Lewis Milestone’s 1946 film boasts a slightly puffy class-based soap opera middle bookended by some terrific noir set pieces at the outset and the finale.
The script by Robert Rossen suggests an innate corruption in inherited wealth and capitalistic ambition by contrasting its adolescent characters to their adult counterparts, primarily the titular Martha Ivers, who first appears as a willful runaway (a perfectly cast Janis Wilson, who matches Barbara Stanwyck in not only in appearance, but also captures her unyielding countenance and anxious interior). Stanwyck closes out the same character as a duplicitous, treacherous industrial magnate and adulteress with just a sad whisper (literally, in her dying breath) of the fresh, headstrong teenager we’d met in the opening. She has rotted, not quite to the core, and her corruption, which bleeds into nearly every facet of the town she helped build and every romance she attempts to foster, could only be mitigated by confession and castigation, which she could never accept. Self-annihilation is the only route out, and she makes her exit with flourish.
Milestone directed the 1939 version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for leftist leanings, so his correlation of capitalist expansion and character disintegration comes as little surprise, yet the director provides his ruthless femme fatale with echoes of sympathy, harking back to a distant, unreachable past, a childhood that Stanwyck reminisces over by a forgotten campfire. In the film’s most touching moment, she muses about a wild adolescence shared with Van Heflin, one with a different reality, which she now views as false or foolish, shaking her head at what she once thought was “real” – a world view still unshaped by capitalist greed and adult disillusionment.
Stanwyck is splendid in the role, but there just isn’t enough of her to go around. Instead, the primary focus in the middle of the movie shifts to Van Heflin’s character, a ne’er-do-well who never escaped his humble beginnings jumping railroad cars any more than Stanwyck’s Martha Ivers did hers as an entitled heiress. He returns to town after a long absence to become embroiled in a blackmail scheme and in two love affairs, one with Stanwyck and another with a newly freed jailbird played by the wondrous Lizabeth Scott, reminiscent of an even throatier, more sexually promising Lauren Bacall.
Lizabeth Scott is an actress born for noir, as everything about her screams wrong side of the tracks, but this role feels watered down with too much aching nobility. She spends too much time simpering and smiling when she should be sniping and snarling. Still, I loved the class contrast she provides in her single scene with Stanwyck, Scott in her farmer’s daughter tramp ensemble beside Stanwyck in stunning cowl and gloves. Scott is as transparent as her outfit; Stanwyck’s allure and danger lies in what she hides under hers.
Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas (in his first role!) are the less showy male leads. I liked them both in the film, though I might have re-cast it and reversed their roles. Perhaps I have become too familiar with Douglas playing rough characters later in his career, but I think his roguish handsomeness (that cleft chin!) would have been an excellent suit to the professional gambler and drifter that Heflin plays.
Here Douglas is a weak, easily and willingly manipulated drunk wallowing in regret and guilt whose pathetic passivity reaches an apex in the finale. He’s the sad patsy right down to the end, tormented by his moral failings and wholly incapable of steering his own ship. He will follow his femme fatale down the road to doom that they have been traveling hand-in-hand since they were youths. As stated before, it’s a magnificent exit.
Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott may get the hero’s happy ending to the soap opera, but in the end, and in their respective ends, the noir belongs to Kirk Douglas and Barbara Stanwyck.