Poor Lizabeth Scott….or should I say, Van Heflin?

Lizabeth and Van in TSLOMI
source: Paramount Pictures

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a peculiar film.

It pretends to be one thing, then by the end of the movie, it horrifyingly surprises you. At first, you believe it’s going to be a tender movie, celebrating the bond of love and friendship; 15 minutes in, however, that all changes for the worst.

If you’re a classic film watcher, you’ve probably seen this picture recently. Seeing as though TCM has become the sole purveyor in distributing these classic morsels, it’s become more and more common for folks in our blogosphere to overlap reviews of certain movies – this happens to be one of them.

In summation, the film follows the life and loves of a woman named Martha (played by Barbara Stanwyck) and the people around her that become collateral damage due to her actions.

Starting in her youth, Martha invariably had a habit of using people. Whether it be hiding away in a boxcar to get away from her overbearing aunt, to eventually killing her out of spite, Martha Ivers always knew that her past would catch up with her- and boy did it come back with a vengeance.

Van and Lizabeth
source: Paramount Pictures

18 years after that fateful incident, childhood friend (and modern day drifter) Sam Masterson finds himself back in the same town that he vigorously fled almost 2 decades earlier.

He returns to find a city cloaked with the name of a former friend: Ivers.

Shocked but slightly amused, Sam takes his freshly crashed car into a ‘Ma and Pa’ shop to get it repaired. While kicking back with a cigarette in one hand and a ball of money in the other (Sam’s known to have a serious gambling problem) he overhears on the radio that Walter O’Neil (played by Kirk Douglas in his screen debut) is running for public office.

“This scared, meekly kid that I knew is making his living in politics?” Sam says to himself. “How could he garner the gusto to do this?”

“Ivers” the shop owner retorts; “Martha Ivers.”

Van and Liz in TSLOMI
source: Paramount Pictures

When you view “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” your focus instantly goes to Walter and Martha and the intricacies of their relationship. What doesn’t get enough attention is the great worry and distress that Sam (and later his ex-con paramour ‘Toni’ Marachek expertly played by Lizabeth Scott) go through due to the tyrannical decisions of Martha and her submissive husband.

The pair meet when Sam takes the liberty to stroll past his old stomping grounds while his car’s being mended.

‘Fixing’ for a drink, he runs into Ms. Marachek, standing there with her perfectly coiffed hair and a sense of sadness surrounding her. They go for a drink and Toni tells Sam that she recently got out of jail and is dangerously close to going back if she violates her probation.

Being the slick guy he is, Sam believes he can sweet talk his old pal Walter (the county’s current D.A) into letting Toni get off easy.

The-Strange-Love-of-Martha-Ivers-1946
source: Paramount Pictures

Sam goes into Walter’s office and strikes up a conversation with his old acquaintance; about 10 minutes into their chat, in walks his wife, Martha Ivers. She reacts to his presence like her husband wasn’t even there. Martha smothers him with love and affection, essentially “cuckolding” her husband in plain sight.

This hurts Walter’s already crushed ego and from that point on, Sam’s life would be made a living hell.


First, Walter strong-arms Toni into setting Sam up, which leads him to be badly beaten by a bunch of Walter’s “friends” and Toni to reach her emotional breaking point. Then, they try to force him out of town, but Sam is far too proud to let that happen. Lastly, (and perhaps the most gruesome) Walter attempts to kill Sam himself hoping to conceal the secret that’s been haunting him and his wife for years.

Feeling bad about what her husband is putting him through, Martha takes Sam out on a late evening drive. She confesses everything to him, including the culprit of her aunt’s murder.

The only catch is Sam didn’t have a clue that Martha was the one who pushed her aunt down those set of stairs that night.

TSLOMI
source: Paramount Pictures

Martha uses this opportunity to rekindle her romance with Sam, leaving his new lover, Toni home alone sobbing into her pillow. Sam, being a red-blooded American male, is torn between his new love and his old. This is just another example of Martha using anyone around her to get what she wants.

Toni is an emotional wreck and contemplating leaving Sam in favor of her old life. Sam is confused over whether or not he should continue pursuing this relationship with Martha, and Walter? Well, he’s given up on life. He’s had it with everything including his wife, Martha. He decides to end it once and for all.

In the film’s iconic finale, Sam is invited to the Ivers’ manor to settle the situation. Drunk and rowdy, Martha finds out about this meeting and wants to be apart of it.

A couple of moments later, Walter falls down the stairs due to his drunkenness, echoing shades of how Martha’s aunt passed away. Martha urges Sam to take the gun that Walter keeps in his drawer and use it to kill him. Sam scoffs at this idea and carries Walter to his study to sober him up.

the Strange Love
source: Paramount Pictures

Martha doesn’t like this and threatens to shoot Sam in “self-defense.”

