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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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You can’t go home again.  Not only is this an old saying, but it’s origins spring from the book with the same name by Thomas Wolfe.  While the book featured similar post-war themes of change, angst and confusion, it’s societal focus was on the 1920s and the rise of fascism.  Two human reactions to global upheaval and the change it brings are to adjust to the realities or romanticize about “the good old days”.


 


The theme of second chances is driven home in my favorite noir film of all time, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  A trio of childhood friends (played by Barbara Stanwyck (Martha), Van Heflin (Sam), Lizabeth Scott (Toni) and in his screen debut, Kirk Douglas (Walter) are bound together by one fateful action carried out in the dead of night, causing Van Heflin to skip town.  Almost two decades later, he’s forced back to Iverson by the turn of Fate’s wheel, as his car refuses to budge after a minor accident.  Further complications - in the form of noir doll Toni, a controlling Martha desperate to re-establish old ties and alcoholic Walter, seething with impotent rage - conspire to bring down our hero.  


 


Sam sees life as a gamble, and on one level appears to go with the flow with a zen smile.  But he learns a few things about himself as he fights his impulse to cut and run when things get tough.


 

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You can’t go home again.  Not only is this an old saying, but it’s origins spring from the book with the same name by Thomas Wolfe.  While the book featured similar post-war themes of change, angst and confusion, it’s societal focus was on the 1920s and the rise of fascism.  Two human reactions to global upheaval and the change it brings are to adjust to the realities or romanticize about “the good old days”.

 

The theme of second chances is driven home in my favorite noir film of all time, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  A trio of childhood friends (played by Barbara Stanwyck (Martha), Van Heflin (Sam), Lizabeth Scott (Toni) and in his screen debut, Kirk Douglas (Walter) are bound together by one fateful action carried out in the dead of night, causing Van Heflin to skip town.  Almost two decades later, he’s forced back to Iverson by the turn of Fate’s wheel, as his car refuses to budge after a minor accident.  Further complications - in the form of noir doll Toni, a controlling Martha desperate to re-establish old ties and alcoholic Walter, seething with impotent rage - conspire to bring down our hero.  

 

Sam sees life as a gamble, and on one level appears to go with the flow with a zen smile.  But he learns a few things about himself as he fights his impulse to cut and run when things get tough.

 

 

Sam (Heflin)  was planning to leave town for reasons unrelated to anything that occurred that fateful night.   So while that night sealed the fate of Walter and Martha (as well as Walter's dad),  it didn't impact Sam's future until he returned to Iverstown.      Poor Martha and Walter;  they didn't know that Sam didn't know.  

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23 MARTHA IVERS: A Sure Thing Is Never A Gamble.
When Martha Ivers recognizes Sam Masterson we realize that to him she once was a sure thing.

 

 

Hi Jon: In reviewing the message boards, I see that you are making your own titles for each of the Daily Doses, and using it to often highlight a different aspect of each of the Doses. Love it! 

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In this scene from Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, 1946, there is a lot of tension and anxiety between Sam (Heflin), Walter (Douglas), and Martha (Stanwyck) who all grew up together.  Sam's tension and anxiety is about whether Walter will help to get Toni Marachek out of jail.  He is also curious about Martha and how she has changed; no fear or tension here towards her though.  Walter is very jealous of Sam and is fearful and anxious that Sam may still be interested in Martha.  Also, Walter is afraid that Sam may review to the world that Martha killed her aunt and that he and his father covered this up, or, that he has come to blackmail him and Martha with this. Martha hardly recognizes Sam until he announces himself and whistles (his particular whistle for her when they grew up together) at her.  Then, she is overjoyed to see Sam.  Despite this, she is anxious about why Sam came back to town to see them.  Walter is usually staged behind Sam when Martha is in the scene which places emphasis on his insecurity and fears.  Walter's forlorn or worried expression on his face also adds to this.  When either of the two actors/actress are placed on the same level, the tensions seems to abate and they seem vulnerable to each other.

 

My possible expectations for what will happen in this film noir are as follows.  The femme fatale, Martha, will get her comeuppance for seducing, scheming and murdering.  Walter, the insecure and jealous alcoholic husband of Martha is doomed to remain so.  Sam and Toni, both cynical and alone may or may not escape the town and/or Martha's and Walter's schemes.

