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.