The film features a vintage performance by Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, a small-town girl whose impulsive, murderous rage toward a nasty old aunt catapults her to a life of wealth, ambition and power but one devoid of joy or fulfillment.
Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin Vie For Barbara Stanwyck
Kirk Douglas makes a memorable film debut in a role quite different from his later typecasting as a fearless tough guy. As Martha’s husband Walter, he occasionally talks tough. In fact, Walter is a weakling who cedes control on most things to his assertive, much smarter wife.
Van Heflin is outstanding as Sam, Martha’s long-lost love, whose reappearance after nearly 20 years kick-starts the action. Lizabeth Scott plays Toni, the misunderstood ex-con Sam meets just as he arrives back in Iverstown.
In a vintage noir turn, the entire story hinges on the common past and shared secret of the triangle of Martha, Sam and Walter. That secret is established in the film’s 17-minute opening, when all three are still kids.
The past-is-prologue device is helped greatly by the casting of teenagers who can reasonably pass as the younger Stanwyck, Heflin and Douglas. (For the record, those actors are Janis Wilson, Darryl Hickman and Mickey Kuhn.)
Barbara Stanwyck’s Martha Kills Aunt
In 1928, smart, rebellious teen Martha Ivers — a member of the town’s founding family — kills the wealthy, mean-spirited aunt (played by Judith Anderson) who is raising her. Walter witnesses the killing, and so, Martha believes, does Sam. The crime is hushed up by Walter’s greedy father. This clears the way for heiress Martha to eventually assume control of the family’s mill.
Meantime, Sam vanishes, leaving Martha without the one person she loves and trusts. So Martha builds a business empire nearly singlehandedly, but longs for Sam.
Martha and Walter marry, since he “has something” on her– i.e., knowledge of the killing. She becomes the power behind his ascent to become Iverstown’s district attorney. In the first scene between Stanwyck and Douglas, it’s clear the marriage is a hollow one, at least for her:
“Tell me, Martha,” Walter asks plaintively, “what should I do about my love for you? Tell me, Martha, why I don’t abandon all this? Why I don’t just throw it back in your face?”