I didn’t know a thing about Van Heflin when I saw The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). I picked the movie because of my love for Barbara Stanwyck, whom I assumed from the title would be the star of the film; I didn’t realize she wouldn’t appear until half an hour into it.
The story begins in 1928. Young Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) is trying to convince his crush, Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson), to run off to the circus with him. Sam is always evading the police thanks to Martha’s aunt (Judith Anderson), Mrs. Ivers, the wealthy woman who owns the town. Only if they run away can they be together. Unfortunately, their initial efforts are foiled by tattletale Walter, who likes Martha too.
Sam does run away, but just before Martha flees to join him, Mrs. Ivers beats her beloved cat to death, and Martha retaliates by striking her aunt with the same cane. We see Sam riding a train just as his crush is concealing the murder with the aid of her greedy tutor and Walter, his son.
The film jumps to 1946. Sam has grown up to become an easygoing professional gambler (Van Heflin). In his car with a hitchhiking sailor, Sam catches sight of a “Welcome to Iverstown” sign.
“Well, whaddya know?” he says. “….Leave a place when you’re a kid, maybe seventeen, eighteen years ago, and you forget all about it, and all of a sudden you’re driving along and smacko, your own hometown up and hits you right in the face.”
He’s so surprised that he turns around to see the sign again and crashes his car.
“Welcome to Iverstown,” he says to himself as he heads there for repairs. “Well, maybe this time, they mean it.”
I had expected to be disappointed by Stanwyck’s costar, as I usually am. Even actors good in other films come across as flat or artificial next to an actress this natural, and as downright stilted if unskilled to begin with (i.e., Herbert Marshall).
Captivated by the self-deprecation of Heflin’s character and his unexpectedly casual responses to conflicts, I soon forgot Stanwyck was even in the movie. I think I’d fallen for Van Heflin before he got out of the car.
Heflin is an excellent foil for the scheming adult Martha (Stanwyck) and her alcoholic, tortured husband, Walter (Kirk Douglas). Sam’s relaxed, freewheeling persona acts as a kind of tonic to his tightly wound former love and a poison to her jealous and fearful husband, who assumes this childhood friend is back to blackmail them. Like Mrs. Ivers before him, Walter tries to drive Sam away. But Sam is no longer as powerless as he once was.
Heflin is every bit as comfortable in his role as Stanwyck is in hers, and the naturalness I would soon discover to be a hallmark of his acting works perfectly here, contrasting with the duplicitous couple’s double dealing. What makes Heflin so attractive as an actor is that same ease of movement Stanwyck possesses; it wasn’t surprising to discover this man spent much of his life as a sailor. Clearly, he finds his sea legs in every part quickly, and that comfort in his skin and in his environment is seductive to watch. By the time he meets Martha again, even the usually compelling Kirk Douglas is hopeless against him (Douglas plays an atypical part here, and is wonderful in it).
Heflin was not a traditionally attractive man, and famously remarked that “Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, ‘You will never get the girl at the end.’ So I worked on my acting.” Whatever he did worked: He’s so riveting to watch that I never questioned any woman Heflin won, even one as jaw-droppingly sexy as parolee Tony (Lizabeth Scott), who falls for Sam as he’s wandering around Iverstown.
In fact, I’m more likely to question when Heflin doesn’t get the girl, as when Jean Arthur starts to fall for pretty-boy Alan Ladd in Shane over her tough husband (Heflin), or when Lana Turner prefers boring Richard Hart in Green Dolphin Street (to be fair, the character’s choices were just as baffling in the book). Even when Heflin plays a less courageous part than he usually does, as in 3:10 to Yuma, he’s always got some kind of hard, immovable core of strength to him. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, where I saw it first, this mental and physical strength appears when Walter starts to mess with him—and worse, with Tony.
Yet Heflin is just as adept at playing kindness as brawn, as when Tony (Scott) betrays Sam out of weakness and then asks him to hit her because of it. Of course, he refuses to hurt her, but he does more than that: he shows compassion for her behavior. “The only thing you got coming, kid, is a break,” Sam says, the simplicity of his delivery conveying his conviction.
And it is a joy to see Heflin in scenes with Stanwyck. Sam suspects he’s in love with Martha, and even though the audience knows he should steer clear, it’s hard not to root for them, since it means more scenes with these two brilliant actors, and fewer with the less talented Scott.
The role of Sam Masterson requires that Van Heflin have a great deal of range—that he express assurance, wonder, sympathy, violence, love, anger, fear, revulsion. Heflin’s performance carries the film, and he plays each emotion so perfectly that you feel like you know this man, and wish him far away from his destructive former playmates. I won’t spoil what happens, as the movie is well worth viewing, with excellent acting, an intriguing story, and a great script. But be warned: Heflin’ll get to you, just as he did to me.
This is the fourth in a monthly series of The Moment I Fell for posts…Hope you’ll share some of the moments that drew you to your favorite actors and actresses….