Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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...and the door closes.

 

Everyone's life just changed; something new (and noir) is about to begin.

 

Let's see ... Douglas obviously dislikes Heflin and  is perturbed that he has to help him out. Douglas wants to avoid Heflin seeing "his wife," but acquiesces. Stanwyck doesn't recognize Heflin, but when she does is happy to see him. Heflin can't get used to Douglas calling Stanwyk "his wife."

 

Sam: "Aren't you glad now, you missed that circus train?"

 

Martha: "I don't know." 

 

What?! AYK - right in front of your bird? 

 

As far as the Midwestern generic city goes, the office reminds me of the office in The Racket only a bit more upscale: Acme Realty vs. the District Attorney. Could be anywhere.

 

It's great when it's been so long since I've seen a film I can't remember what happens.

 

 

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This is a pretty tense scene but you don't see it immediately in the surface. Sam basically puts Walter on notice that he wants his wife and Walter is very stunned to actually see this being done so bloldy. then on top of it his wife, Martha seems so unphazed.

 

So when you see this you know immediately that this is going to get unpleasant. Sam has already asked Walter for a favor with regard to a young boy who is in trouble.

 

It seems obvious that Sam is in town for other purposes and there is a deeper agenda at work here. Walter seems sort of caught off guard and flatfooted by it.

 

The dynamic between the actors is solid. Douglas in nuanced and Heflin is very forceful. douglas gives him room to work here which makes the scene better.

 

I expect to see the themes of love, betrayal, crime and greed play out.

 

 

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Ah Barbara Stanwyck.  She’s a favorite of both my mother and mine.  This clip starts out pretty simply, and there is nothing overtly noir about the cinematography or the way the characters are interacting.  They seem like two ordinary old friends catching up on old times.  When Sam brings up Martha, the first little hints of jealousy and a love triangle creep in.  Walter’s face when Sam mentions his professional gambling indicates that he doesn’t approve of Sam’s work, but also that he might envy the freedom and fun in Sam’s life.  Walter’s unhappiness in life is further emphasized by his early morning drinking and his comment that Sam doesn’t need help with girls.  I really enjoy that dark look on his face when Martha embraces Sam.  It calls to mind the old cliché “if looks could kill”.  The look on Martha’s face when Walter brings up that she is his wife confirms that they don’t have a happy marriage.  When the music starts up with an ominous tone as Martha closes the door, we know the plot is going to take a darker turn.  The closing door works a good symbol of the Midwestern setting of a film noir.  On the surface everything seems fine: ordinary friendly people with their ordinary lives.  But what they keep hidden behind closed doors is dangerous and full of dark secrets.

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Well just to clear up a few erroneous assumptions some films cited in the comments are really not Midwest 

 

The Killers took place in New Jersey between Philadelphia and the Jersey Coast 

The Postman Always Rings Twice is the California Coast

 

But The Asphalt Jungle is Cincinnati, some other good Midwest Noir are The Long Wait, Road HouseBeyond The Forest and Human Desire

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This scene always amazes me. Sam (Van Heflin) hasn't been in Iverstown in eons. Walter (Kirk Douglas) snagged the rich and powerful Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck). He's got a big time job and he's running for office. His win in the upcoming election is "a sure thing." Yet Walter knows that Sam's presence is a threat to everything he's got going for him in Iverstown. His disdain is immediate. His attitude changes once he sees Martha and Sam reacquaint.

 

I love the way the camera looks slightly upward at Kirk Douglas. It makes his chin look sharper and his cheekbones stand out. You can feel him grit his teeth as he watches his wife and Sam. No amount of booze can make those images go away. Yes, the most respectable citizen (the DA) is a criminal.

 

No one from the big cities like Los Angeles or New York might notice a place like Iverstown. But in its surroundings, it has all of the drama, crime, respectability and power that money can buy! And maybe because of the city's size it is magnified in a place like Iverstown. After all, there are "8 Million Stories in the Naked City" but only one story in Iverstown.

