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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a classic film noir which introduced Kirk Douglas to the moviegoing world, is the story of a headstrong, cruel woman (Barbara Stanwyck), her weak husband (Douglas) and the murderous secret they carry between them - a secret which they fear will come out once a childhood friend (Van Heflin) arrives in town. Dark, twisted and gripping, the picture was an all-around triumph.
Director Lewis Milestone and writer Robert Rossen had previously worked together on Edge of Darkness (1943) and A Walk in the Sun (1945), the latter one of the better combat films of its time (the genre for which Milestone is best known). Though they collaborated on the script of Martha Ivers, Milestone didn't take a screenwriting credit. "I seldom did," he said. Still, the director came up with a creative solution to the duo's biggest script problem: the ending.
Milestone remembered an actual incident that had occurred years earlier in New York's Hell's Kitchen. An infamous local thug named Owney Madden had been confronted in a bar by a young hood with a gun eager to make a name for himself. Thinking quickly, Madden said, "You punk, you haven't got guts enough to pull that trigger. So I'll do it for you." Madden walked closer to the hood, put his own thumb on the trigger, and shot himself - being careful to aim the gun so that he would be wounded, not killed, and thus saving his own life. Milestone adapted this for the film, though he gave it a much darker twist. Stanwyck liked doing the scene because amazingly enough, she had known Owney Madden when she was a young chorus girl!
This was one of Hal Wallis's first movies as an independent producer for Paramount. He had recently left Warner Bros. after a decade as head of production because Jack Warner wouldn't give him the autonomy he desired. On the Super Chief to New York to scout new talent, Wallis ran into Humphrey Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall, who recommended that Wallis check out a play that featured a friend of hers - Kirk Douglas. Wallis saw the play, knew a star when he saw one, and wasted no time in bringing Douglas to Hollywood. Wallis later wrote, "I knew I was taking a risk putting a newcomer against that powerhouse, Stanwyck, but she was extraordinarily considerate and played unselfishly with him in every scene."
Douglas remembered it a bit differently. He wrote of Stanwyck in his memoir: "The crew adored her. They called her 'Missy,' and when she came on the set she went around hugging them, asking about their wives and children by name. But she was indifferent to me. Crew members need attention, but who needs help more than somebody working on his first picture? Several weeks later she noticed me. I could see it happening, like the lens of a camera turning into focus. She looked at me, made eye contact for the first time. She said, 'Hey, you're pretty good.' I said, 'Too late, Miss Stanwyck.' I don't think she knew what I meant. But after that, we became friends."
Milestone adored Stanwyck, calling her "from A-Z, the greatest lady of the silver screen," and he was impressed by her technical savvy. "She would come on a new set," he recalled, "and carefully examine the placement of camera, lights, etc. Then she would call the cameraman over and introduce him to the mysteries of her own favorite key light. She astonished everybody with her knowledge of lighting."
If Stanwyck was cast to type - especially following her conniving femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) - both Douglas and Heflin were cast against type, with Heflin playing the stronger, more assertive character and Douglas playing the spineless husband. Douglas's strategy on this was "when you play a weak character, find a moment when he's strong, and if you're playing a strong character, find a moment when he's weak. I had a moment when I was at the desk - I stood up, grabbed Van Heflin by the shirt, and stared him in the eye. He was amazed at this sudden moment of strength, and it confused him. We shot it, and the director said, 'Very good.' Van Heflin said, 'Let's do it again.' The next time I grabbed him, he just looked down contemptuously at my hand. How smart of him - he took away the strength. Nothing wrong with that. As an actor, it was the right thing to do."
One trivia note: Production was complicated by a major strike all over Hollywood. Milestone sympathetically joined the strikers for a short while and the picture was directed in his absence by Byron Haskin.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: John Patrick (story), Robert Rossen
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, John Meehan
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Martha Ivers), Van Heflin (Sam Masterson), Lizabeth Scott (Antonia Marachek), Kirk Douglas (Walter P. O'Neil), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Ivers), Roman Bohnen (Mr. O'Neil).
by Jeremy Arnold