 

Other films or settings in the Summer of Darkness lineup that remind me of Griel Marcus' observation that "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city are:  Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Killers, Mildred Pierce, Murder, My Sweet, and DOA.  

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There is a lot of posturing in this scene, particularly between Sam and Walter who are supposed to be two old childhood friends who have not seen each other for many years. There is a twinge of awkwardness to their conversation which can be expected, however Walter also gives a sense of higher anxiety and tension. He may not be as happy to see this old friend as we are lead to believe. Douglas' glare and the way he speaks sternly provide a subtle sense of menace. Rather than sit next to Sam on an equal footing, he sits on the table so he hovers above Sam, giving a sense of dominance in their relationship. Later when they are discussing Sam's friend who is in need of Walter's help, the dominance is reversed. Walter, perhaps feeling more at ease after a drink, is more comfortably composed. When he says helping Sam's girl out won't be easy, Sam is quick to become forceful and "You can do it . . . and you will." This visibly shakes Walter and Sam quickly covers by saying it's "for old times sake."

 

I get the sense that maybe these were not best friends, but that Walter would always defer to Sam, that he was the dominant one in their friendship. We later discover that Sam was always big for his age and perhaps he would push Walter around. Now that Sam has returned, perhaps Walter's uneasiness and tension arises out of those feelings on inadequacy. He has made something of himself, married a beautiful woman and attained the position of district attorney, while Sam lives a more carefree life, free to gamble and travel. Perhaps he has developed an inferiority complex that Sam's return has sent into overdrive. He's hesitant to re-introduce his wife Martha to Sam. Perhaps Martha had a thing for him when they were younger and he is worried those feelings may still be there. Once Martha does arrive and warmly embraces Sam, Walter moves to take another drink and glares at them from the background. Walter is practically seething with anger and jealousy which is not helped by how close Sam and Martha appear to be.

 

I think the sexual tension between Sam and Martha will develop driving Walter to higher depths of jealousy and perhaps push him into something dangerous. The first film I actually thought off in regards to the question of what other films reinforce the assertion that "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city" was actually one not covered at all and perhaps might not even be classified as film noir. I was thinking of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. As we discussed, the master of suspense can be considered a special case on film noir and in this film a man returns to a small town to a family that is overjoyed to see him until we discover he is harboring a dark and dangerous secret. Sam's return is similar in that perhaps he is not bringing the darkness with him but his presence is unleashing it in the people who are there. These towns/cities are not the urban jungles of New York or Los Angeles, but are relatable to where a lot of Americans were living at this time. This invasion into these comfortable and safe environments filled with nuclear families and clean, everyday living, continues to show that the random darkness of film noir can affect anybody, anywhere.

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There is a lot of posturing in this scene, particularly between Sam and Walter who are supposed to be two old childhood friends who have not seen each other for many years. There is a twinge of awkwardness to their conversation which can be expected, however Walter also gives a sense of higher anxiety and tension. He may not be as happy to see this old friend as we are lead to believe. Douglas' glare and the way he speaks sternly provide a subtle sense of menace. Rather than sit next to Sam on an equal footing, he sits on the table so he hovers above Sam, giving a sense of dominance in their relationship. Later when they are discussing Sam's friend who is in need of Walter's help, the dominance is reversed. Walter, perhaps feeling more at ease after a drink, is more comfortably composed. When he says helping Sam's girl out won't be easy, Sam is quick to become forceful and "You can do it . . . and you will." This visibly shakes Walter and Sam quickly covers by saying it's "for old times sake."

 

I get the sense that maybe these were not best friends, but that Walter would always defer to Sam, that he was the dominant one in their friendship. We later discover that Sam was always big for his age and perhaps he would push Walter around. Now that Sam has returned, perhaps Walter's uneasiness and tension arises out of those feelings on inadequacy. He has made something of himself, married a beautiful woman and attained the position of district attorney, while Sam lives a more carefree life, free to gamble and travel. Perhaps he has developed an inferiority complex that Sam's return has sent into overdrive. He's hesitant to re-introduce his wife Martha to Sam. Perhaps Martha had a thing for him when they were younger and he is worried those feelings may still be there. Once Martha does arrive and warmly embraces Sam, Walter moves to take another drink and glares at them from the background. Walter is practically seething with anger and jealousy which is not helped by how close Sam and Martha appear to be.