 

 

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In this scene, what do you see as the interpersonal relationships between Sam, Walter, and Martha?

Douglas is an intense guy, dead set on defining his role in this scence with Heflin. He's made it.  And what's more, he got "the girl". Quote, "I married her". And "what does Heflin do?", he asks in interrogative fashion, after all, he is a lawyer. But this scene has nothing to do with law, or Heflin's request. These are side streets and backroads. It's all about the girl. It's all about Stanwyck.

Notice Douglas when Stanwyck remembers Heflin. He's incensed at even the notion that someone else knows his wife, (we have the past to thank for that). But we can forget what we know, or don't know about this film. Again, it's all about "the girl", and we have Ms. Stanwyck to thank for that!

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

It's all under the surface. Bubbling and sizzling like a pre-erupting volcano, Douglas seems instantly portrayed as the bad guy with a whatever-it-takes-to-get-ahead drive. Heflin's a bit more bouyant, unsettled in his sense of direction, but as a man, confident and sure of himself. At least for now. The mention of the girl who's already violated parole and is back in jail is a classic set-up for trouble to come. Toss in Stanwyck, Douglas's jealousy, (already well above a simmer), and you have a ticking time bomb. Oh, and the mention of 'gambling', of ANY sort, sets the stage for an intriguing, rather classy stroll, down dark street in Iverstown.

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...and the door closes.

 

Everyone's life just changed; something new (and noir) is about to begin.

 

Let's see ... Douglas obviously dislikes Heflin and  is perturbed that he has to help him out. Douglas wants to avoid Heflin seeing "his wife," but acquiesces. Stanwyck doesn't recognize Heflin, but when she does is happy to see him. Heflin can't get used to Douglas calling Stanwyk "his wife."

 

Sam: "Aren't you glad now, you missed that circus train?"

 

Martha: "I don't know." 

 

What?! AYK - right in front of your bird? 

 

As far as the Midwestern generic city goes, the office reminds me of the office in The Racket only a bit more upscale: Acme Realty vs. the District Attorney. Could be anywhere.

 

It's great when it's been so long since I've seen a film I can't remember what happens.

Love the analogy of the door closing, and we're just beginning.

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I can see that Sam and Walter start off friendly, but not real friends.  They try to be friendly, remembering old days, but Walter is a little nervous around Sam.  And then Sam pretty much twists Walter's arm in an effort to get him to help a friend of his out of jail.  I can tell from that part of the scene that Sam has something on Walter.  And that Walter wants to keep things quiet.  Then Martha enters the scene.  And after she hears a familiar call, she remembers who Sam is.  I can see Walter seething quietly in the back ground.  He is jealous of Sam.  I would go so far as to say that Walter hates Sam.  While Martha seems to think she has been rescued.  They all try to keep their deeper feelings controlled in front of one another, but they are not at ease with each other.  It looks to me to be a love triangle.  I get a feeling that Martha thinks more of Sam than she does her husband Walter.  And poor Walter is on the outside of happiness and he naturally doesn't like it there.  The Postman Always Rings Twice is set in a small town.  And there is the noir beginning.  A man sees a beautiful woman.  She sizes him up from how he looks at her.  The scene leaves the audience thinking that something is going to happen between these two characters that shouldn't, but neither of them is going to put a stop to it.  And in the end, the bad guy(s) get their just desserts. 

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I've never seen this movie before and, surprisingly, hadn't really heard the title before taking this course. But it's been name-dropped in a few other threads and has a great cast, so I'm excited to check it out.

 

The main thing that I noticed in this scene was something pointed out in an earlier post--as soon as Martha enters the scene, Douglas spends almost all of his time behind his desk, placing a physical barrier between himself and the other two characters (who seemed destined for a love affair). He emerges to down a shot or two, but then returns back behind the desk. It has the effect of pushing him back in the frame and making him seem much smaller than the other two, like he's fading away in their presence.

