Film Noir Series: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
For the moment, I am going to suspend any discussion of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers as a masterpiece of Gothic intensity. I am also going to avoid much detailed analysis of its juicy Freudian symbolism–the whole film is melting candles, smoking guns, and looming father figures. This might seem strange, since those are the two most immediate reasons to prefer this film to many other films noirs. After all, though most noir films are concerned with desire and the underside of polite society, they tend to play it cool and close to the vest. Martha Ivers, by contrast, has moments of sheer hyperbole, such as the titular character beating her aunt over the head while a thunderstorm rages behind her in the window. That is not my subject for right now, however.
Instead, allow me to introduce you to Iverstown, the “fastest-growing industrial city in America,” as its welcome sign proclaims. Home to a sprawling factory complex, the kind that will no doubt condemn Iverstown to rapid decay into a “Rust Belt” city sometime around 1978, the city is owned by Martha Ivers. Though by the end she reveals herself to be a fairly standard femme fatale, Martha is first and foremost a cunning entrepreneur, taking her inheritance and expanding it tenfold. In a capitalist reading of the Parable of the Talents, she would be commended for her enterprise. She is not merely idly rich, basking in sensual delights, but what commentators in the United States sometimes (laughably) call “a job creator,” the subject of a lengthy Ayn Rand novel.
Though her inevitable death at the end of the film could be attributed to her status as a femme fatale, I believe there is another angle to this. Her husband, Walter, who has served her well as the respectable public face of her cutthroat business operations. Consider that she proves herself capable of murder, it is advantageous to her to have the law captive to her funds and will. In the end, however, Walter, an individual from the start stunted by his father, murders her. Could this be the sign of a society attempting to resolve the contradictions inherent in a figure like Martha, who is both aristocrat and industrialist, married woman and master of the market? I think it’s a possibility worth exploring in greater depth.