 

I think the sexual tension between Sam and Martha will develop driving Walter to higher depths of jealousy and perhaps push him into something dangerous. The first film I actually thought off in regards to the question of what other films reinforce the assertion that "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city" was actually one not covered at all and perhaps might not even be classified as film noir. I was thinking of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. As we discussed, the master of suspense can be considered a special case on film noir and in this film a man returns to a small town to a family that is overjoyed to see him until we discover he is harboring a dark and dangerous secret. Sam's return is similar in that perhaps he is not bringing the darkness with him but his presence is unleashing it in the people who are there. These towns/cities are not the urban jungles of New York or Los Angeles, but are relatable to where a lot of Americans were living at this time. This invasion into these comfortable and safe environments filled with nuclear families and clean, everyday living, continues to show that the random darkness of film noir can affect anybody, anywhere.

I suspected someone would say what I saw in the scene by today--and you did. I do want to add one thing about Sam. When he is talking to Walter, he is sitting back relaxed. Walter doesn't have the power, just the position of power. He hasn't frightened Same or even made him feel uncomoftable. You cans see that when he asks for a favor. As you mentioned, he tell Walter: "you will." They are standing on even physical ground with Sam taking a drink from Walter. Walter never had the power in this scene, he just tries to get it through his physical presence.

 

When Martha comes in, she and Sam are thrilled to see each other. It isn't until Sam is ready to leave that Martha becomes anxious. It starts when Sam tells--not asks--Walter: "you will do that thing for me?" Sam reminds Walter he has the real power. Sam even touches Martha's elbow when he leaves. He's not afraid of her. Martha may have the power to make Walter's election a "sure thing," but she doesn't have the power to control Sam.

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I suspected someone would say what I saw in the scene by today--and you did. I do want to add one thing about Sam. When he is talking to Walter, he is sitting back relaxed. Walter doesn't have the power, just the position of power. He hasn't frightened Same or even made him feel uncomoftable. You cans see that when he asks for a favor. As you mentioned, he tell Walter: "you will." They are standing on even physical ground with Sam taking a drink from Walter. Walter never had the power in this scene, he just tries to get it through his physical presence.

 

When Martha comes in, she and Sam are thrilled to see each other. It isn't until Sam is ready to leave that Martha becomes anxious. It starts when Sam tells--not asks--Walter: "you will do that thing for me?" Sam reminds Walter he has the real power. Sam even touches Martha's elbow when he leaves. He's not afraid of her. Martha may have the power to make Walter's election a "sure thing," but she doesn't have the power to control Sam.

 

(spoilers)

 

Which makes it all the more shocking for Martha & Walter when they find out that Sam wasn't even present at Aunt Ivers' fatal stairway fall almost 20 years ago. We the audience realize that Sam's power over them is not because he could let the Ivers skeleton out of the closet. I think it's because he got out of Iverstown and grew up a regular Joe, untainted by the corrosive effect of the Ivers family influence. Sure, as somewhat of a gambler and drifter his social status is low. But Martha and Walter's status is hollow and based on a lie.

 

In Martha's last dying words we're reminded that she was born a Smith. It circles back to the prologue where teenage Martha, in her last stand against Aunt Ivers, tries to assert her identity as the daughter of Smith, a laborer in the Ivers factory. But her identity is squashed like a bug and she's made into an Ivers. Which doesn't end well.

 

Quite a few 50s movies, noir and otherwise, expose the falsehood and corruption at the peak of the small-town power pyramid.

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(spoilers)

 

Which makes it all the more shocking for Martha & Walter when they find out that Sam wasn't even present at Aunt Ivers' fatal stairway fall almost 20 years ago. We the audience realize that Sam's power over them is not because he could let the Ivers skeleton out of the closet. I think it's because he got out of Iverstown and grew up a regular Joe, untainted by the corrosive effect of the Ivers family influence. Sure, as somewhat of a gambler and drifter his social status is low. But Martha and Walter's status is hollow and based on a lie.

 

In Martha's last dying words we're reminded that she was born a Smith. It circles back to the prologue where teenage Martha, in her last stand against Aunt Ivers, tries to assert her identity as the daughter of Smith, a laborer in the Ivers factory. But her identity is squashed like a bug and she's made into an Ivers. Which doesn't end well.