 

And I know that this is maybe just my modern eye, but I was so distracted by the animal pelts hanging off of Martha's shoulders. To me, furs are always such a crude mash up of barbaric and "civilized". Wealthy people, draped in dead animal bodies. There's literally one of the poor creatures that seems to be staring into the camera.

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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.

 

What struck me is the dialogue with innuendo to a past (or hoped for) relationship between Sam and Martha.  The camera allows you to see Walter's reactions as these other two characters reacquaint with each other.  I have not seen the entire film, but this scene makes me want to see it.

 

Also, earlier in the scene, before Martha enters, you can clearly see the disdain in Walter's (Douglas') face when Sam (Heflin) asks him to fix his problem with a woman who is in jail.  Walter does not want to do it, but Sam tells him that he will with no uncertainty.  This exchange indicates to me that Sam has something on Walter and that "most respectable citizen is always the most criminal."

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

 

It's all under the surface. Bubbling and sizzling like a pre-erupting volcano, Douglas seems instantly portrayed as the bad guy with a whatever-it-takes-to-get-ahead drive. Heflin's a bit more bouyant, unsettled in his sense of direction, but as a man, confident and sure of himself. At least for now. The mention of the girl who's already violated parole and is back in jail is a classic set-up for trouble to come. Toss in Stanwyck, Douglas's jealousy, (already well above a simmer), and you have a ticking time bomb. Oh, and the mention of 'gambling', of ANY sort, sets the stage for an intriguing, rather classy stroll, down dark street in Iverstown.

He pretty much said what I was going to say about this scene.

 

As for the rest of the clip, Walter is clearly a powerful man and whatever he wants, he gets, especially when asking Sam to help him get a friend out of jail. And he won't take no for an answer, all the way down to offering Sam a drink even though Sam hasn't had breakfast yet.

 

Perhaps Martha knows who Sam is but can't quite place him, or wants to forget him until he whistles. Then she becomes all lovey-dovey, embracing him, which triggers the green-eyed monster in Walter.

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The scene remains largely unfocused on Kirk Douglas' character, Walter while it highlights the relationship between Van Heflin's Sam and Barbara Stanwyck's Martha.

 

This seems intentional and having not seen the film, I'm sure it foreshadows quite a bit about the ultimately strange relationships between the three of them.  The staging, something I thought was done in a clever and thoughtful manner, was directed toward a hyperfocus on Heflin and Stanwyck with only a small focus on Douglas, whose facial expressions are priceless.

 

Despite the background nature of Douglas' Walter, it still allows the character to draw attention because of these emotions.  If there was one thing that Kirk Douglas did superior to all others, it was intensely convey his own thoughts and emotions in a riveting, passionate manner; never too over-the-top like Heston, but always much more powerful than subdued noir actors like Robert Mitchum.

 

Here, director Lewis Milestone seems to allow for Douglas' powerful expressions to be highlighted and to show his passion and desire, or lack thereof, despite the camera's focus on the other two characters.  This is a significant feat in and of itself (for Milestone and Douglas) as it is challenging to draw such significant attention to the more "minor details" while focused on other equally passionate and intriguing characters.

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I haven't had the pleasure of watching this movie yet, but I have read about it and I totally see what they mean when they say Kirk Douglas uncharacteristically portrays a wuss (with skill) in this, his first, movie. The staging made Kirk look small and ineffectual, something I can't recall noticing in any of his other movies I've seen. And his character is oddly insecure, behaving quite defensively to someone who is revealed to be a childhood friend who has done pretty much nothing with their life. Then his nutless state is made all the more apparent as a foil to Barbara Stanwyck's cold, indifferent behavior toward him, followed by the joyful reception she gives Van Heflin once she recognizes him. From their interactions I gather that they were all three close as youngsters, but that Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck were the two of the three who folks thought would have hooked up back in the day, despite present circumstances. 

