Rewatch: “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizbeth Scott, & Kirk Douglas

The prologue suggests a Gothic movie, with the spooky figure of Mrs. Ivers dominating the eerie household that Martha wants to flee; then, the film changes to a noir with a fine plot. In fact, Lewis Milestone, the director, has mixed styles in the picture, but the end result makes a satisfying film to watch.

Barbara Stanwyck is at her peak–sure, confident, and unfailing. Van Heflin’s natural talent makes everything he does seem effortless. Kirk Douglas offers a most impressive film debut in what, in retrospect, is an uncharacteristic role. Lizabeth Scott (who seems to me a fascinating cross between Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Clooney) is constantly engaging.

The black & white cinematography is magnificent, and the fatal character of Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most dangerous and manipulative villains I have ever seen in a film-noir.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

I discovered this classic film a bit late (my earlier review was from 2011). I’ve seen it maybe three times over the years; somehow, it feels fresh each time! The film (which is a blend of melodrama and noir) was written by Richard Rossen, who went on to work on “The Hustler.” The director is Lewis Milestone, an immigrant from Moldova (then part of Russia), who worked on many fine films, incl. The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, and Mutiny on the Bounty (w/ Brando). According to film historians, a few days of this film (which started shooting during a strike in Hollywood) were directed by Byron Haskin.

Barbara Stanwyck was 39 y.o. in this movie; her two co-leads were 36 y.o. Van Heflin (who had just served in WWII), and 30 y.o. Kirk Douglas (in his film debut). According to film historians, Stanwyck did not like to be upstaged; when she saw the coin trick Heflin had learned (Milestone’s suggestion), she informed him he should make sure he did not do it during any of her important lines. Heflin only used the trick once in a scene with her. And what a debut for Douglas! Even though the actor (recommended to producer Hal Wallis by his close friend Lauren Bacall) is playing a weak-willed alcoholic spurned by his wife, his role is meaty and the star potential in clear onscreen. You see the maturity and commitment to character (honed in the theater) and the ironic expressions which he came to be known for in his prime years.

Martha Smith (Stanwyck), Sam Masterson (Heflin), and Walter O’Neil (Douglas) grew up together in the small city (Iverstown) w/ a burgeoning steel industry. As teens in 1928, Martha and Sam (a rebellious boy from “the wrong side of the tracks”) are the best of friends who plan to run away to join the circus. Walter, an obedient/fearful boy and son to Martha’s tutor, knew about the plan. Martha was an orphan determined to escape her controlling aunt (played by famed villain Judith Anderson). Martha, the child of a wealthy mother and a humble mill worker father, hated her aunt, who disapproved of her heritage and behavior (strong-willed). After Martha is caught and brought back to the family mansion, her aunt reveals that she has changed the girl’s last name to “Ivers” (reflecting her maternal heritage). Of course, young Sam escapes and goes on adventures of his own. After her aunt is dead, Walter’s father (an ambitious/calculating schoolteacher), takes over caring for her and securing the future of his son.

As adults in their 30s in 1946, the trio is reunited. Sam notices the sign of his old town, gets distracted, and runs into a pole (minor fender bender). FYI: The young sailor who is in the passenger seat is director Blake Edwards. This requires Sam to stop at the local garage for repairs and look for a hotel to stay. He runs across an old cop on his beat who used to chase him as a kid. When he goes back to his childhood home, Sam meets Toni (Lizbeth Scott), a pretty young blonde w/ a husky voice (reminding us of Bacall). She misses her bus to her hometown, but isn’t too upset about it. Sam has lived the life of a gambler (after leaving the circus), getting in trouble w/ the law, and spending a lot of time in hotel rooms.

After Toni gets in trouble, Sam goes to see Walter (who is running for DA) at his office. While they talk, Martha comes in; at first, she doesn’t realize who this man is. After a few moments, she runs into Sam’s arms. Sam hugs her twice, surprised at how beautiful she has become. Walter is (obviously) jealous, imagining that they may still have feelings for each other. Later, in these scene w/ Sam and Martha at her office, we learn that she has the real power in Iverstown (not her husband). She has grown the steel mill in size and workforce. The Ivers mansion has been redecorated to suit her style.

