The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers ★★½

I love Barbara Stanwyck (I'm a fanwyck? A Stan-wyck?) and have just seen Lizabeth Scott give two great performances in a pair of solid noirs so the two of them in one film along with noted sexual assaulter Kirk Douglas in his big screen debut should make for a pretty great film, right?
Instead they made a messy affair about the titular woman (Stanwyck) who sort of accidentally kills her terrible aunt as a teenager and inherits the family fortune but is basically forced into later marrying Walter (Douglas) the boy who witnessed the death and corroborated Martha's version of events even though Martha lies and says an intruder killed her aunt. Walter is genuinely in love with Martha but she only married him so her secret would be safe, which you know, woman boss moment?
Also there that fateful night was Martha's best friend Sam (Van Heflin) who runs away and both Walter and Martha think that he witnessed the event even though he didn't so when Sam comes back into town 17 years later Walter assumes blackmail is on his mind while Martha rekindles her feelings for Sam but Sam has taken up with the just released from prison Toni (Scott) in a whirlwind two day romance.
Gotta' love the 40's when two people profess their love for each other almost as soon as they meet and women aren't seen as people so when Sam roughly pulls Toni off a bus and he tells the driver she'll catch the next one the driver just closes the door instead of making sure she isn't being kidnapped or forced somewhere against her will.
Terrible gender politics aside there were several other issues in this overlong film, one of them being that Martha wasn't the protagonist of her own story, instead it's Sam so the story is focused on him as he pieces together why he's simultaneously being driven out of town by Walter and his henchmen and also delayed by Martha so she can spend more time with him and both of these actions mean that instead of the secret staying secret Sam refuses to bend to either persons will and eventually learns the truth. The side plot with Toni and not focusing on the tension of Martha and Walter sweating out whether or not Sam is a threat to them really takes the wind out of the sails and drags the film down to being tepid instead of a slowly roiling boil.
Another issue is the message, aside from the usual "crime doesn't pay and if you're guilty eventually you'll get what's coming" but what exactly was it trying to say beyond that? Some people just don't care if they kill or hurt others as long as they make the world better in other ways? That was Martha's reasoning. She didn't seem all that rotten as a kid yet the film implies that she was or that the money and power made her cold. Was that really the whole point?
And why the film followed the bland Heflin instead of Stanwyck who acted circles around everyone is a mystery.
Scott also gives a fairly weak performance and is more of a prize than anything which was a disappointment given how good she's been elsewhere.
Douglas gets the most to do as he feels genuinely guilty for the cover up which led to the hanging of an innocent man and though Martha has used her power to make Walter the DA Walter is a deeply depressed alcoholic.
The pieces are all there but while it sounded good on paper it just didn't come together for me and I didn't love this strange film.

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