I had never heard of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and just happened upon it while trolling through the Internet Archive (archive.org) looking for a public domain film to download. It turned out to be a new favorite.
The story revolves around three childhood friends who are around 15 years old in the opening scene. Martha Ivers is an orphaned heiress of a steel mill who despises having to live with her aunt (played by Judith Anderson with the same chilly, domineering quality she brought to the role of Mrs. Danvers in Htichcock’s Rebecca). Martha has run away several times with the help of her friend Sam, as streetwise kid from the wrong side of the tracks, but is always brought back thanks to her aunt’s influence and the aid of her sycophantic tutor and his son Walter, a timid boy who is Martha’s study mate. Martha agrees to run off once and for all with Sam, but misses the circus train as it is pulling out of town.
18 years later, Sam (Van Helfin) comes back into Iverstown by mere chance, a fateful car wreck stranding him in his hometown. He looks up his old friends and finds that Walter (Kirk Douglas in his film debut) is the district attorney and is married to Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), who works hard to hide her husband’s alcoholism from the public. But the couple have much darker secrets to hide as well. Sam meets Toni (a sultry Lizabeth Scott, seemingly channeling Lauren Bacall), a pretty girl with a somewhat troubled past who runs afoul of the law in the small town. Sam, wanting to help Toni, calls a favor in on Walter, who worries that he actually has blackmail in mind. While the story lacks the police detectives and private shamuses that so often define the genre, this is classic film noir at its best. The performances are wonderful all around, and a strapping Kirk Douglas actually pulls off playing a real weakling, a feat he was never called on to repeat. Lizabeth Scott, who has a relatively minor role in the film, stands out in all of her scene, and Barbara Stanwyck builds on the role she established in Double Indemnity (1944).