The melodrama element of this film is heightened by the music and costumes (designed by the famed Edith Head). Martha doesn’t dress like a typical businesswoman. She wears a lot of outfits, incl. a fur stole, cape, and several gowns that would suit a Manhattan cocktail party (not a steel town). In the final scene of the movie, Stanwyck wears a gorgeous flowing gown with a beaded waistline which is high in the front and lower in back. Film historians said Head designed this to draw attention from the actress’ long waist and somewhat low hips.

The film noir genre is known for it’s theme of the past (incl. old flames, friends, enemies) coming back to haunt you, and this film is no exception. Though Heflin is the hero who the audience can relate to, it’s the (explosive) scenes between Stanwyck and Douglas that reveal just how dysfunctional marriage can become! I really enjoyed how the romance between Sam and Toni, who both have somewhat shady pasts and alcoholic fathers, enfolded in a natural way. Their fresh and hopeful relationship is in direct contrast to that of the O’Neils. In the very last scene, we see Sam and Toni driving happily westward. He advises: “Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”

The Woman in the Window (1944) & Scarlet Street (1945) starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, & Dan Duryea

These two films by Fritz Lang star the multi-faceted Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett (perhaps best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend), and character actor Dan Duryea. Lang was a half-Jewish refugee from Austria who fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s. Growing up w/ German cinema, Lang was “concerned w/ symbolism and good and evil existing w/in one character” (as Barbara Bordwell McGrew, former film instructor at Burlington College explained). Double Indemnity (where Edward G. Robinson played a fine supporting role), Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Phantom Lady were all successful noir films released in 1944. “This led the way for more dark, mature stories to be told in Hollywood,” Eddie Muller (host of Noir Alley on TCM) commented.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Mild-mannered Gotham College professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) and his two close friends (a district attorney and a medical doctor) become obsessed with the portrait of a woman in the window beside their men’s club. After dinner and drinks at the club, his friends head off to a burlesque show. Wanley decides to read for a while and seems to doze off. Late that night, he meets the woman, Alice Reed (Bennett), while admiring her portrait, and ends up in her apartment. While they chat and drink champagne, a man bursts in and misinterprets the situation. This intruder lunges at the professor and a fight ensues where the other man is killed. In order to protect his reputation, Wanley agrees to dump the body and help cover up the killing.

The Woman in the Window is considered to be one of the most significant movies in the film noir genre. It’s a film has many key noir ingredients: man meets woman and finds his life turned upside down, shady characters, a killing, shadows and darkness, and an atmosphere heavy w/ suspense. At its core, the film is about the dangers of stepping out of one’s normal life. The cast is very strong; Robinson, Bennett and Duryea re-team with Lang the following year. As on reviewer on IMDB noted: “The Woman in the Window seems to say that evil only lives when people look hard enough for it – practically a ‘film noir’ rebuttal.” The ending (which some liked, yet modern audiences may think a bit cheesy) had to be that way b/c of the Production Codes of that time.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a bank cashier who is given a gold watch by his boss for 25 years of honest service. Chris is kind of an Everyman who is respected by his peers, yet has a boring life w/ his loud/shrewish wife in Brooklyn. Chris has a love of beauty and painting (which he does on Sundays). One rainy late night, he sees a young, beautiful woman being beaten by a man on the street in Greenwich Village. He stops the villain and saves this (supposed) damsel in distress. In no time, he falls desperately in love w/ this woman- a struggling actress named Katherine March (Bennett). Kitty (her nickname) gets to know more about his inner life and starts making demands (w/ tears, saying how she is so poor). As Chris talks re: his love of art on their dates, Kitty assumes that he is wealthy.

According to Ben Mankiewicz on TCM, when first released, local censor boards in New York, Milwaukee and Atlanta banned this film entirely, for being “licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community.” Though this may seem tame to (modern) audiences, there are themes of dominance and submission in this film. Chris’ wife, Adele, bosses him around at every turn. On the other hand, Kitty, allows herself to be abused (emotionally and physically) by her fiance- Johnny Prince (Duryea). Her friend/roommate, Millie, keeps telling Kitty that he is no good, but she doesn’t listen. In her mind, this is “love” and Millie “doesn’t understand.”

Scarlet Street is compelling and unpredictable; Lang truly knows how to keep the audience hooked, even in quiet moments. “The film is full of irony throughout (ironically made by a non-American),” as one reviewer wrote on IMDB. The audience is never able to guess what’s around the corner. The movie is packed with stand out moments, but the ending is terrific. The atmosphere that Lang creates draws you in, as do the fine actors (esp. Robinson as the anti-hero).

