Day 22 of Noirvember: Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Today’s Noirvember post shines the spotlight on the titular star of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

If looks could kill.


Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) is the head of an industrial empire, which she has expanded and enhanced since inheriting it from her wealthy (but hated) aunt. She’s married to her old childhood chum Walter O’Neill (Kirk Douglas), the current District Attorney who Martha is reportedly grooming for the governorship, despite his affinity for the bottle. Martha appears to have the world in the palm of her hand, but she has a secret – as a teen, she was responsible for her aunt’s death (she struck the older Mrs. Ivers with her own cane), and allowed a local vagrant to be accused, tried, and executed for the crime. Besides Martha, no one knows about the circumstances of her aunt’s demise except Walter and (possibly) another childhood friend – Sam Masterson – who was there at the time but fled the area the night of the killing. The story comes full circle when Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), all grown up, returns to town. But what Martha doesn’t know is how much does Sam know, and what does he intend to do about it?


We first meet Martha (Janis Wilson) as a teenager, on a dark and stormy night, in a train yard. She and her friend, Sam (Darryl Hickman), are planning to run away by hopping aboard a circus train. Martha demonstrates a mixture of bravado and anxiety, steely determination and sentimentality; she flings herself into Sam’s arms when she hears a clap of thunder, but seconds later insists that she’s not afraid. “I like it,” she says firmly. She maintains this swagger when the two youths are found by police and she’s taken back to her aunt, who’s none too pleased with her. (And that’s putting it mildly.) When her aunt remarks that Martha doesn’t look very sorry, Martha angrily replies, “I am. I’m sorry I was caught.” Before this brief confab is over, Martha will be lunging at her aunt and threatening to kill her. (They’re not exactly Dorothy and Aunt Em, if you get my drift.)


She is a total badass. The complete package. Beautiful, stylish, confident, smart. A savvy, powerful businesswoman and a respected member of the community. But she’s not the nicest woman you’ve ever met. She’s not nice to her weak-willed husband, or to the hard-luck gal Sam meets and installs in the adjoining hotel room – or to anybody who crosses her, I’ll wager.


“My father used to work here as a mill hand. Now I own it. Now I’m even. I was 21 when I took it over, it had 3,000 workers then. It’s got 30,000 now. It ran as far as that gate – now it goes down to the edge of the river. And I did it all by myself. Without Walter, without his father. All by myself.”


Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Katherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of five children. In 1910, Ruby’s mother, pregnant with her sixth child, was knocked off a trolley car by a drunken passenger and struck her head against a curb. She never recovered from her injury, and two weeks after her death, her widower signed up with a crew working on the Panama Canal. His family would never see him again. Ruby eventually went to live with her chorus-girl sister Mildred; she was a poor student and had no close girlfriends, but she was able to escape from her dreary existence at the local matinee. During the summers of 1916 and 1917, she was allowed to accompany Mildred on tour, and during these trips, Ruby developed her passion for performing. When Ruby was not quite 16, now living with her sister Maude in Flatbush, she borrowed a dress, made up her face, and landed a $40-a-week job in the chorus at the Strand Roof nightclub. Within a few years, she was performing with the touring company of the Ziegfeld Follies, and in 1926 she debuted on Broadway in The Noose. Around this time, Ruby transformed into Barbara Stanwyck, taking the names from an old theater program: Jane Stanwyck in Barbara Frietchie. Also in 1926, she met vaudeville comedian Frank Fay; the two were married after a whirlwind courtship. By now, both Stanwyck and her new spouse were being courted by Hollywood, and six months after they married, they headed for California, where Stanwyck signed a contract with United Artists and made her film debut in The Locked Door (1929). She stepped into the world of film noir with a starring role in my favorite noir, Double Indemnity (1944). For more on why I love Double Indemnity, click here.

And join me in the shadows tomorrow for Day 23 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 22, 2021.

7 Responses to “Day 22 of Noirvember: Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)”

  1. Love your look at Martha. The opening segment of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers when the characters are youngsters promises much, and the audience is not let down. Actually, the audience is never let down as it is one of those movies that compels multiple viewings.

  2. An incredible actress who is still not entirely appreciated. Kirk gets to clench, Van Heflin gets to flex and Stanwyck gets just deserts.

  3. Martha Ivers is another of those unforgettable noir characters. Only Barbara Stanwyck could make her believable – and so threatening.

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