Do you think MOLLY LOUVAIN and MARTHA IVERS ever got together to talk about their STRANGE LOVES?
Possibly not, the one film being a Curtiz precode and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS being a classic post-war noir. But not one that seems to get discussed a whole hell of a lot — I looked through a whole shelf of noir textbooks at the Edinburgh University Library without finding more than a passing mention. Still, along with ALL QUIET and OF MICE it’s the most admired Milestone film — OCEAN’S 11 and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY are well-known, but LM gets no respect for those.
The film does get referred to as a female-centred noir, which strikes me as slightly misguided. Van Heflin is very much the lead character, and Stanwyck only starts to assert a major share of the screen time in the last half. Her snarky scene with Lizabeth Scott is a joy though.
TSLOMI is a notably scabrous and acerbic picture, even for a noir. It’s one of Robert Rossen’s best screenplays before his directing career began (he screwed up Polonsky’s script for BODY AND SOUL) and has a fascinating sub-theme about snitching — several of the characters’ have their integrity tested by the demands of authority figures (dads, DAs) that they betray confidences. Poignant, considering that Rossen ultimately suffered considerable intimidation by HUAC — and eventually sold out.
The structure is weird, too, beginning with the three main characters as teenagers (played by kids who in no way resemble the adults, though where you might find pubescent versions of Stanwyck, Douglas and Heflin I don’t know. At any rate, Darryl Hickman can thank his stars he grew up quite differently.). It might have been nicer (and more noirish) to fold this sequence into the story via a flashback or two, but that would have accentuated the problem of kid-adult mismatch. You shrug it off. There’s a killing in the first fifteen minutes that the whole plot will turn upon — and I don’t mean the poor cat, clubbed to death by a rampant Judith Anderson.
Now it’s the present day, and Van Heflin, with his weird putty starchild face finds himself back in the town he grew up in, and meets sexy Lizabeth Scott. She’s a thief fresh from the joint, he’s a gambler — also a war veteran, but this fact is only mentioned by the cops, who treat him with contempt.
Visually, Milestone’s direction isn’t at its showiest — there’s a murder by montage, which doesn’t quite convince (cut too slow) — modern audiences would laugh — but some nice gliding movement up and down a grand staircase and into bars. The casting of faces in smaller roles is wonderful, and a Milestone speciality — THE RACKET seems to anticipate SCARFACE with its grizzled gangster mugs, and here the array of gnarly character types creates a whole world of vice.
Good violence too — Van giving a PI a dead arm as he reaches into his jacket — something you just don’t see!
Iverstown, inherited by Stanwyck after the opening murder, is industrial, booming, deeply corrupt. The cops we meet are sneering thugs, there are brutal private eyes, the DA knowingly sent an innocent man to the death house, and the real power is robber baroness Babs Stanwyck. Van Heflin’s innocent, chance arrival will stir things up and bring old secrets bubbling to the surface.
Ultimately, the grim view of the postwar American heartland is only background, and the film is about amour fou, exerted by Stanwyck over VH and the young Kirk Douglas (startlingly cast as a drunken milquetoast). There are enough balls in the air and enough dodgy behaviour even from the more likable characters (the gambler and the thief!) to keep us guessing where things are going to end up, even if we know that crime must not pay as long as the Breen Office reigns. Or, it CAN pay, but eventually you’ll pay it back, possibly with a slug in the guts.