Fairview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre): SEPT 9-OCT 6

Beverly insists the celebration for Grandma’s birthday be perfect. But her husband is useless, her sister is into the wine, and her daughter’s secrets are threatening to derail the day. Meanwhile, a group of spectators has put them all under surveillance. Soon the voyeurs launch an invasion on the festivities, forcing the family to battle for their very identities-Synopsis from Woolly web site

I didn’t know much re: this play (written by Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury) when I went to see it (w/ my gal pal) on a recent Pay What You Can Night (PWYC) night. Two DC-based actors I’d seen several times before (Shannon Dorsey and Cody Nickell) were in the cast. Dorsey has been in recent Woolly productions; she’s a talented young lady under 30. Nickell is an experienced actor in his 40s; I’ve seen him perform before at The Folger (focused on Shakespeare).

Fairview is divided into 3 sections and runs w/o an intermission. In the first section, we see a domestic drama (w/ moments of humor) set in the home of an educated, upper-class black American family. The mom, Beverly (Nikki Crawford), is cooking dinner and worrying about making her mother’s 70th birthday special. The dad, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), is trying to help, yet also has time for joking around and being playful w/ his wife. He is relaxed and easygoing; they are still very much in love. The auntie, Beverly’s younger sister- Jasmine (Dorsey)- comes over w/ a bottle of wine and starts telling her sis to calm down. She starts to drink, complain, and stuff her mouth w/ cheese (which she was avoiding on a recent diet). The 17 y.o. daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer- a recent graduate of Howard), comes home after school and starts chatting w/ her aunt. Keisha is looking forward to college (she’s a good student, plays sports, and has several other extracurricular activities); she confides in Jasmine that she wants to take a year off. A call comes in from the uncle, a lawyer, whose flight will be late. This causes more anxiety for Beverly- a perfectionist- who still has veggies to cook and a cake to bake. They talk, laugh, and even dance around the house some. Suddenly, Beverly falls to the floor!

In the second part of the play, everything we just saw is acted over again, but w/o any dialogue (from the black family). Instead, we heard the (disembodied) voices of others observing this family. At first, I thought these were the voices of those who created this family drama story- producers, director, writers, etc. The most dominant voice is that of an arrogant white man, Jimbo (Nickell), who asks the others: “If you could be any race, which race would you choose? Why?” The first female voice is of Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), a white woman who is (from her commentary and tone) someone who considers herself to be “liberal” and “woke.” Another voice joins in, Mack (Christopher Dinolfo), declaring loudly and proudly that he wants to be Latino (or “Latinx”); he is a young gay man. The last voice is of Bets (Laura C. Harris) who is an immigrant from Russia w/ a strong accent; she has her own views (and points out that “everything in America is about race”). She would like to be a Slav (which is a different ethnicity, not race); this answer confuses the others. Jimbo wants to be black, as does Suze; she tells a story of how she was raised by a black nanny (who she loved). Yes, this play takes on The Help (written by Katherine Stockett), along w/ many other tales from pop culture (incl. The Cosby Show, Tyler Perry movies, various stereotypes- positive and negative- of black Americans).

In the third segment, the play really amps us, as the (white) voices we just heard insert themselves into the story of the black family! Jimbo takes on the role of the uncle, dressed like he belongs in a hip hop music video, and speaking as if straight from “the streets” (African American vernacular). This made the audience laugh and also cringe, recognizing the (blatant/persistent) ways black men are portrayed in media even today. Keisha goes upstairs to get her granny for dinner- Suze emerges wearing a classy white gown and turban-style headdress decorated with gold. She walks slowly down and joins the family at the table. Suze is appalled by the way Jimbo is talking, of course. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; Mack (dressed in neon colors, wearing blonde fake braids) dances into the story. He is meant to be Keisha’s classmate- a girl– who is on the track team and her best friend. It was hinted before that Keisha may have feelings for this girl. Mack is so flamboyant that the audience cringed (yet had to laugh). This is an unique story! The black family and the observers sit down to eat, but tensions arise, and tempers get hot. Mack declares that Keisha is pregnant, pulling out a home pregnancy test. Keisha is shocked, as her friend was bringing over some homework. Beverly is stunned and disappointed. Suze tries to stay calm, saying she will accept what happens, and be supportive of her family.

