It contains an interesting list of small Midwestern cities, including Canton, Ohio, my hometown.  I can speak a little to that, connecting local history to what we see in vintage films.

 

"Vagabond professional football leagues" brings up the names of Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs.  (Hence the disctinction we now have of being the home of the Pro Football HOF.)  Local history says that in the '20s, there was a indeed a lot of influence here from organized crime.  Al Capone was no stranger here, and the city used to have the nickname "Little Chicago".  Donald Mellett was a Canton newspaper reporter who was murdered by the mob because of his efforts to bring some members to justice - a tale right out of hard-boiled detective fiction.


During the Depression, and especially post-WWII, Akron, just to our north, was growing to be a giant in the tire industry ("Rubber City"), and Canton itself was developing into an industrial stronghold, with the Timken Company, (known worldwide for bearings and steel production) Hoover Company (sweepers - actually in North Canton), and many others.  My grandparents, along with many other Canton families, came here after WWII from small, rural communities in southern Ohio, looking for work in these factories.  They found it, and they stayed, building homes and schools.

When I watch many vintage films, not just films noir, I see reflections of what Canton and other Midwest cities may have been.  I don't connect Canton to its seedy, film noir-ish '20s days, probably because it's not the memories of those Cantonians I grew up around.  I heard more of the memories of the post-WWII people, those who came with the intention of raising families and building lives here.  So I tend to see it as Ithaca, the town from The Human Comedy.  I can easily imagine Mickey Rooney and Donna Reed delivering telegrams, going to the theater for a movie.  So how interesting that Saroyan developed Ithaca based on his hometown of Fresno, CA, but I see it as Canton, OH - Midwest through and through.

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The staging of this scene suggests middle class society in the post war era where the American Dream has been revitalized. A young district attorney, Walter is talking with a childhood friend who has just appeared in town after 18 years, and seeks his help in a legal matter--helping him get a girlfriend out of jail for parole violation (a two time --at least two times--looser). Immediately the topic of the  "three of us" comes up implying that there was, and will be a complicating love triangle in this film. We expect that the woman will be the femme fatale without, at this point, knowing anything about her.

 

The dialogue between Waler and Sam reveals that Sam has "knocked around, had fun, seen a lot," and made a living gambling.

Walt says, "all of life is a gamble", to which Sam replies "some win, some don't", implying Sam is a looser and Walt is a winner.  The scene is acted in a way to set up tension between the two from the start, by the use of a telling tone of voice and body language as well as cutting dialogue.

 

When Martha, Walts wife, enters the room, she does not recognize Sam as a childhood friend at first. When she turns to leave the room Sam whistles a tune that she immediately recognizes and she  turms around and embraces Sam with more than a " casual old friends" hug. In fact, Sam says,"lets do that again" and she complies. After more repartite between the three on the subjest of their former relationships, with sexual undertones,  Martha leaves the room, taking Sam's arm as he walks her to the door. Then Sam says "aren't you glad that you missed that train". She replies "I'm not sure", setting the viewer's mind to work about their former relationship, and about their future relationship. Lots has happened in this brief scene, and one can expect that possible infidelity will be a theme, or perhaps "two timing", as Sam already has a girlfriend. Risk will certainly be a part and possibly political intrigue, as Walt is running for reelection. Martha says Walt's reelection is a sure thing, and Sam ends the scene by saying "what are the odds on that fact".  All of this dialogue about risk, odds, probability, etc.  suggests these  three will be gambling and taking risks with their happiness and perhaps lives. Certainly the fate of each is already in question, showing stark realism and an existentialist viewpoint consistent with the postwar period.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Oh goodness. Where to start with the Noir elements that will play out?

 

1. Our district attorney drinks too much

2. Our returned childhood friends presumes too much on his friendship with the DA: lingering blackmail?

3. Our returning friend has a girlfriend in the clink.

4. Our DA is corruptible 

5. Our returning friend still lusts for the wife

6. The wife has a hot flash for the returning friend

7. The married couple with the slam of a door signal their unhappy relationship.

 

This is down and dirty in so many ways. I expect all of these Noir elements to come crashing together in an unholy climax. In fact I know they will because I have this movie on VHS (!)

Sounds like our understanding of this film is in sync. There is not one untarnished character in this film. It is great fun.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There were variances in lighting because it is the morning.  And the end of the scene in the foreground you see Martha, and in the background you see Walter.  Walter's expression looked stiff as he watched Sam and Martha interact.  Martha taking Sam's arm and walking him to the office door, then standing there as he left the outer office displays her long-time interest in him.  You wonder what their history is.  They were all children together, but there is something more between Martha and Sam.

