The Strange Love of Martha Ivers Lewis Milestone

You hope you're in for good times when a middle-aged woman tries to beat a cat to death in the first ten minutes of a movie, and sure enough, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers fearlessly manages to live up to its opener for a full 115 minutes. The cat belongs to the pubescent Martha, who's just tried to run away with a boy named Sam. Caught by her industrialist aunt, the girl decides to push her matronly tormentor down the stairs and inherit her empire. Seventeen years later, Sam (now played by Van Heflin) blows back into town to find both a lost and tender girl (Lizabeth Scott) and the now-grown Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) still getting away with murder. This movie has it all, including red herrings by the truckload, a wrongly convicted patsy sent to the hangman, guilt and shame for most of the principals, and a marriage of convenience for Martha and the weak-willed district attorney (Kirk Douglas in his debut), the latter of whom drinks like a fish and laments his own evil father reaching out from beyond the grave. It's astonishingly inventive, deliciously perverse, very frequently outrageous and totally committed to its vision of drifters buffeted by systems and capital run by people who make the bourgeois look like St. Francis of Assisi. Robert Rossen (an uncredited Robert Riskin) deserves kudos for writing this floridly noir-ish melodrama, which never fails to surprise with every horrible admission and tortured expression of regret. It's not a masterpiece, but somehow it's better; it's a relentless torrent of traumas that will have you gasping at the breadth of its closed circuit of dysfunction. (Paramount)