 

In my crystal ball, I see The Strange Love of Martha Ivers containing such noir themes as crime (the gal who needs bailing out), infidelity, emasculation and despair (we shall see).

 

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-- 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)?

 

You have a story to tell. How then do you tell it? One way is go straight to the point, skip the dramatics like (Kiss Me Deadly) where we immediately saw a desperate woman running for her life. An attention grabber. Another way is to tell it subtly, keep the story moving, say only enough to keep them interested. Are you doing well? Pause. . . If no one says a word- you lost them. If they beg you to go on- you know you are doing well.

 

What I wouldn’t give to see the next scene after Martha closes that door!!!

 

We see Walter O’Neil, (Kirk Douglas) dressed in a nice suit, well groomed, towering over Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) who accepts a cigarette looking ordinary. This staging suggests that Walter is a man of importance or having power. Of the two, Walter appears the dominant one. As Walter sits and they talk about old times, this dominance is further insinuated as he still is towering over Sam.

 

They talk very briefly about when they were kids (the three of us), how Walter married her, what Sam’s been up to- all spoken in that familiar noir banter pace. Soon they stand to have a drink (before breakfast!) and we notice Sam is the taller man but his suit is not as polish, looking worn even, with shirt and tie not “crisp”. Next Sam asks Walter for help “for old time sakes" with a girl that is in custody. 

 

The tone and pace is very subtle thus far. This changes when Mrs. O’Neil enters the room.

 

 

Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) enters looking glamorous, wearing a fur stole, stylish hat and white gloves. At first she did not recognize Sam. (we see Walter in the background observing). Moments later, when she finally realizes its her childhood friend, she greets him with warmth and excitement. Standing left and back in the frame, Walter looks on, and seems not too happy with this reunion. What Martha says next is very telling-

 

“You’ve grown to be a big boy, Sam.”

“Well I always was big for my age, you remember.”

“Yes. I remember,” she said, then glances unwelcoming at Walter.

 

Right before our eyes we notice a change in the dynamics between these three people.

 

Walter now looks less dominant as he looks at the two them from a distance, as they stand very close to each other- her hand holding his arm. Sam looks more in control now talking with confidents and not shy about his pleasure in being with Martha. There is an isolated shot of Walter holding a bottle on one hand, a glass in the other, and both, hands spread out with a look of bewilderment on his face.

 

Sam reminds Walter of the favor he asked for while Martha walks him to the door. Once he exists, Martha turns, sees Walter sitting on his desk, then closes the door with purpose as he begins to stand.

 

These three have a history and it appears that it is not a good one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Daily Dose of Darkness #23: Iverstown

(Scene from 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)?

I love the look on Walter’s face when Sam and Martha meet for the first time as adults. He seems always to be in the background, small, compared to Sam and Martha. When he is in a scene by himself, he’s drinking and looking forlorn. The dialogue about the election being a sure thing, because Martha says so, implies that Martha is corrupt and the force behind her husband’s political life. Walter is a pawn in her schemes, both political and interpersonal. The last shot in the clip shows Walter in the far background in his office; Martha is at his office door in the foreground, but the door seems to be closing on her. Sam’s return won’t be good for Martha, but it’s already been a source of heartbreak for Walter.

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

Political corruption is a big one. Favors for old friends (or should I say, “old enemies”?) is another theme. Sam’s character sounds vaguely threatening when he tells Walter that he will do the favor, like Walter has no choice. From this brief clip, one could also wonder if Walter has something to worry about when it comes to his marriage to Martha.

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

I can’t think of another movie that takes place only in a small Midwestern town, but others in the Summer of Darkness lineup do use small towns some of the time: D.O.A., The Killers, Act of Violence. The characters in these three movies live in smaller towns or cities (not necessarily Midwestern), but they don’t escape the past or the corruption around them. Sam, in this clip from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, is walking right into corruption in Iverstown.

