The Big Nowhere (to be seen) is a new short-run feature that will run for eight separate installments, all penned by Melbourne-based writer Andrew Nette. The aim of this column is to focus on the best noirs that most people have never heard of and what they tell us about what film noir is, looking at plot, production and reception.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers remains a largely unknown and unappreciated film noir. Directed by Lewis Milestone, whose motion picture career stretched back to the twenties, and scored by veteran composer Miklos Rozsa, it was a relatively big budget production starring Barbara Stanwyck and prominent character actor Van Heflin, and had a supporting cast that included talented newcomers, Lizabeth Scott (only her second film) and Kirk Douglas (in his debut role). What’s particularly compelling about this film is how it epitomises what would become a key trope of film noir: the bad town.
The name of the town in question, lit up on a neon sign near a rain-drenched rail yard at the beginning of the film, is Iverstown. The year is 1928: Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) and Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson) are hiding out in a boxcar, enacting the first stage of their plan to run away and join the circus. The police discover the youngsters; Sam escapes but Martha is brought back to face both her private tutor, Mister O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), and her cold-hearted aunt (Judith Anderson), who owns the town’s steel mill.
Martha and her aunt argue over her future; Martha’s father was a factory worker and her aunt is determined to purge the girl of what she sees as her common, working class traits. Martha threatens to run away again. “You don’t own the whole world,” she screams. “Enough of it to always ensure you will be brought back here,” counters her aunt.
Later that night, as a thunderstorm rages, Sam appears at Martha’s bedroom window. Martha is sitting in the room with Walter O’Neil, the kind hearted but ineffectual son of Martha’s tutor. Sam tells her they can still run away. The lights go out and as the aunt climbs the grand staircase to investigate noises upstairs she finds the children. She and Martha struggle, in the process of which, Sam escapes and the aunt falls down the steps to her death. Walter’s father appears and seeing his employer lying dead at the foot of the stairs, has an idea as to how he can secure his son’s future. It’s a terrifically atmospheric sequence that could’ve easily have been a movie in unto itself.
Fast-forward eighteen years to 1946, and Sam (Van Heflin), now a decorated military veteran, career gambler and drifter, stumbles upon Iverstown, now one of America’s fastest growing industrial cities. He is so surprised by the discovery he crashes his car into a pole and is stuck in Iverstown for several days until the garage can repair his car. He discovers Walter (Douglas) is now the town’s politically ambitious district attorney and married to Martha (Stanwyck), who inherited her aunt’s fortune. That night he meets a woman outside a boarding house that was once his boyhood home, Antonia (Scott), who, unknown to him, is fresh out of prison.
When the local police detail Antonia for violating her parole and threaten her with another stretch in prison, Sam visits Walter to see if he can help. Now an alcoholic, Walter is trapped in a loveless marriage and haunted by what happened that night eighteen years ago. Martha, though, still holds a candle for Sam. She connives to have Sam stay while her husband schemes to have him permanently removed from the town.
Arguably, Stanwyck never did another film, and certainly not another film noir, as good as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Her performance mixes ruthlessness with intense self-loathing. Douglas is a revelation as Walter, tormented by what happened on that stormy night many years ago and venting his frustration at Martha’s constant cuckolding of him through drinking and petty, vindictive acts. Heflin, as Sam, displays just the right mix of hardboiled smarts and moral centre. He finds Martha (and her money) attractive but is also repulsed by her life and the way she wields power. Scott is also good as the beguiling Antonia. On the back of that performance she would go onto star in a raft of excellent film noirs, including I Walk Alone (1948), Too Late For Tears (1949), Dark City (1950), and The Racket (1951).
The bad town appeared in many film noirs, including The Big Heat (1953), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Phoenix City Story (1955). The ‘bad town’ aspires to a level of bourgeois respectability but every layer of its administration is corrupt, usually beholden to a single criminal or commercial interest. Despite its faux sophistication, its outlook is provincial. Opposition, whether from other criminal interests, rival political interests or organised labour is either accommodated, bought off or smashed.
The Asphalt Jungle, based on a pulp novel by W.R Burnett and directed by John Huston, concerns a group of men who risk everything to conduct a jewel robbery in a hard-bitten unnamed Midwest US town. In The Phoenix City Story, a lawyer is reluctantly forced to take on the criminal interests who run his small southern town. It is based on the real life 1954 murder of the Attorney General of Phoenix, Alabama, by criminal interests, which resulted in the imposition of martial law by the state authorities. Perhaps the best-known film noir evocation of the ‘bad town’ is Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. That film follows an honest cop (Glenn Ford), who transforms into one-man anti-crime crusade after his wife is killed by a car bomb, planted by the henchmen of a powerful mob boss called Lagana. Lagana controls the entire political apparatus of the unspecified town, to the extent that police officers guard his house.
The key influence in establishing ‘the bad town’ as a film noir trope was the fictional centre of Personville (referred to as ‘Poisonville’ by the locals) in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, Red Harvest. It was based on the authors’ experience as a Pinkerton Detective Agency in Butte, Montana, in the early twenties, when the Agency was retained by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to break a major mining strike.
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer, whose work on film has been published widely. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, forthcoming in early 2016. His online home is www.pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @pulpcurry
The header image for this series modifies a photo from the Harold Paynting Collection at State Library of Victoria and is used by 4:3 under a CC BY 2.0 license.