The movie opens with murder, grisly murder. The young Martha Ivers has attempted to run away from her aunt, whom she sees as cruel and domineering. She is caught thanks to the squealing of young Walter O'Neil, despite the efforts of a young Sam Masterson. I say young for reasons that will be revealed next paragraph. Sam and Martha hatch another escape plan, which is interrupted by Aunt Ivers whipping their cat. Martha whips back, sending the salacious aunt tumbling down to the stairs to her death. Martha and Walter come up with a story of a mystery intruder for Walter's breathless father.
The movie fast forwards about twenty years. Despite Martha being the titular character, Sam is unquestionably the protagonist. He has grown into a handsome hard-boiled man, played by the actor with the equally hard-boiled name, Van Heflin.
Sam, looking especially hard-boiled as he lights a cigarette.He drives into town after a long absence, getting into a car crash caused by him craning his head backwards while driving for approximately fifteen seconds. He learns at the auto-repair shop that Walter is now District Attorney, Martha is his wife, and between them they pretty much own the whole town. Only one thing could threaten them; Sam's knowledge of murder most foul.
Martha is played by Barbara Stanwyck, and she excels at the cool but passionate Femme Fatale role, but it is KIrk Douglas who really steals the show. His performance of the conflicted, alcoholic, menacing Walter O'Neil lends the movie most of its dramatic weight.
This movie is as hard-boiled as it gets. There's smoking - love interest Toni Marachek is introduced smoking two cigarettes in a row. There's drinking - Walter O'Neil is the main offender, but Sam himself has no problems throwing them back. And there's lots of steamy make-outs, all involving Sam. He's portrayed as being quite the ladies man, in fact, at one point chatting up a secretary to get himself an appointment faster.
The movie is smartly written, with good foreshadowing and characterization. Walter O' Neil probably would, in the end, "have been happier driving a truck." Among the themes it intelligently explores is subjectivity. Is Aunt Ivers, for example, cruelly evil or simply an authoritative parental figure?
I freely admit to being biased, as I like pretty much anything from this era, but I'd recommend this movie. It's got all the noir hallmarks, and it does them right.
Random observations: Some poor cop has been working the same beat for at least twenty years.
Best line: "It's a thin line between life and death," delivered dramatically by Kirk Douglas.