“It could work,” he says, “only if I was there to witness it.” With that being said, he leaves and doesn’t look back. As he’s walking away he hears gunshots, a murder-suicide.

What a relief.

All of that he went through, everything Martha put him through, everything Toni went through. The suffering, the heartbreak, the stress – pure torture. Fortunately, he finds Toni about to leave the hotel room they’ve been sharing for weeks and tells her what happened.

“It’s over, he says. “It’s finally over.”

The pair drive off into the sunset, never to look back at the grief and pain they suffered in a little wretched city named “Iverstown.”

 

 

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The Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon…

The spiral staircase
source: RKO Pictures

Well, this film sure is something.

If you look up the word,”thriller” in the dictionary this movie’s title would, surely, be right next to it.

Directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore The Spiral Staircase is a psychological film noir thriller that tells the story of Helen McCord, a mute woman working as a helping hand in a New England mansion. Even though things appear to be going smoothly from the average citizen’s point of view, appearances aren’t everything.

I would love to expand upon that point, but……. I can’t.

When I normally review a movie for a blogathon, I usually plot out the synopsis of the entire film, hoping to give you a sense of what happened.

This time, it’s slightly different.

The Spiral Staircase is such a unique film, I don’t think it would be right to spoil it for you. Instead of writing a full-fledged summary, I’ll discuss the main plot points of the film, then I’ll explain why the acting performances are positively astonishing.

The Spiral Staircase
source: RKO Pictures

Starting off with Dorothy McGuire, her heartbreaking portrayal of Helen is phenomenal.

You see, the movie’s plot revolves around a string of murders that are happening around the town where this mansion is located.

These not your ordinary murders, however.

No, whoever is doing the killing is specifically targeting women with disabilities, “afflictions” as the movie calls them, such as the kind that Helen has.

To make matter worse, one night during a thunderstorm, completely alone and devoid of help except for Mrs. Warren, the bedridden women she’s taking care of (wonderfully played by Ethel Barrymore) she’s stalked around the mansion by a mysterious man whose identity I will not reveal.

The Spiral Staircase2
source: RKO Pictures

Because of the horrifying circumstances I just described, throughout the film, McGuire is essentially required to only use her face to do the majority of the acting for her.

There were multiple moments in the movie where dialogue easily could’ve been shoehorned into the script but wasn’t needed because of McGuire‘s incredible ability to emote her face to reflect the mood of the scene.

Not only did Dorothy McGuire give us a serious master class in acting, Ethel Barrymore (one of the Barrymores this blogathon was inspired by) steals the show.

This is evident particularly at the climax of the film where tensions are high and the emotion is rampant. Barrymore‘s take on the deathly ill Mrs. Warren is one for the ages and definitely takes this movie to another dimension.

The Wonderful Directing

The Spiral Staircase 3
source: RKO Pictures

Now, that I’ve discussed the acting, let me turn my attention to the director, Robert Siodmak.

Holy Moly.

Quite frankly, I don’t think enough people know about this film, and that’s a shame because Siodmak gives us some fabulous cinematic shots that are pretty bizarre (in the best sense.) The interesting part about this is that though this movie may be a film noir, it’s also simultaneously a period piece – and a glorious one at that.

Combining a period piece with a film noir is a genius idea, but not an original one.

Yes, it’s been done before, and it’s very possible that other movies may have done it better, but, there’s something about the way Siodmak films and frames every shot with a purpose, that takes this movie from being good to great.

The shadows, the lowlights, and the atmosphere are all a testament to his directing – and it shows.

Conclusion

In the end, The Spiral Staircase is a wonderfully paced, acted, and directed film. The performances by McGuire and Barrymore are unquestionably the best ones in the movie, director Robert Siodmak sees this uses their talent and maxes out to its full potential.

And for that, I thank him.

 

 

If you would like to see more entries in this blogathon click: here.

 

 

Classic Film Reviews: Sudden Fear (1952)

sudden fear
source: RKO Pictures

Poor Joan Crawford, she can never seem to catch a break.

She meets a handsome younger man and they get married. All is going well until he plots to murder you and then run away with your fortune with his younger, more daring blonde girlfriend. This ‘younger man’ troupe was the common theme in most of Crawford‘s films when she made the move from MGM to Warner Brothers in 1943. In no other movie is this more prevalent than the thriller/film-noir Sudden Fear.

Released in 1952, Sudden Fear stars Joan Crawford (at her most fabulous), Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame. Joan plays Myra Hudson, a successful Broadway playwright who runs her productions like a well-oiled machine. Looking for a new male lead for her next play, she hosts auditions, hoping to find that one lucky man. That one lucky man does show up as Lester Blaine, played by Jack Palance. Lester gets the part, but come rehearsals Myra fires him, rather harshly, due to lack of romantic chemistry with his leading lady.

