The Man I Love is another film noir that turns out not to be really a film noir. It belongs more properly in the genre of the 1940s woman’s melodrama, but with a film noir sub-plot. And it’s a pretty good movie.
This 1947 Warner Brothers movie stars Ida Lupino, which always helps. Lupino is Petey Brown, a nightclub singer. Sometimes I think that all women in the 1940s were nightclub singers. Maybe I’ve watched too many 1940s movies. Petey seems to be the archetypal world-weary cynical tough girl but as we will find out she has a tender side.
In a moment of particular world-weariness Petey decides to return to LA to see her family. It’s getting close to Christmas and she’s temporarily without a man and she’s feeling a bit on the lonely side and she’s fond of her family.
Her sister Sally is holding things together there. Her husband is a GI who suffered a severe case of shell-shock during the war and he’s in an army mental hospital. The kid sister of the family is Ginny, a rather shy girl who’d rather babysit her neighbour’s kids than go out to nightclubs. And then there’s the one brother, Joey.
Joey is the big problem. He works for nightclub owner Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda). Joey thinks he’s a tough guy but unfortunately he’s not as tough as he thinks he is and he’s definitely not as smart as he thinks he is. He’s an accident waiting to happen. Petey goes to Nicky’s club to try to persuade him to stop leading Joey astray, but what she actually succeeds in doing is talking her way into a job there as a singer. Nicky is one of those guys who expects that if he employs a female singer she will also perform certain extracurricular duties of a personal nature. That’s OK by Petey. He’s a good-looking guy and she likes men and she especially likes men she’s not likely to get too involved with. Love ‘em and leave ‘em is her approach.
That’s all well and good but fate is about to step in. Joey gets involved in a fight and gets arrested. When she arrives at the police station to bail him out she finds that he’s already talked his way out by putting all the blame on the other guy. Now the other guy will get to spend New Year’s Eve in a cell. Petey knows quite well well that it was Joey who started the fight and her basic decency impels her to do something that will have major consequences. She bails the other guy out, even though he’s a complete stranger.
This stranger turns out to be a merchant seaman. When she runs into him again in a club they have a drink together and she makes a surprising discovering. This rather taciturn sailor is actually legendary jazz piano player San Thomas. Their mutual love of music draws them together and pretty soon they’re going around as a couple. But this guy is not like other guys she’s had. She really likes him. In fact she’s done something that is against all her principles. She’s fallen hopelessly in love with him.
San has a quality guaranteed to make him attractive to a woman like Petey. He’s a three-time loser who turned to the bottle when his musical career faltered and his first wife dumped him. He still hasn’t recovered from his marriage breakup. He’s emotionally damaged and vulnerable and afraid of being hurt. As it happens if there’s one thing Petey loves to do it’s rescue people. During the course of the movie she tries to rescue her brother, both sisters and her neighbours as well as San. It’s not that Petey is gullible. She’s actually pretty good at rescuing people and occasionally she even succeeds. She just can’t stand to see people destroy themselves.
It’s not long before brother Joey needs rescuing big-time. With Petey running around with her new boyfriend Nicky has been on the lookout for new sources of female companionship. He’s picked Gloria O’Connor. Gloria lives on the same floor of the apartment house where Petey’s family lives. Gloria is married with two kids but motherhood doesn’t seem to agree with her. Being married doesn’t seem to agree with her. What does agree with her is getting drunk and chasing good-looking rich men. When her husband finds out about this Nicky orders Joey to get Gloria away from the club to avoid a scene. Joey of course bungles this job disastrously and now he’s looking at the prospect of death row.
The plot might be a bit contrived but with Raoul Walsh in the director’s chair and Lupino in top form it works very well. Robert Alda is enjoyably smooth and sleazy as Nicky. Bruce Bennett is a little on the dull side as San but that kind of suits the character.
The movie of course belongs to Ida Lupino. Lupino had every qualification to be a great film noir femme fatale but oddly enough hardly every played such a role. On the other hand one thing she did supremely well was to play a basically decent woman and make her interesting, sexy and exciting. One slight disappointment is that her singing voice was dubbed by someone else. The next time she played a nightclub chanteuse (in Road House) she did her her own singing and she was fabulous. Not a fantastic voice, but a voice that reek of too many cigarettes, too much whiskey and too many men. In other words, the perfect film noir singing voice.
While it’s not exactly a hardboiled movie it does have some great lines, like Petey saying to San, “I might have known it was a dame. Nothing else makes a guy cave in like that does.” And Nicky telling Petey, “Grow up, baby. Stick with me in my gutter. We both talk the same language.”
It’s a movie that could very easily have become either sentimental or preachy but it never does. And the ending has a nicely bitter-sweet feel to it. Not a conventional happy ending, but definitely not tragic or hopeless. Hollywood in the 40s distrusted open endings, so full marks to Walsh and to Warner Brothers for daring to end the film this way. All in all a superbly made slightly noir-tinged romantic melodrama. Highly recommended. It’s available in the Warner Archive DVD-R series, and the picture quality is excellent.