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Saturday, July 16, 2011

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946)

Strange indeed. Three childhood friends share a dark secret that haunts their lives, especially when the one who ran away returns as a grown man. Lewis Milestone directed, in a disruptive style that takes some getting used to‡, but scripter Robert Rossen, just a year before he started directing, is the main creative force behind this melodramatic fever-dream. (Eugene O’Neill’s updated Greek tragedies may have served as role-model.*) The two kids who stayed behind are now the town’s power-couple, Barbara Stanwyck & Kirk Douglas (in a smash debut); and the kid who unintentionally returns (and unintentionally upsets their hegemony) is now Van Heflin. Still something of a scamp, he’s just picked up a girl who’s got trouble written all over her, Lizabeth Scott. (In her sophomore outing, Scott already looks used, confused & abused.) The plot twists alarmingly, paradoxically turning more compelling & believable as it grows ever more outrageous. A throwaway moment when Heflin slugs a thug at a nightclub and gets congratulated by the bartender sums up the film’s off-center tone. The tale barely makes sense, but it all hangs together.

*Rossen wasn’t alone, a truncated MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA was filmed the following year.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: ‡Milestone only made a handful of silent films (winning an Oscar for Best Comedy Direction), but he was one of the few who transitioned to sound films with little change in technique or style. It stamps his editing rhythms with odd ‘bumps,’ as seen in this film’s prologue and in the opening scenes of the first act. But try the same scene with the sound turned off and your choice of some random instrumental background music . . . instant silent movie! You see this out-of-step style not only in one of Milestone's famous early Talkies, like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30, but even in some of his excellent later work, like EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43. It's certainly distinctive. BTW: if you ever need a quick music match for a silent pic (or if you just hate what’s on the DVD music track) slap on Manuel de Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN for a background score. It works for everything!

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