The film opens with young Martha Ivers attempting to run away from her home of Iverstown, she wants to leave her wealthy overbearing aunt with her street smart friend Sam Masterton. Martha is caught and returned to the aunt’s home to be chastised, so she promptly tries to run away again with Sam. But when Martha’s aunt attacks Martha’s cat, Sam slips out and Martha intervenes, unintentionally killing her aunt. Martha’s straight laced friend Walter O’Neill witnesses the aunt’s death, and supports Martha’s lie to the police that an intruder was responsible for the death. Walter’s money hungry father also goes along with the lie in order to blackmail Martha.
Eighteen years later in Iverstown, Martha (Stanwyck) is married to Walter (Douglas). Martha has built a business empire with her Aunt’s fortunes, and Walter is the District Attorney. It is clear that Martha does not love Walter like he loves her, that she has only married him because she was forced to by Walter’s father. Martha is cruel to Walter, getting a kick out of dominating and humiliating him. Walter doesn’t share Martha’s nasty streak, but he is a weak alcoholic without the courage to stand up to his wife.
Sam Masterton, on the other hand, is now a tough military veteran who gambles for a living. By chance he crashes his car outside of Iverstown, and takes a trip down memory lane while he’s waiting for the car to be repaired.
Sailor: [after the car has crashed] What happened?
Sam Masterson: The road curved, I didn’t.
Along the way he strikes up a relationship with Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail.
The rest of the film follows the intertwining relationships between Sam, Martha, Walter and Toni in true noir fashion. The film contains many classic film noir tropes – such as an urban, American setting, morally murky characters, a charismatic femme fatale, the use of staircases and shadows. The small town of Iverstown reeks of dark secrets and political corruption; it is a fantastic setting for the repercussions of childhood decisions and obsessive love to play out. Miklós Rózsa’s score skilfully amplifies the drama and deception and Edith Head’s costume design is fantastic.
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