 

When Sam and Walter talked, Sam asked for help with a girl in trouble.  I think Walter knew about the girl.  Sam was asking Walter to "fix things for old times sake."

 

You find out Sam is a gambler, and Walter is running for election ("Martha is sure" I will win).

 

There are already a lot of possibilities for sub-plots.  But as the title of the movie says, it is about Martha Iver's strange love.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

i'm glad for these observations, it makes me wonder like the escapists films of the 30s - hollywood strikes again, were these scenes potrayed on film an actual reflection of the times? I can't answer that because i did not live during these times

 

Exactly.  The curator's note seems to insinuate that these cities were horrible places, full of crime and all that was evil in the '20s.  I think the view of the city depends on whom you ask.  What memories does that person have?  What kind of life did that person live during that time?  If you ask most Cantonians what the city "used to be like", they'll tell you of hard workers, strong politics (Pres. McKinley and local politics), a faith base, and families who've been here for generations.  Probably not much mention of the Roaring '20s, unless you go to Bender's Restaurant, a favorite of the mob and still in business today.  

 

I think when we watch any film, from vintage to modern, we have to consider literary license.  What is the intent of the filmmaker?  What message is he trying to convey?  What techniques is he using to set the stage, theme, and characterization?

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

The relationship between Sam and Walter seems to be friendly enough - for a few seconds.  They chat like old friends.  But after that first few seconds, we see a slight difference.  Sam is at ease, resting comfortably, lying back in the big armchair.  But Walter is sitting a little higher than Sam, looking down on him.  Walter starts to show signs of tension, questioning more like a DA than an old friend.  He says, "All life is a gamble."  A seemingly innocuous statement, but Douglas delivers the line markedly, evenly, with an unbroken eye contact that somehow seems challenging.

 

Walter breaks the tension by slapping Sam's leg and going for a drink.  Then Sam seems to challenge Walter when he asks for help for Toni - "For old time's sake."  We see the same marked, even delivery, the same eye contact.  What's up with this two?  

 

Enter "What's up":  Martha.  From the first moment she realizes who Sam is, she shows more than a reminiscent interest in a childhood friend.  After the hugging, she stands very close to Sam, at times looking down in self-consciousness.  She lays her hand on his lapel, creating a connection with him.

 

When Walter hears Martha is in the anteroom, his tension returns.  And when she runs to hug Sam, Walter's tension skyrockets.  This is definitely an old friendship with something more behind it.  He stays in the background of the scene at first, then actuallly moves off-camera to the other side of the room.  Ensuing shots show Walter alone at the bar, Sam and Martha chatting very comfortably.  When Sam says it's funny to hear Walter say "my wife", Walter grips his glass in a fist.   At this point, Martha looks as if she's embarrassed by or ashamed of Walter.  He returns to his desk in time for Sam to leave.  Sam says goodbye, and Martha takes his arm as if she's leaving with him.  She stops at the door, for one last long look.

 

I do see the theme of "power paid for by loneliness".  Walter is running for office (power).  But the interaction between Sam and Martha makes us wonder if Martha and Walter's relationship is very good.

 

 

After viewing the clip a second time, I can see the points being made.  Walter is nervous around Sam.  He offers him a drink even though it is the morning.  Then when Sam brings up the girl, and Walter says breaking probation is hard, Sam says you will fix it.  It sounded like a threat.  Maybe he has something he can hold over Walter.  When Martha comes in, she only recognizes Sam after he whistles at her.  He was one of the bigger boys in her childhood.  After Sam compliments Martha, Walter claims her as "his wife."   Sam says something about Martha being glad she missed the circus train (wonder what that was about).  Before Sam leaves he says "oh, you will do that for me won't you," to which Walter says in typical Kirk Douglas style "I'll try my best."  The last thing is you see Walter's face as he looks at Martha's back.  He did not look happy.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The interpersonal relationship between Sam (Heflin), Walter (Douglas), is an egocentric power struggle from the beginning. Notice how close they are when they are talking to each other, how their eyes hone in like bird of prey, and how Walter is seated above and looking down on Sam.  Mrs. O'Neil (Stanwyck) arrives and is announced by Walter's secretary. When Sam states he would like to see her, the glare Walter gives him is unsettling. As Martha O'Neil enters the office Sam immediately takes control of the conversation under Walter's glare. Their past relationship is revealed and Sam overtly says "I was always big for my my age, you remember?" They both glance at Walter as if they are guarding a shared secret and Walter tightens his hand on his drink. As Sam continually flatters, hugs and touches Martha he states it sounds funny for Walter to refer to Martha as his wife.
When Sam walks to the door to exit the office and states "Here's hoping you'll win the election" Walter says with certainty "I will."  "A sure thing is never a gamble" states Martha. There is a clear implication for corruption in the future. We have a classic noir theme of the tough guys and the femme fatale, but this time played out in a political arena. We question at this point where Martha's loyalties will lie and how a questionable past with dictate they future of all the players.