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At first I was thinking that Sam and Walter were actually old friends, and perhaps that was true at one point, but as the scene progresses it's clear that Walter wished Sam never walked into his office. Sam clearly has the ability to cause Walter some problems, whether exposing a secret from his past or interfering in something current...like the election. Walter tries to set the boundaries by saying the charge isn't easy to overcome, but Sam insists that he can...inferring "do whatever you have to do, you owe me".

 

Walter tries to establish his superior position in the relationship with Sam - rebuffing his lifestyle and crowing that he has already won a battle ("I married her") but Sam defuses that by saying he finds it odd that he refers to Martha as his "wife" - and this in front of Martha.

 

I'm believing that Martha did not immediately recognize Sam, but she lit up like a roman candle when she did - and Sam's confidence that his whistle would be undeniable suggests that they not only knew each other well, but probably intimately, and he brazenly dangles that in Walter's face on about three occasions. The oddest part of the scene was Martha's response to Sam's question of whether she was happy with the path she chose - she didn't even try the pretense of a pat answer, and acted as if she didn't even care that Walter was in the room! How about emasculating a man without even speaking to him...wow.

 

Martha also has Walter in the palm of her hand - she's probably the money he needs, or the influence, or both. I immediately thought of another Stanwyck character - Leona Stevenson in Sorry Wrong Number - totally controlling Burt Lancaster because of similar purse strings. That didn't end well. :(

 

Wonder what those facial expression changed to when that door closed...was she feigning comfort in Sam's presence but afraid of the consequences? Ready to lay down the law to Walter? Upset that Sam's overt familiarity might cause Walter to act less predictably? Can't wait to find out!

 

Noir themes? Already have deceit and jealousy; I expect betrayal, blackmail, false (and true) accusations, and a few lives unraveling...maybe all three of the people in that scene.

 

On the topic of small towns being endemic, I'm not sure I agree - something about a metropolis that makes the suffering protagonist seem smaller and more desperate. But in a small town, it's much harder to hide out or hide a secret.

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“The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

 

Kirk Douglas is a district attorney who drinks too much.

 

Barbara Stanwyck, his wife, is mildly interested in her husband.

 

Van Heflin is a gambler trying to get as much out of life (and people) as he can.

 

Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are two out of three people who once knew each other and who now are very much interested in each other.  Kirk Douglas is interested in them both.

 

I have no idea where this movie is going, but I am going to watch it to find out. :)

 

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-- 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.

Walter, Sam, and Martha were close friends when they were children, but now it's 18 years later, they are all grown up. But what about the past. It would seem from the facial expressions and voice tone, that Walter owes something to Sam and Sam has come to collect a favor, i.e., a release of a parole violator that is a friend of Sam's. This is a heavy duty favor that Walter may not want to do. Sam's gambling occupation could be a problem with Walter. Walter's facial expression tipped this off when Walter asked what he did for a job. Walter's drinking habits could be a problem with Sam.Perhaps the biggest noir situation is the old relationship between Martha and Sam. Walter immediately becomes worried that Sam could be trouble between him and his wife Martha. Sam and Martha had a very strong and close embrace that did not please Walter.

 

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

From the facial expressions of Walter and Sam, it seems that Sam believes that Walter owes him for something that happened in the past. This could be a blackmail situation. The way that Martha finally recognizes Sam and the way they embrace, something could happen here that Walter would not approve.

 

-- 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 3 movies that first come to mind for emblematic noir in a small town situation are The Postman Always Rings Twice, Johnny Belinda, and The Stranger. All 3 films had small towns with lots of gossip.

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In terms of acting and staging at first the meeting between Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) and Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas) there seems to be a genuine reunion of a friendship of eighteen years ago but very quickly becomes a chess game of power plays about dominance and veiled threats.  Sam reveals his somewhat shady character by requesting, practically demanding that Walter, the D.A., help a friend get out of jail (possible blackmail).  Walter quickly appears to be agitated by his former friend and totally put off when pressured to do an underhanded act and even more irritated with the interaction between Sam and Walter’s wife. 