Keisha knows something is wrong, but what exactly!? Bets pops out from behind a large family portrait, declaring herself to be the grandmother! She is dressed in a tight gold gown w/ matching turban; underneath, she is wearing an (obvious) fake butt. By this point, a few of the audience is still confused; others are howling w/ laughter (recognizing the ridiculous ways these white characters are trying to be part of the story which doesn’t belong to them). Suze and Bets get in a fight, as Suze objects to this version of the grandmother. Jimbo and Mack get into it also; they run about yelling and breaking apart the set (the family home). There is noise and mayhem for some moments. Keisha, as well as the audience, is trying to figure out what happened and how the story will end! Finally, Keisha confronts Suze- the white feminist/woke ally- and declares that she’s tired of being living under scrutiny (“the white gaze”).

Why are these white voices/characters turning this nice family story into a stereotype? This was one of my thoughts at the start of the third section. Then I realized that maybe the family was already a (positive) stereotype at the start of the play? Near the end, Keisha realizes that these white people have taken over her family, her story, and her future (as she imagined it)! Why can’t she (and other people of color) just tell their own stories, and white people (majority culture, esp. here in the US) give them some space? Why do we POC have to live our lives as if being watched (and judged) by whites? When is it our time to control the narrative? The play ends in an (unexpected) way; I haven’t seen anything like that before!

The Women (1939) starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, & Rosalind Russell

There are over 130 roles in this movie, all played by women. Several actresses, incl. Marjorie Main (the Reno housekeeper- Lucy), originated their roles in the play (written by Claire Boothe Luce), which opened in the Fall of 1937 and had over 600 performances on Broadway. This fun, witty, and fast-paced movie follows a group of NYC society women (20s-50s), most whom are married (and some have kids, too). The center of this story, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), has her perfect marriage shattered by her husband’s infidelity w/ a beautiful/manipulative shop girl, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). She has to break the news (as gently as she can) to her bright, sensitive daughter (Virginia Weidler- she appeared in The Philadelphia Story the following year). Mary makes the journey from marriage to divorce and back with dignity and intelligence.

You know, the first man that can think up a good explanation how he can be in love with his wife and another woman is gonna win that prize they’re always giving out in Sweden. -Maggie (the Haines’ family cook) explains to the maid

Mary’s cousin/frenemy, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) steals the show and gets many of the best lines (as well as some of the wildest costumes). Director George Cukor told Russell to play Sylvia very broadly: “Sylvia’s breaking up a family, and there’s a child involved, and if you’re a heavy, audiences will hate you. Don’t play it like a heavy, just be ridiculous.” Russell is very fun to watch; she’s snobby, gossipy, gawky, yet very confident of her own marriage. There is also some physical comedy- Russell was noted for that in her early carer.

On the train to Reno, Mary meets Flora AKA The Countess De Lave (Mary Boland), a jovial divorcee in her ’50s who still believes in love (amour, as she says) after four marriages. Flora’s outfits and accessories are large and eccentric- much like herself. Miriam (Paulette Goddard, a gorgeous actress once married to Charlie Chaplin) plays a jaded/street-smart Brooklyn chorus girl who married (then divorced) for money. No doubles were used in the fight where Russell bites Goddard (after Sylvia learns that her husband has fallen in love w/ Miriam)- that bite was real! Peggy (a young Joan Fontaine- sister of Olivia de Havilland) is a naive new wife; she and her husband separated hastily. Her character is annoying to many viewers; she cries and complains a lot (b/c she doesn’t want a divorce).

All the characters are not wealthy; Crystal (as well as her fellow shopgirls and manicurists) must work for a living (esp. the ones who are single). A few of her peers sound jealous of Crystal and her supposed way w/ men; others looks down on her for acting flirtatious. Mary has a cook and a maid in her household; they are concerned re: their jobs, but still kind to their employer. We even see a young black maid (played by Butterfly McQueen from Gone With the Wind); sadly, she is the butt of a tasteless joke.

There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society . . . outside a kennel. -Crystal declares to Mary and her friends (at the end of the movie)

As from the dialogue, the hats, hairdos, and costumes reveal much about each character. The costume designer (Adrian) dressed the leads and also created high-fashion gowns and outfits for the (Technicolor) fashion show. The scene which was inserted into the B&W film as a surprise for the audience of that day. A classic film fan on Twitter notes that the $225 nightgown Mary admires after that fashion show would cost $4000 in 2019. The enormous square-cut ring Mary wears is the most expensive piece of jewelry in the film ($175,000).

Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in once scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).