 

Quite a few 50s movies, noir and otherwise, expose the falsehood and corruption at the peak of the small-town power pyramid.

 

I'm curious why many people assume Iverstown is a small town.  I guess it all depends on how one defines 'small town'.

 

As Martha said the factory she owns employed 30,000 people,  therefore even if 80% or so of the working people in the town where employed at Martha's factory,   the town would still have a population of over 60,000 or so (since it is logical to assume these factory workers had non working spouses, children,  as well as some non working folks in the town).      Also,  like the owner of the car repair shop said,  Walter was on his way to be Governor of the state.   Therefore I assume Iverstown was one of the biggest cities in the state (otherwise Walter wouldn't be known much outside of town).

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I'm curious why many people assume Iverstown is a small town.  I guess it all depends on how one defines 'small town'.

 

As Martha said the factory she own employed 30,000 people,  therefore even if 80% or so of the working people in the town where employed at Martha's factory,   the town would still have a population of over 60,000 or so (since it is logical to assume these factory workers had non working spouses, children,  as well as some non working folks in the town).      Also,  like the owner of the car repair shop said,  Walter was on his way to be Governor of the state.   Therefore I assume Iverstown was one of the biggest cities in the state (otherwise Walter wouldn't be known much outside of town).

 Guilty as charged ... was using the term "small town" way too loosely. Guess I fell into the unthinking habit of urbanites of calling every place that's outside the city a "small town".  Thanks for pointing that out!

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Hmm, I'm not sure what to think of this clip. There's some great acting by all three (I'd certainly stay just for Kirk Douglas and Barbara Stanwyck), the script seems to be well-written, and the staging of the scene seems to almost be like a dance or an entanglement, with this kind of rotation of the characters (except when Stanwyck runs to Van Heflin). But, I'm not necessarily convinced this is noir yet. It seems to be more like a love triangle with some darker undertones (gambling, drinking, and so forth). I'm sure it would be helpful to know a little bit more background on these three characters. In watching the rest of the film, I'm certain the noir elements will surface more clearly.

 

On second thought, though, this is Douglas and Stanwyck's past hurtling back into their lives, so that is certainly something more noirish than I originally thought.

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 Guilty as charged ... was using the term "small town" way too loosely. Guess I fell into the unthinking habit of urbanites of calling every place that's outside the city a "small town".  Thanks for pointing that out!

 

I do understand that one does get a small town type of vibe by the setting;  e.g.  everyone we encounter in the town appears to know Martha and Walter,  and they do 'own' the town as it relates to power.    So the first time I saw the film and heard Martha say her factory employs 30,000 people I was surprised.     As for the hotel where Sam and Toni were staying;  I assume Martha owned a much more swanky hotel than just that dump!    ;)   

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Lots of spoilers here about The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

 

I too thought the scene where the young Martha kills her aunt was a little weak. In fact, the movie doesn't really get going until the adult Sam shows up in town. But I could totally believe that Walter finally has the guts to kill Martha and himself. Sam is the one who shows Walter the most compassion. If I remember it correctly, Sam defies Martha and saves Walter. I think Walter realizes completely now that Martha doesn't love him. But here is what I remember from the ending (or maybe I just read between the lines!): Martha seems to be turned on by the fact that Walter takes some initiative and decides to kill her. Walter sees that he has made her happy, but she is now dead. He doesn't want to go on living without her, so he takes his own life.

 

What do you think?

 

I made a point of watching (and recording) this again and paying close attention to the ending.  Martha does indeed pull the trigger while Walter holds the gun against her - she puts her finger over his on the trigger.  Then Walter shoots himself.  So, I guess I have to eat my words a little about that ending.  I agree that Sam is the only person sympathetic to Walter - Sam is the only sympathetic character in the story - everyone else is suffering one way or another.   I've always like the twists and turns in this one.

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I made a point of watching (and recording) this again and paying close attention to the ending.  Martha does indeed pull the trigger while Walter holds the gun against her - she puts her finger over his on the trigger.  Then Walter shoots himself.  So, I guess I have to eat my words a little about that ending.  I agree that Sam is the only person sympathetic to Walter - Sam is the only sympathetic character in the story - everyone else is suffering one way or another.   I've always like the twists and turns in this one.