 

The situation becomes more entangled when this trio’s actions reveal that they are all less than above board characters indicating corruption when Walter says it is a sure thing regarding his re-election.  It is hinted about Sam and Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) had had a more intimate relationship earlier in their lives, much to Walter’s disdain (power play, jealously).  Such a mish mash of emotions hidden and revealed are brilliantly played out between Heflin, Douglas and Stanwyck leaving the audience with an abundance of possible plot lines to follow and all dark and dreary.  Within this short scene we have a boiling pot of shady characters, corruption, threats, jealousy, questionable loyalties and we haven’t even met Lizabeth Scott’s character yet!  Can’t wait to see how this bumpy ride plays out! 

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This scene is thick with the kind of entanglements that lie beneath small-town relationships. Superficially Walter and Martha's reunificiation with their old childhood pal Sam appears jovial and hearty. But just underneath we feel some baggage from their shared past bobbing up like a drowned corpse, even if we don't know the details at this point. The tension between Walter and Sam is palpable. Sam (Heflin) suggests he has taken some gambles in his life and is figuratively holding a good hand and has some sort of leverage over Walter (Douglas) which, as he alludes to in their parting lines, may give him some influence when Walter has to run for re-election. The word "blackmail" doesn't need to be spoken when we hear how Sam points at Walter and says "you'll do that favor for me, won't you". While Sam appears sure of himself, Walter is wound tightly (a Kirk Douglas specialty). It's also clear that his drinking is routine. Even though it's unacceptably early in the day for it, he escapes from some uncomfortable sparring in the conversation with that time-honored ritual of social lubrication -  "let's have a drink". Walter tosses back his shots with the ease of breathing, while Sam regards his glass uncomfortably.

 

Then Martha (Stanwyck) enters and once she's reminded who Sam is, their bond from the past becomes apparent. The scene composition at this point banishes Walter from the frame. As Martha and Sam express their joy at seeing each other again after all these years, Walter slinks off to the sideboard to down another drink. Sam and Martha have something between them that's more than just "old time's sake", and Walter notices. In the final shot as Martha bids Sam goodbye for now, Walter looms in the background, small but threateining, in a way that bodes complications for sure.

 

Looking forward to this one!

 

 

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The staging and acting suggest that Heflin and Stanwyck's characters knew each other quite well before this scene. Douglas seems vaguely threatened by Heflin's presence and closeness to his wife. By thanking him for his wife, he seems to suggest that the two may have been an item at one point, but that Heflin cut his ties with Stanwyck, in order to get on with his life elsewhere, perhaps.

 

I have seen the movie and all I'll say is that it's a great example of film noir. I highly recommend it! :)

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It's strange seeing Kirk Douglas in a situation where he's not the alpha male. That said I heard John Wayne criticized him for his portrayal of the weak struggling VanGogh.

 

We open on Sam and Walter getting reacquainted after over a decade has passed.  The scene is smoothly lighted without shadowy expressiveness.  Walter, on the right dominates the scene. He's larger and taller than Sam although not by much.  We learn Sam has spent their time apart as a gambler and, by inference living an adventurous life. Walter has pursued a more conventional path and it's gotten him to be District Attorney.  He's a success (by conventional standards)

 

The scene shifts and the two men share the screen evenly as Sam asks Walter to get a woman out of a jam for probation violation.  Walter says it's a tough rap to beat.  Although they're even Sam's inference that Walter should help out for "old time's sake" gives the impression he has something on Walter.

 

There's a buzz and and a cut to Walter answering his intercom.  He's on the left and dramatically diminished in the frame.  It's his wife, Martha.  Following her entrance he remains diminished throughout the remainder of the scene in relation to Sam and Martha.  It becomes clear he's dependent on Martha for his current and future success.

