Anxiety in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

Walter O’Neil of “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” is one of the weakest male characters I have ever encountered. His anxiety is like a dark cloud hovering over the film. I  feel anxious just watching Walter. In fact, Walter acts as a doormat for his father, Martha his wife, and his childhood friend Sam.

 When we first meet Walter he is under his father’s rule. He looks like a scared little boy in the presence of the great heiress Mrs. Ivers. He says whatever his father tells him to say and even takes the credit for finding Mrs. Ivers’ niece Martha after she runs away. In this situation Walter is unable to defy his father because his father is the authority figure. After Martha murders her aunt, Walter agrees to her made-up story because Martha forces him to do so and he sentences an innocent man to death for the murder years later. Sam also treats Walter as a pushover and doesn’t take him seriously.

 Walter’s guilt over Mrs. Ivers’ death consumes him and makes him a weak man. The only thing that Walter has control over is the amount of liquor he drinks. Whenever we see Walter, he has a drink in his hand. He drinks to rid himself of the anxiety. He doesn’t want to think about how he sentenced an innocent man to  death for a crime he did not commit. The only way Walter can carry a conversation is if he has a drink. When Martha tries to talk to him he says, “If there’s to be a discussion, I need a drink.” In Walter’s drunken state, he even falls down the stairs. Walter has to drink so that he can face the world.

 An essential part of Walter’s anxiety had to do with his marriage. He is married to a woman who neither loves nor respects him. He knows that Martha only married him to keep her secret. Even when Walter kisses her, she stands stiff like a statue and does not show any affection. Not once in the film, did I get the feeling that these two actually loved each other. Martha is anxious because she believes that Walter will betray her secret and Walter is anxious because he believes that Martha will leave him. There is no trust at all in this marriage. Martha wants him to let go of her, but he won’t and as a result their marriage cannot survive. Martha and Walter just cannot be together because their relationship is toxic.

 Liquor helps Walter deal with his anxiety, but it doesn’t put an end to it. The only way Walter is fully able to escape his anxiety is by killing Martha and himself. Strangely enough, it is through death that Walter asserts his control over his wife and himself.

3 thoughts on “Anxiety in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

  1. A great reading of Martha Ivers, Christy. This is a film that doesn’t get as much attention any more. It’s mentioned in the context of being Kirk Douglas’ first role and in discussions of categorization, but doesn’t get talked about all that much on its own merits, which is really too bad.

    A few critics talk about “film-gris” or semi-noir as a category for films like Martha Ivers, Sorry Wrong Number, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and a handful of others that function more as character studies or deal with crimes of passion, that may or may not fit the most common definitions of film noir. Borde and Chaumeton, though, include Martha Ivers on their list of noirs and it shows up on other influential lists as well. Personally, I don’t find the categorization question all that interesting or worthwhile. In its themes and plot, Martha Ivers fits our purposes very well and I’m glad you’ve chosen to discuss it as you have.

  2. Hi Christy. I think this post is very thought-provoking so I’d like to pose a question to you the class. Since you mentioned that the Walter character in the film is one of the weakest characters you’ve even seen, and this post is mainly about anxiety, is it possible that the audience watching it is feeling uncomfortable about Walter because he’s weak? Personally, I don’t think I’ve seen that many films that have weak main male characters. The male characters that I’ve watched had a least a couple of things going for them. I’d like to know if anyone else can think of a movie with a weak main male character. If there aren’t that many, maybe that explains why the audience is so tuned into the anxiety of the unusual in a male-dominated society? Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that I think the audience is anxious because they have not experienced a weak main male character in our strong patriarchial society and are uncomfortable with it.

  3. I agree with you Jenny. Our society is not comfortable with weak male characters. I think it brings out unwanted fears about our egos. Nobody wants to be associated with being weak. Even if a person is weak or insecure, he or she does their best to hide this weakness. People don’t like their flaws to show. In this movie Walter showed his flaws and it was obvious that this made the other characters feel uncomfortable. Truthfully, Walter’s character did make me feel uncomfortable because it’s not the side of a character I wanted to see. I have also seen a few of Kirk Douglass’ movies and he usually plays the strong leading man.
    As for movies with weak male characters… I cannot think of any. As you said, that’s probably because there aren’t many. Weak male characters make us uncomfortable because we don’t want to identify with them and yet we may see a little bit of ourselves in those characters.

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