A few days later, the play has it’s premiere. Myra, happy and ecstatic that she’s getting rave reviews for her newest masterpiece, boards a train home to San Francisco. Coincidentally, Lester Blaine happens to be on the same train ride; Myra, understandably, feels put off by this.

gloria and jack
Gloria Grahame and Jack Palance in a publicity still for Sudden Fear (1952) source: RKO Pictures

But, after a few hours of laughing, throwing back drinks, and sharing a couple of stories, Lester successfully ‘woos’ her. They fall in love and Myra is absolutely smitten with her new man.  One night, Lester was due at Myra’s home for a get-together she was throwing for a successful play opening. After a few hours of being ghosted, Myra decides to seek out her beau, jilting a crowd of people who were now stranded at a house party without a hostess.

This is where the plot thickens.

She rushes over to his hotel, only to find him halfway down the steps getting ready to board the next train to New York. He claims that he has “no place in her life’ and that he doesn’t “belong to her world.” Despite that, the two reconcile and eventually get married. The newly hitched couple go on a mini staycation at Myra’s beachside home.

While walking down the steep steps of the beach house, Lester warns Myra that the way down has no guard rail. Why would he point this out? Why would a newly married man be worried about his wife suddenly dying? Anyway. The next day, Myra throws ANOTHER party, this time Lester actually shows up. However, what happens next changes the entire arc of the movie.

Sudden_Fear_1952_8
source: RKO Pictures

During the soiree, a mysterious blonde makes her way into the mansion. This throws Lester off guard as he drifts in and out of the conversation. The blonde introduces herself as Irene Neves, played by the amazingly talented Gloria Grahame. The pair seems to be a little bit too friendly with each other, but, Myra pays no mind.

Cue the next scene.

Irene is kissing her date goodbye and runs up to her apartment. Suddenly a man comes up behind her and stops her from putting her key in the door. Surprise, surprise, the man is actually Lester. By this point in the film, expectations have been subverted so many times that, I’ve given up on guessing what happens. The two have a very heated (and very sensual) argument about why she’s here in the first place. Irene’s feminine wiles convince Lester to leave his wife, unbeknownst to Myra.

The next few days Irene and Lester develop a plan to run away together- but first Myra needs to disappear.

They spend a couple of weeks plotting, scheming and conniving ways to possibly remove Myra from the equation. During these weeks, Lester behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. Myra, finally, becomes suspicious of her husband’s odd behavior. But, here’s the kicker, Myra ultimately finds out about this whole plot to have her killed by unintentionally listening to a recording, from her dictation machine, of Irene and Lester discussing ways to have her murder look like an accident.

Frightened and heartbroken, Myra falls into a deep depression- refusing to leave her room for days out of fear of being killed. During this time, she plans her way to preemptively stop this by killing Lester and placing the blame on Irene.

SuddenFear
source: RKO Pictures

The plan sounds diabolical, but it just might work.

The next few scenes in the movie have Myra sneaking into Irene’s apartment with a duplicate key she had made a few days earlier. When she’s in the apartment, she hides in the closet until Irene comes home with a date. Irene’s date is very persistent on staying longer than he’s welcomed, but she eventually manages to get rid of him. She then leaves to meet Lester at a parking garage, leaving Myra in the closet.

Myra envisioned what it may be like to kill Lester, but when faced with the thought, she throws the gun away. Hysterical and disgusted with the prospect of killing her husband, she doesn’t go through her plan. As soon as she was about to leave the apartment Lester walks in. The phone rings and Lester pick it up. It was Irene’s date. Lester starts to get an uneasy feeling.

He walks around the apartment and he stumbles upon Myra’s gun wrapped in a handkerchief. Convinced Myra set him up, he rushes out of the apartment to his car and is hell-bent on finding her. Myra, stupidly, chases after him on foot. Lester spots her (or what looks to be her) out of the corner of his eye and then proceeds to hunt her down with his car. Lester slams on the brakes believing he was killing Myra, but it turns out to be Irene, who was wearing the same white scarf Myra was. Lester ends up killing himself and Irene while Myra in disbelief, walks of dazed and without a scratch.

 

Conclusion

I adore everything about this movie, the way it’s shot, the shadows, the acting performances- everything! Joan Crawford really gave it her all in this role. You felt the pain, and panic on her face when she found out that her husband was conspiring to kill her with a younger woman, and then that pain turned into concern for him when he ends up involuntarily killing himself at the end. Ms. Crawford unquestionably deserved that Oscar nomination she received in 1952,  and in my opinion, she should’ve won.

I also have to give it up to the two other actors who were starring opposite Joan in the movie: Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame. Their chemistry when they shared scenes together were dripping with innuendo. At times, I rooted for them to get away with it. You know, the Bonnie and Clyde effect, but alas, never count out Joan Crawford.

Overall, I would give this film a 9/10. It’s a film noir that you must put on your watchlist. The cinematography will have you thinking about it hours after you’ve finished, and the acting performances will make it a movie to remember.