 

Sounds like he won Martha from Sam, but Sam is clearly the more dominant man in this snippet.  He's relaxed, glib, confident.  Walter for all his success (and a great looking suit) is small, wary, anxious and jealous.  Jealous to the point he accepts Sam's compliment to Martha on behalf of "my wife."  If a guy has to establish his position this way we know he's in trouble.

 

Sam's appearance is random and disruptive and a threat to the "sure thing." Martha and Walter have built.  

 

We've seen other small towns in The Killers, Mildred Pierce, Out of the Past, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. In Caged the glance at "fireside" shows a small town Main Street and a prominent church spire.  I don't think I've ever seen a prison so close to a church.  In D.O.A. Frank wants to escape his small town and chase women in San Francisco.  I think it's implied the guys in Hitch Hiker are from a small town.

 

These latter two show vestiges of conventional morality since shortly after the men express sexual interest they get into life threatening (and in one case life ending) situations.

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On the topic of small towns being endemic, I'm not sure I agree - something about a metropolis that makes the suffering protagonist seem smaller and more desperate. But in a small town, it's much harder to hide out or hide a secret.

 

What I find in small-to-medium-town settings is this whole additional layer that comes from the characters' shared past that's generally missing from big-city stories where the characters are strangers thrown together by the situation. People who grew up together know each other's strenghts and weaknesses and secrets intimately. Towns have this tangled web of social interactions and family histories, old legends and secrets, skeletons in the closet - all extremely fertile ground for melodramatically-inclined noir plots.

 

Additionally, these mid-size industrial towns described in the Greil Marcus quote have a layered socio-economic class structure determined by a family's position in the reigning factory - owner, managers, laborers - which brings all sorts of social-conflict elements to the mix - ruthless status-seeking, envy, corruption, influence-wielding, blackmail.

 

That said, it's notable how so many of the stories we've looked at are set in motion by an outsider coming into town, or the return of a "citified" ex-resident...

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– 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.

 

This scene provides a lot of exposition about the past relationships of Sam, Walter, and Martha.  Sam has been away for 17-18 years, but the three grew up together in Iverstown.  Walter is now the District Attorney and married to Martha.  Walter describes Martha as beautiful, but when Sam comments that Walter has done all right, Walter replies, “Well, I guess so.”  This lukewarm response would seem to imply that there may be some problem in their marriage.  Sam describes his business to Walter as gambling, but it is unclear to me whether this is to be taken literally or metaphorically.  When Walter says “all life is a gamble,” Sam comes back with “some win, some don’t.”  Although Walter appears to be a winner in that he has an important job and a big office and clearly married the girl they both seem to have been interested in, he retorts to Sam, “You needn’t have made that point.”  Here again Walter seems to be sensitive to something about winning and losing.  Does he see himself in some way as a loser?  Walter changes the conversation and persuades Sam to share a drink “for old time’s sake” even though Sam hasn’t even stopped for breakfast yet.  Is this a sign that Walter has a drinking problem?  As the conversation gets down to why Sam came to see Walter, it turns out that Sam is asking for Walter’s help in getting a female acquaintance (Toni Marachek) released from jail, where she has landed due to a probation violation.  Although Walter is reluctant to agree to help, Sam states flatly, “You can do it.  And you will.”  He’s looking to his old friend for a favor, and the wording and tone seem to imply that Sam may actually have some unspoken leverage that he expects will sway the D.A. to bend the rules in Toni’s case.