 

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

  I haven't seen this movie, but I'm already interested! Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorite Old Hollywood actresses. 

 

  Just like in Too Late For Tears, we see glimpses into the life of an unhappy couple, played by Kirk Douglas and Stanwyck. Kirk Douglas is great in these sinister roles, as he was in Out of the Past. The couple's misery is most evident in the wife's interaction with her old childhood friend, and from what I feel, possibly past lovers. I don't know if I'm just perverted, but I sensed a double meaning in Stanwyck's "you were always big for your age."  ;) And of course, Douglas is none too pleased by this interaction, as his smile starts to fade and he tries to interrupt the camaraderie. The slamming of the door shut after the childhood friend leaves is very ominous and symbolizes the unhappy marriage between Douglas and Stanwyck, giving you a sense that you never know what happens behind closed doors and makes me wonder if Douglas is going to be physically or verbally abusive to his wife (and seeing his character, I may already know the answer to that question).

  • Like 5

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

18 years later and a ghost from the past returns to his hometown, but from what you get from this clip is that it won't be like old times. First we meet Sam, the vagabond gambler and Walter, the tense alcoholic politician.

 

"All life is a gamble"

"...some win, some don't"

"You needn't had made that point" Walter was so snarky about it, like he lost something to Sam. Maybe he won Martha from Sam, but in the end it turned into a loss for him.

 

Sam comes back to town not just to see old friends, but what else, he needs a favor. "Just like old times sake." I think Sam will find though that a lot has changed in their town after 18 years. Then Martha comes to visit and Walter seems reluctant, yet eager for Sam to see Martha again. After she comes in and finally remembers Sam, they seemed to pick up right where they left off, like 18 years hadn't gone by.

 

"I always was big for my age, you remember?"

A reluctant glance towards Walter, "Yes, I remember"

"Anything else you remember?" I can't believe the flirtation between these two, right in front of Walter.

"Thank you for my wife" Walter, with a drink in hand. Again, it seems like Walter won Martha from Sam, but he doesn't sound all too happy about it. To Sam, that sounds funny, Martha being his wife and that he always thought of her as being....what? Being with him, being his wife? It sounded as though she almost chose him when he asked "Aren't you glad you missed that circus train?" "I don't know." Sam must have been fun.

 

"Oh, you will do that for me, won't you?"

"I'll try my best" Walter said with a cynical smirk. Sam might be sorry that he asked for help from Walter.

 

"Here's hoping you win that election"

"Thanks I will"

"What, sure thing?"

"Ask Martha"

"Sure, sure thing" She didn't sound so sure, but why ask Martha? Is she the one in charge of Walter and his election?

"A sure thing is never a gamble" Was Walter the sure thing and Sam the gamble? Is she a woman in need of power and the only way to get it was to marry the sure thing, Walter? But with the circus train showing up, she may have the temptation of wanting to be with Sam. Looks like a lot of trouble is going to ensue in this town. A love triangle, a gambler, an alcoholic, politics, corruption, etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The staging at the start of the scene seems to suggest that Walter, the DA in his fancy office, and standing over Sam, has the upper hand, but the dialogue suggests something completely different.  Sam is the easy going, confident character that Walter wants to be better than, but can't seem to be.  When Sam asks Walter to help out Toni Marachek, Walter says he'll have to see, but Sam says  "You will."  Obviously, in their past, Sam held the position of power between the two of them, as Walter slinks off behind the desk.  As Martha enters, Walter is alone and obviously jealous of the interaction between Sam and Martha, this is not a happy man.  Their reunion is the total opposite, happy to see each other, leaning into each other almost giddy.  There's definitely something romantic from their past.

 

As far as the noir themes go, I'll use Manny Farber's words from his critique of the film, "four people who have lived cataclysmic laughterless lives since they were babies."  I think that pretty well sums up what we find out about these people and what is about to happen to them in this film.