I'll have to watch The Strange Love of Martha Ivers again myself. I forgot that Martha puts her finger over Walter's on the trigger. I'm wondering if Martha just couldn't let Walter have the last say because that's how much she craved power, or she always suspected that she would drive him to a rash act of violence. She tried to do the latter to Sam, but Sam wouldn't play along. She's an interesting character, that's for sure.

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The character of Sam, who is seated, behaves in a casual, friendly manner. Walter stands over him, and seems a bit tense. Walter sits down and proceeds to question Sam intently, but some of the answers seem to agitate Walter, i.e. Sam says, "When it was the three of us" Walter repeats, "The three of us." When Sam says, "Some win, some don't", Walter becomes perturbed, stating, "You needn't have made THAT point!" Walter suggests that they have a drink, Sam notes the early hour but agrees to imbibe, "For old time's sake." All of Walters behaviors suggest that he is wary of Sam, not exactly happy to see him. His reluctance to have Martha enter the office while Sam is present reflects this. When Martha does come in she fails to recognize Sam either by sight or by name, however when he lets out a whistle she immediately knows who he is, and they embrace as Walter looks on in disgust. After some more banter Sam leaves, and the camera turns to a close-up of Martha's face as she watches him go, and through the open office door we can see Walter standing in the background which appears to be very distant- a staging which implies that perhaps Martha wishes that HE were in the distant past instead of Sam. From the interaction of these characters in this short scene we learn that they share a past, and that Martha has been the dominant one, with Sam a confident second and Walter insecure of his standing in the group. He seems threatened by Sam's return, and we can see opportunity for double-cross, or murder, or all of the above.

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In this clip  there is a sense of friendship between Martha and Sam. Walter over by there liquor gives a toast and sarcastically says Thanks for my wife

 

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From the moment martha recognizes Sam, all walter can see is green...you see his face cloud over and his grip tighten...it seems like all he can do not to lunge over the desk and throttle walter..he's so insanely jealous, it's incredible. For her part, Martha makes it clear that a part of her longs for the life she could've had with Sammy, which becomes another slap in the face for Walter. I place all credit for this scene's complexity on Kirk Douglas who does a superb job of making what could've been a single sided drunkard into a layered and dynamic person. 

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Concerning the whole film:

 

I get a completely different vibe from Lizabeth Scott's character, I think it has to do with the code. The first couple of times (it may be three) she is seen she deliberately crosses her legs and smiles at Heflin, and it doesn't go unnoticed, it's a come on. Is she a hooker with a heart of gold?

 

She's being asked to leave town, for what? I think it's being suggested that she is or was a prostitute. Did she really do time for prostitution? rather than theft?

 

And then there is the sequence just before the police arrive at their shared bath hotel room, a newsboy slips a paper under the room's door and VICE is prominently displayed in the headline, another hint at what the code wouldn't allow?

 

Just thoughts.

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One of the most iconic works on noir cinema that makes me remind of Griel Marcus observation is 'Out Of the Past' (1947), from Jacques Tourneur.

 

Just by watching this early scene from 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' I can say that the relation between the three characters will fatally collide at some point of the plot. Maybe revenge, secrets and misunderstanding will emerge from their past and their relationship will crash at some point. Nobody seems more suspicious than a good old pal.

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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."

 

I've seen this movie, several times... this scene is so tense and fraught with meaning it makes you uncomfortable. You wonder what, "For old times sake," really means.  What is in the past? You can feel Walter's sense of unease and a slight inferiority complex in comparison to Sam. You almost see him shrink next to Sam. You can tell that Martha controls Walter and that whatever is in the past weighs on Walter and that Martha probably uses it against him.  Sam seems to be a larger than life kind of person in Walter and Martha's lives.  You can clearly feel the attraction between Martha and Sam, but see that it is a bigger feeling for Martha than Sam who just flirts, but for Martha you can sense she has always thought of Sam and what her future might have been had she actually gone on that circus train.

 

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In this scene, you can see Martha has no respect for her husband.  She immediately greets Sam without acknowledging Walter is also in the same room.

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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.

Gambling is a respectable profession, at least to the point that you are open about it? A world out of balance. Moral boundaries are unclear.

Layers of meaning - carefully constructed and revealed - gambling & implications of 'fixing' the odds are juxtaposed against the 'great democratic institutions' the justice system and the political system. The foundations of society can't be trusted.