 

Now the secretary announces via intercom that Martha has come to see Walter.  Considering that these three are childhood friends, it seems strange that Walter asks the secretary to have Martha wait.  It would seem that he is trying to avoid a three-way reunion, but Sam’s comment “Well, I’d like to see her” causes Walter to have her sent in.  Strangely, Martha does not recognize Sam, even when he provides his name, but when gives a peculiar whistle that surely recalls their childhood, Martha rushes over to give “Sammy” a hug.  At this point Walter is looking askance at this reunion that he apparently was hoping to avoid.  Significantly, Walter is standing on the left side of the frame with Martha on the right side and Sam symbolically right in between them.  As Sam and Martha exchange pleasantries, Walter steps out of the frame and reappears at the liquor cabinet to pour himself another drink, which he uses as a sort of toast to Sam when Sam compliments Martha on growing up to be so beautiful.  Walter gets testy when Sam comments that it still sounds funny to hear Walter refer to Martha as his wife.  Sam tells Walter not to get sore, but clearly the successful D.A. is jealous of Sam, the childhood friend who has reappeared in Iverstown after so many years.  As Martha walks Sam to the door of the office, Sam asks Martha, “Aren’t you glad now you missed that circus train?”  This would seem to refer to some youthful plan of Sam and Martha to leave Iverstown together, an indication that two may have been in love in their youth and a reason to fuel Walter’s jealousy.  Martha replies, “I don’t  know,” which also seems to be a lukewarm comment on her relationship with Walter.  As he leaves, Sam reminds Walter of the favor he has asked, and Walter gives only an equivocal answer, “I’ll try my best.”  Sam’s good luck wish for Walter’s coming election leads to a discussion of Walter’s confidence that winning the election will be a “sure thing.”  Martha declares that “a sure thing is never a gamble.”  Sam is skeptical:  “What odds will you give that that’s a fact?”

 

 

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

 

Despite all the trappings of success, Walter and Martha do not appear to have an entirely happy marriage.  Since the town bears the name of Martha’s family, it seems logical that she comes from the top echelon of society in the town.  Perhaps Walter’s success is due to his having married into a powerful and influential family.  So I expect that one theme will be corruption or crime found in the lives of Iverstown’s power couple.  The reference to Walter’s election being a “sure thing” is a pretty clear indication that something about the election will not be kosher.

 

Another theme I expect from this film involves Toni Marachek.  All we know from this scene is that she is on probation for some crime and has now violated the terms of her probation.  Since Sam is sticking up for her, I expect she may be a case of an innocent person wrongly convicted, but I suppose it is  possible she could also be a bad girl type or even a femme fatale who is dragging Sam down with her.

 

 

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

 

•  Santa Lisa in Act of Violence

 

•  Paradise City in The Set-Up

 

•  Reno in Born to Kill

 

•  Harper in The Stranger

 

•  Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt  (outside our list)

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At the beginning of the clip, it appears two old acquaintances are having an unexpected reunion as indicated that it's taking place in an office rather than a restaurant or someone's home.  The office is that of a very successful man, and we learn that it belongs to Walter, the DA.   Walter is sitting in such a way that he is above Sam, a position suggesting power.  But, Sam appears quite comfortable and sure of himself.  We learn that he is a gambler and the real reason he's there is that he wants a favor of Walter.  He wants Walter to arrange for the release of a girl who's in jail on a charge of probation violation.  So, she's had previous trouble with the law.  There's something in Sam's manner when he suggests that Walter will help "for old times sake"  that he means something more than Walter's helping out an old buddy.  At this point both men are standing, there's more a sense of equal power....

 

When Martha's arrival is announced, it's obvious by the expression on his face that Walter really doesn't want Sam to see her but he admits her to the office anyway.  It's like he can't think of a good excuse to avoid the meeting.  At first Martha doesn't even remember Sam but then he whistles a couple of notes and recognition comes swiftly.  She seems genuinely glad to see him.  Sam hugs her and the 2nd time his hug  is a little too friendly.  The expression on Walter's face says it all.  Is there a triangle being resurrected?  There was trouble in the past and trouble possibly brewing in the future.  When Sam asks what else she remembers from the old days, she's evasive, letting us know that there are things she and Walter don't want brought up.  They had left the past behind, have built successful lives, and out of the blue it may be threatened.  It's like a storm suddenly coming....

 

 

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