 

I saw this noir location in the films of "Out of the Past," "The Stranger," "The Killers," and so on and so on and.........

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

On the surface, there's not much to this scene from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The cinematography gets the point across, but it's nothing to write home about. The interactions of the characters just seems to be a couple reuniting with an old friend. It's the subtext, however, where this really shines. The district attorney and his wife are somewhat nervous around Sam. The implication is that they've had a past they'd rather forget and at the very least he's bringing those memories to the surface.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This might be one of the only few scenes we've had so far where everything takes place in one setting, with very little action and pure acting leading the way. I haven't seen the film before, so I can't be certain, but I have an idea of how these characters relate. It seems to me that Sam and Walter both pursued Martha when they were younger, with Walter ultimately winning out. How this happened, however, is another thing. My guess would be that Sam actually left, making Martha's decision simpler, but Martha not immediately recognizing him casts doubt on that idea. I can definitely see a rivalry between Sam and Walter, however. I also noticed that others pointed out Sam's drinking while on the job, which I also noticed as strange. I think crime of passion and the femme fatale are two noir themes that are definitely in play for the rest of this film. While not in the lineup, and not exactly midwestern, I immediately thought of Ace in the Hole when I read Griel Marcus' observation. Ace in the Hole is one of my very favorite films, taking place in New Mexico, and also starring Kirk Douglas. It's a terrific film which I would recommend. 

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Despite being a seemingly harmless, innocuous scene from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers on the surface, there's a lot going on.  

 

Sam and Walter are old friends reuniting.   We quickly learn one likes to gamble and the other likes to drink.  There's also a great deal of tension between them.  Maybe the ever-present past has something to do with it, but it's also apparent that Sam is comfortable in his own skin and Walter isn't. Sam also likes to press his luck and call-in old markers...for old times sake....and asks a favor of Walter in his capacity as local D.A.  

 

Enter Martha, Walter's wife, and she doesn't recognize Sam at first, but clearly remembers him fondly when realizing who is is.   The tension between Walter and Martha is almost as pronounced as it is between Walter and Sam.   Martha alludes to Sam's size and strength, and this us subtly juxtapose with Walter's insecurity as he pensively looks on and feels the need for another drink.   His drinking, insecurity and jealousy all foreshadow things to come.   Martha seems to expect Walter's insecurity, and clearly seems the dominant partner in their relationship.   

 

These fears, frailties and demons lurk beneath the surface of these three characters just as they loom beneath the seemingly innocent and placid small town setting --- Mid-Western or not --- of numerous noirs; films as diverse as Out of the Past, The Killers, The Blue Dahlia, Act of Violence, Born to Kill, Gun Crazy, to name but a few.  

 

Noir likes to remind us that these fatal flaws and demons are less the product of environment than they are inherently part of us, who we've been and who we desire, often secretly, to become.  "One who follows their nature finds their true nature in the end."   That nature, and the past that spawned it, can bubble-up in the most benign and harmless of settings.   

 

The shadows of noir are frightening not because they harbor demons, but because they set the demons within us free.          

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I enjoyed reading your reflections on growing up in Canton Ohio. It's always interesting to see it through the eyes of people who live there and not just Hollywood. I also agree with your observation that we need to understand the intent of the filmmaker. I believe often times filmmakers would use small towns as a metaphor for America in general. Before World War 2 America was not as much of a major player as it is today. It was a small town on the global stage. After the war America's influence and economic base began to expand. Unfortunately many people, such as politicians and businessmen, would turn to corruption to benefit financially and to gain power. Doing the right thing sometimes became secondary to personal gain. Other things they portrayed such as crime were also on the rise throughout the country.

 

Since it would be difficult portray this on a national level they use the microcosm of a small town. Not such a bad thing in a mythical town like Iverstown but when they use an actual city it can kind of give it a bad rap.

 

I grew up in Phoenix and the only corruption portrayed there was someone who went crazy from the heat and stole money. But just about everybody knows what happened to her. (Psycho).

Exactly. The curator's note seems to insinuate that these cities were horrible places, full of crime and all that was evil in the '20s. I think the view of the city depends on whom you ask. What memories does that person have? What kind of life did that person live during that time? If you ask most Cantonians what the city "used to be like", they'll tell you of hard workers, strong politics (Pres. McKinley and local politics), a faith base, and families who've been here for generations. Probably not much mention of the Roaring '20s, unless you go to Bender's Restaurant, a favorite of the mob and still in business today.

I think when we watch any film, from vintage to modern, we have to consider literary license. What is the intent of the filmmaker? What message is he trying to convey? What techniques is he using to set the stage, theme, and characterization?