A marriage that appears to be a heavily 'negotiated' - who has the power & where is the push for status & sucess coming from - gender relationships are thrown into question.

 

 

Douglas is probably an alcoholic. He has a bar in his office and pours two drinks for himself during this three minute clip, and it is still early in the morning (Van Heflin has not yet had breakfast). Also, there his excuse that "special occasions" merit the drinking of alcohol.

Possibly an alcoholic, or not - a good question might be why? Is it the pressure of the job, the state of marriage, an indicator of decadance & corruption (he does not seem to exude the latter particularly to me), more likely of status (the presence of a bar could be for show more than use) and possibly the several drinks in the scene are uncharacteristic and a reaction to shock/threat the visitor's arrival prompts.

Also, who's to say what time a gambler has breakfast - it might be mid morning well after 'respectable' people are at work!

 

I do think the drinking, and banter around that along with comments about win some lose some have greater depth that will be revealed. Who won/lost to whom in the past - in love perhaps, where else? If there was a love rivalry, who won/lost in the final outcome in marriage, perhaps the gambler who got away? As Sir David here speculates:

 

Friends? On the surface maybe. But there's more than a few hints that all is not as it seems between Walter and Sam, after all, they haven't seen each other since they were kids and Walter - at least - seems very comfortable with that fact. Martha however, well, that's another story: she obviously had some kind of happier memories of Sam than her husband (was Walter bullied by Sam? There are pointed comments about their relevant size as kids), and what was that question about riding the railroad? Has Sam and Martha talked about running away together? 

 

 

 

The scene makes it clear that Walter and Sam have a prickly relationship.  Walter seems to be physically trying to assert his dominance in the scene, looming over Sam at times, sitting higher than him, and invading his personal space.  That all changes once the Walter offers Sam a drink and we learn what Sam wants.  The way that Sam calmly states to Walter that he’ll get the girl out of jail, “for old time’s sake,” suggests blackmail; Sam appears to have knowledge of something that Walter would like to keep hidden. 

 

The dynamic between the two men becomes even more strained when Martha enters.  She seems to share none of her husband’s dislike of Sam.  Instead, she and Sam form a couple visually, while her husband is excluded.  After they embrace, he slinks out of the frame, leaving the two together.  Walter is next seen with a drink in his hand, showing his dislike of the situation.  Martha’s tone is much more upbeat when talking to Sam than when talking to her husband.  Her tone and body language indicate that she is not happy with her husband. 

 

Martha and Sam seem to share a history together as well, one that Martha doesn’t seem to want to discuss fully in front of her husband.  They also are in close physical proximity, if not touching the entire time they are in the room together.  Everything about their interaction suggests intimacy.  When Walter reenters the frame, he is still physically separated from the other two by the desk, and they dominate the frame.  Even after Sam leaves, we see the couple on opposing sides of the frame, indicating an adversarial relationship.  

 

Well said, ColeCorri. I also noted the deliberate use of proxemics in this scene, as well as the use of depth in the staging. As zcmenker notes below, the choice to not use noir deep focus is an interesting one.

 

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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As I revisit this DD, what jumps to my attention the most are not really the noir elements, but how good Kirk Douglas is in those few minutes. Wow. With this little clip and his role in Out of the Past, I just want to see more of him (the only other film of his I've seen is Spartacus). Any recommendations?

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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.


They have mutual past, that is obvious. Walter is probably in some kind of debt to Sam and that is why Sam is so sure Walter will help him. Sam and Martha must have been in love, there is still a slight tension between them. Martha seems suprised with Sam's arrival sensing incoming troubles. Walter also does not seem pleased, the last thing he needs now is disturbance (he has the elections on his mind). Sam is up to something, for sure.


  


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


Martha might become femme fatale and „reopen” this old affair. Walter will certainly be jealous and may want to hurt Sam. Sam might be obsessed with Martha and try to get her back, even against her will. A regular love triangle.


 


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?"


Swede was killed in a small town, Jeff Bailey looked for an asylum in such a place, but also found death there. The past will haunt you no matter where you manage to escape. The Postman Always Rings Twice is even a better example of a small town misfortune and how easily can people get to the point of no return.


