Iverstown

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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10 Responses to “Iverstown”

  1. This was a favorite of Gore Vidal’s. I never had the chance to discuss it with him but I gather Stanwyck’s Martha reminded him of his horrible mother.

    Darryl Hickman is still with us and sharp as attack about Hollywood and his career. He LOATHED John M. Stahl.

  2. We never see Stanwyck being maternal, but in the openign sequence Judith Anderson plays a wicked aunt, who is a model of parental oppression.

  3. David E., there must have been something about Stahl. Henry Fonda couldn’t stand him either, and while Fonda was of course prickly off-set, his impatience with Ford and Lang (for example) is jokey and not unsympathetic.

    I love Strange Love of Martha Ivers. I agree that the screenplay is very well-structured. The cat (actually a kitten, which makes it worse) getting killed in front of young Martha makes her sympathetic for a long while. You’re pretty far into the movie before you realize that while she was abused, she hasn’t grown up into a sympathetic character.

  4. That’s what makes it interesting, Siren. Rossen was great with that sort of thing with films as diverse as Lilith and Desert Fury

  5. Fonda may have been reminded of his unhappy experience with Fritz Lang. I’m told that when Stahl ran a studio in the 20s, it was notorious for horribly long hours.

    Unusual to get a sympathetic character changing because (presumably) of negative experiences — Hollywood usually prized consistency above all else.

  6. David E beat me to it by pointing out the Rossen connection with DESERT FURY, which David E has written about so marvelously in “DESERT FURY, Mon Amour”. There are other interesting connections between these two films, both produced by Hal B. Wallis, with music by Miklos Rosza, and featuring Lizabeth Scott. Scott plays the main character in DESERT FURY, making it a woman’s picutre, I guess, but the other interesting similarity between the two films is that they are about corrupt small towns run by hard-as-nails women (a brilliant Mary Astor in DESERT FURY). If only they could have fit Judith Anderson into DESERT FURY as well!

  7. David, the Fonda quote’s in Hollywood Speaks, and he was comparing Stahl’s multiple takes with Wyler’s:

    http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2007/09/bette-meets-90-take-willie.html

    down toward the bottom. There’s more in the interview about Stahl, but it’s the same complaint except for calling the guy “a real son of a bitch.” Fonda also tells amusing stories about Fritz Lang’s general impossibility, but unlike Stahl says Lang was a giant.

    ANYWAY, that was a digression, sorry. I maintain that this is a noir where the purported villain is more sympathetic than the ingenue. And I share David E.’s opinion of Desert Fury and Lilith (both of which are MIA on DVD/Blu last I checked.)

  8. The multiple-take directors seem to fall into several camps, with Wyler roving freely from the endless fine-tuning and trying new ideas to the break-the-actor school depending on his mood and the actor.

    Lilith is pretty extraordinary. I like a lot of Rossen and should make a real study of him someday. His script for A Walk in the Sun is incredible. I don’t know how much derives from the book, but it’s still incredible.

  9. I have a DVD of Lilith. I was working as an usher at the Baronet/Coronet theaters in New York when it opened so I saw it too many times to mention. Quite beautiful. In an interview she gave to Cahiers du Cinema Jean Seberg said Rossen was dying of a rare blood disease when he was making it. He knew it would be his last cinematic breath and if you look closely there are many references to death in it.

    Warren Beatty got into an argument with Rossen about a line in the script where when asked about Dostoyevsky he was supposed to say “Well I’ve read ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ ” Warren wanted to say that he’d read “half of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ “

  10. Warren was right, that takes the curse off it! Any reference to Dostoyevsky in a script is usually a warning sign of Artistic Ambition.

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