  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

“Yeah, the three of us.”

 

What I love about Kirk Douglas is his ability to slyly and sarcastically find the dark humor in situations involving power struggles between characters.  It always takes on a slightly veiled but sinister tone.  We saw that in his relationship with Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past:

 

Whit:    “I fire people, but nobody quits me.  You started this and you'll end it.  Besides, Joe couldn't find a prayer in the Bible.”

 

And again with Van Heflin in today’s clip from, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers.  Douglas remembers every moment of the time spent with Heflin and his now wife Barbara Stanwyck.  Heflin’s return rekindles fond memories that Stanwyck hasn’t thought about in some time.  She can’t remember his name but does remember his whistle (ouch).

 

Heflin’s angle is somewhat similar to the intoxicated, passive aggressive know it all in Johnny Eager.  In today’s scene, Heflin pushes all of Douglas’s buttons first by returning, then asking Douglas for a favor, then wanting to see Stanwyck, then forcefully instructing Douglas to follow through on his favor, then correcting Stanwyck on the nature of gambling odds.

 

Douglas seethes and turns to drink to calm himself down, initiating a toast to remind Heflin that Stanwyck is his.  The staging sets Douglas apart from the reunion between Heflin and Stanwyck and at the end of the scene, we see both Stanwyck and Douglas in deep focus through the open door, allowing the viewer to take in both character’s emotions at that point in the story.

 

There is the suggestion of corruption in the upcoming election.  There’s also the suggestion that either Douglas or Heflin won’t survive, possibly fueled by a decision that Stanwyck will have to make or the result of potential self-destructive behavior by Douglas (drink) or Heflin (gambling).

 

The acting here is first rate.  Stanwyck was a power house, equally capable playing a comedic role in the screwball comedy, The Lady Eve as well a femme fatale in Double Indemnity.  The script is economical.  The transitions between the content in the scene are nearly invisible and the dialogue is loaded with subtext.

 

-Mark

  • Like 5

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

Wk 7 The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

-- Discuss the scene in terms of its acting and staging. In this brief scene, what do you see as the interpersonal relationships between Sam (Heflin), Walter (Douglas), and Martha (Stanwyck)? If you have seen the entire film, avoid larger points about the plot, and focus simply on what you are seeing just in this scene. The beginning of the scene has Douglas sitting in a power position, above Heflin. Heflin’s physicality, the power within his “ease” is evident. They know each other from the past, “17 or 18 years ago”. There’s a lot of cryptic conversation where each throws a barb at the other about “gambling”. Clearly they have opened up some old wounds. “Martha” is mentioned. The three have some history together. Walter needs a drink. Sam is judgmental because it is early in the morning. They are now standing, facing each other near the office bar. Sam is taller. Walter seems younger and weaker than he did a few moments ago. Having Heflin, already an accomplished actor, play opposite Douglas, making his movie debut, heightens this inequity between the two men. Douglas does his best to hold his own, but it’s clear that if he wanted to, Heflin could wipe the screen with him. Very good for the characters’ interplay. Heflin seems to be concealing a seething disdain deep beneath his surface that pops out occasionally and surprises us, but oddly enough, not Douglas. The history telegraphs to Douglas anything Heflin might say. He doesn’t ask Douglas for a favor, he tells him: “Oh you can do it, and you will,” indicating some past debt left unpaid. Douglas seems scared for a second. Heflin shifts gears with “for old times’ sake” and diffuses the moment.   Douglas agrees. For now. They drink. These two clearly have a history where Heflin dominated Douglas. When Martha arrives, Douglas tells his secretary to have her wait. When Heflin expresses interest in seeing her, Douglas hesitates, a suppressed hateful look in his eye, but thinks the better of it and tells her to come in. Heflin’s back is to the camera. His body dominates the shot. Martha enters, and all during this sequence when the two-shot of Heflin and Douglas is shown, Douglas is in the background with a look of nothingness, loneliness and sickness, dread, and yes maybe even nausea on his face. The focus is deep enough that we can see both men clearly. He definitely is worried about what will happen when his wife sees this guy. When Martha hears the whistle, she turns around and seems to be a young girl again. She approaches Sam with a squeal of delight, guileless delight. Seeing any character of Miss Stanwyck’s without guile is truly a revelation, even if it’s only for an instant! All through the time Heflin and Stanwyck are getting tactile with each other, Douglas is a statue in the background. His hand is on his intercom. It looks like he would set if off if it were a bomb activation device. Stanwyck is clearly attracted to Heflin in a big way, and most likely was in the past as well.  She uses double entendres, talking about Heflin always being “big” for his age. Douglas goes for another drink. He now looks like he might cry very angry tears. Heflin clearly still thinks of Martha as “his girl” when he tells Douglas that it sounds funny when Douglas thanks him for the complement “for my wife.” Stanwyck doesn’t mind this at all. The way she’s looking at Heflin and touching him it’s clear she’s running through motel phone numbers in her mind. The intercom rings, and Douglas slams his drink on the bar, not enough to break anything, but just enough to make everything rattle. It is clear that Heflin’s visit/return has “rattled” him. She puts her arm through Heflin's to walk him to the door, very comfortable with the physical connection, indicating that these two may have been intimate years ago. Heflin asks her “aren’t you glad you missed that circus train,” implying that doing so gave her this nicer life (with Douglas). She replies, “I don’t know.” A very cold thing to say in front of her husband. On his exit, Heflin orders Douglas with a pointing finger, “you will do that for me, won’t you.” Douglas poses “I’ll try.” Heflin asserts, almost as an order, “you do that.” Further barbs are thrown poor Douglas’ way when Stanwyck says “a sure thing’s never a gamble” indicating her husbands election win on the surface, but implying her staying off the circus train was not and marrying Douglas was. Heflin throws back, “what odds’ll you give that that’s a fact!” indicating Douglas might have actually been the "booby prize," and a ride on a dirty filthy circus train was preferable to life with him.   Heflin exits. Stanwyck looks longingly at him after he leaves. As she closes the door with purpose, we see her walk assertively and quickly toward her husband, indicating that a heated scene will follow. The music suggests this as well.

