As Miklós Rózsa’s lush, turbulent score accompanies the regal font of the opening titles, against an image of a majestic estate beset by inclement weather, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers wastes no time asserting itself as that indigenous bird of 1940s American cinema, the prestige noir—a film that seeks the gothic magnitude of Rebecca, while also pining for the dime-novel bitterness of the genre’s rowdier specimens.
Director Lewis Milestone experienced his artistic peak during the pre-Code period, earning his lifetime keep with All Quiet on the Western Front. Like several other filmmakers whose passion and verve seemed to bleed out during the back half of the 1930s, Milestone populated his later period with honest, A-rated projects that seem vacant of personality. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is similarly unexceptional, with endless scenes framed in medium shots, with two characters shouting at each other from their half of the frame.
The story, which vaguely foretells the recent ABC drama Revenge, concerns the drastic choices made by children that continue to haunt them, well after they’ve grown up to become Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas. John Patrick’s Oscar-nominated screen story (adapted by Robert Rossen) makes busywork for the audience by withholding key information until the most opportune moment, or otherwise keeps grown-up bad boy Sam Masterson (Heflin) occupied with vague corrupt-town intrigue and fisticuffs.
The film isn’t really anyone’s finest hour; it isn’t even Judith Anderson’s most delectably campy turn of 1946 (that would be in Ben Hecht’s preposterous Spectre of the Rose), but the players are uniformly solid. Aside from Heflin and Stanwyck’s natural charisma (this is one of the latter’s best-known postwar roles), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is also noteworthy for introducing audiences, and eternity, to a certain Kirk Douglas. The role itself is a mild disaster, a guilt-ridden public figure who spends most of the films delivering careening, drunken monologues that fail both as expository monologues and convincing imitations of drunkenness. But that counts for nothing, because Douglas clearly had It, flaunted It, and his subsequent work features many improvements and revisions on the template established here.
This was my first encounter with (presumably) new kids HD Cinema Classics; I can only hope that their other releases are not similarly marred by such mercenary indifference. It would be easy to overlook the poor state of the Martha Ivers print or prints—the film fell into the public domain in the 1970s—if there wasn't a meaningless "restoration demonstration" included as a supplement. There's scarcely anything to distinguish "before" from "after." On top of the wear and the speckling, contrast levels are off the charts: pools of pallid white glare like sodium streetlamps, while smudged blacks want for definition. The frame also seems squished slightly. It looks like an old movie given a barely-acceptable-quality stream on YouTube. All in all, the only saving grace is that its resolution is recognizably high-definition.
It's been a while since I've seen a DVD or Blu-ray release strain so mightily to look like it's got a full kit of supplements. The only way I can qualify this Blu-ray as a success in the extras department is by word count: one of them is "Spanish subtitles," another is a commemorative postcard. Proper extras include a middling commentary track by author William Hare, a trailer.
This non-classic has plenty of boilerplate pulp-Guignol appeal, and it's tempting to say that HD Cinema Classics gave it the disappointing Blu-ray release it deserves, but that isn't quite true.