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Just from this short 4 minute scene, so much is apparent between Sam, Walter, and Martha. It is clear that they all have a history together, but it isn’t anything casual. The furtive glances, expressions rising and dropping every second, underlying tensions barely concealed under a polite, civil veneer.

 

 

When they are alone, Sam and Walter are all smiles. Sam makes himself at home while Walter is playing the part of the gracious host welcoming back a childhood acquaintance. It is apparent though that there is melee for dominance going on with these two, as they size each other up under the guise of “catching up,”  beginning with the ironic staging.

 

 

Walter is seated head above Sam, yet, Sam isn’t looking up to him. His head is upright, horizontal, eyes only slightly tilted toward Walter. It’s almost as if Sam is throwing Walter a bone, letting himself be positioned lower than Walter in the composition of the shot because he is totally relaxed whereas Walter is on edge.

 

 

Sam proceeds to tell Walter he’s “done alright” for himself, to which Walter doesn’t take as a gracious compliment; either he’s heard the comment too often or doubts Sam’s sincerity (or both). Instead, Walter becomes anxious to hear what Sam has been up to. This is when Robert Rossen’s writing really pays off. The rhythm of dialogue between Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas’ characters is absolutely exquisite. They are looking squarely at each other with neither one of them hardly blinking miss a beat:

 

Walter: What have you done mostly?

Sam: Lately or mostly?

Walter: Mostly.

Sam: Gamble.

Walter: You mean “gamble”?

Sam: Sure, it’s my business.

Walter: Perhaps, this is where I should remark that all life is a gamble.

Sam: You don’t need to bother, I know it. Some win, some don’t.

Walter: You needn’t have made *that* point. 

 

 

This brief exchange perfectly sums up the role of existentialism in film noir. Both men know that they are hanging by a thread, on the web of chance. It is their attitudes that determine their roles in the film. Sam is free of the binding ties of post WWII America, making him the existential noir protagonist. While Walter becomes the embodiment of the status and prosperity of his position and time period he’s living in. His bounty and possibly the way he’s earned it, makes him weak he knows it. A little bit of that hurt pride slips out, in response to Sam’s “Some win, some don’t.” it is not the attitude of a man secure and content in his predicament.  

 

 

The tides turn when Walter tries to change the subject by offering Sam a drink. This is where Sam decides to turn his hand and take a “gamble.” He lets Walter know about his girl, Tony Marachek “you can do it and you will.” This immediately sounds like a threat, but Sam comically changes gears by batting his eyes twice, then hastily putting on a smile and claiming it’s “for old times’ sake.” The ball is in Walter’s court now. How he will handle it remains to be seen.  

 

 

In the meantime, this is where Martha makes her entrance. She doesn’t recognize Sam when he introduces himself, but she immediately comes alive when he makes a familiar whistle. Martha rushes into Sam’s arms and they enjoy an affectionate reunion, while a very glum and jealous Walter hangs solitarily in the background. Sam compliments Martha her on her adult beauty, to which Walter hastens to remind him that she is “[his] wife.” Sam takes another swipe at Walter’s vanity by saying that it “sounds funny.” Martha sees the awkward tension as Sam tries to explain and changes the subject.

 

 

Martha seems like an innocent bystander caught between the competitive men, who are both clearly adore of her, right up until the subject of the “election” comes up. Sam asks Walter if he is sure of his victory. Walter hands the reins to his wife, who replies, “It’s a sure thing…  A sure thing is never a gamble.” Unlike the men, Martha doesn’t believe in existential chance or a “gamble.” Just like her fellow femme fatale, Jane Palmer, Martha is in control of her fate, leaving nothing to kismet or to the cosmos. Also, unlike her husband, she keeps on her confident mask right up until Sam’s exit. Martha lets herself indulge in looking after childhood friend for a couple of seconds. She, then, shakes her head as if waking herself from a dream, and somberly turns back in the direction of her husband before closing the door.

 

 

The only place I can think of that comes close to the sinister description of "the most emblematic noir location is a small, vaguely Midwestern city," (though it’s hardly the Midwest) is Chinatown from Chinatown (1974): “the pretentious, provincial city with its fancy nightclub and rough roadhouse, imitation mansions and true flophouses, where the most respectable citizen is always the most criminal (Noah Cross), a town big enough to get murders written up as suicides and small enough that no one outside the place cares what happens there.” 

 

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