-- From this early scene, what are some of the noir themes that you expect will play out in this film? Life’s hard knocks: some win, some lose. Unrequited love. Love triangles. Things are not what they seem. This is the office of the district attorney. He’s a drunk, and possibly cuckolded. His wife runs him, clearly brought out when he says “ask Martha” in response to Heflin’s question if the election is a sure thing. The music accents each negative dramatic moment. Setting as a statement: Douglas seems oddly small behind his desk; the window is huge, as is his desk lamp. They don’t so much appear huge as he appears small, like he doesn’t belong, in over his head. Imagery: When Heflin tells Douglas that he’d like to see Martha, first of all he dominates the frame and the window. When he puts his cigarette out in the ashtray, he looks directly into Douglas’ eyes as he takes his sweet time putting it out, rotating it, squashing it, crushing it. The feeling is that he’s telling Douglas he can, or at least wants to “extinguish” him as well.

-- What other films or settings in the Summer of Darkness lineup remind you of Griel Marcus' observation that "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city?" These films expose the “underbelly” of the “heartland.” Tomorrow is another Day, Gun Crazy, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Act of Violence, The Stranger, They Live by Night, The Killers, Out of the Past, Mildred Pierce. These are ones that take place at least in part in small towns and/or in middle America.  I'm sure there are many more that I don't recall at the moment.  Off the list, Santa Rosa is a prime example in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt."

 

Something else just occurred to me:  Since film noir is a great deal about "subtext", the meaning underneath the printed word, consider the exchange "for old times' sake". Written on the script page,  Sam says to Walter "for old times' sake," to which Walter replies "for old times' sake."  So unless there is some stage direction to the contrary, just reading the script would lead us to believe that these two characters are agreeing to something.  The first time I looked at it, there was something "off" about Walter's reply, especially based on the printed word.   Looking at it again, I realized that Walter wasn't being patronizing in his answer, he was saying no.   Sam is saying, "because of our relationship, and what you owe me, you better do this," and Walter is saying "because of what you did to me in the past, I won't."  Same words, completely different meanings.  Subtext.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This scene, though on the surface a very simple exposition scene, seems to hide a lot of darkness beneath its surface and it's fascinating. As we listen to Sam and Walter talk, there is a definite tension between these two seemingly "old friends". Something happened between them that causes them to perhaps keep up appearances in public, yet underneath secretly hating each other. From what I have learned about films noir, I might predict that Barbara Stanywck's character will turn into the film's "spider woman", becoming the death of one or more of these men. This film will certainly have a complex narrative, raw and colliquial dialogue, and a dark story. However, just based on what I've seen in this scene, I don't predict that the noir visual style will be as present in this film.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

New Members:

Register Here

Learn more about the new message boards:

FAQ

Having problems?

Contact Us