Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love opens during an after-hours jam session at a Manhattan jazz boîte, the 39 Club, where Petey Brown (Ida Lupino, dubbed by Peg La Centra) sings the title song while expelling cigarette smoke. And it seems there was a man she loved, but we don't hear much about him, except that their parting has given her wanderlust, leading her back home to California.
Living there is what's left of the family of which she becomes de facto matriarch: Her sister Sally (Andrea King), whose shell-shocked husband (John Ridgely) is in a psychiatric hospital; younger sister Ginny (Martha Vickers); and ne'er-do-well brother Joe (Warren Douglas). Almost part of the family are next-apartment neighbors, the O'Connors - doting and deluded Johnny (Don McGuire) and discontented, two-timing Gloria (Dolores Moran, in a deliciously slutty turn).
They keep Lupino's hands full, but a girl's gotta make a living, too, so she slaps on the war-paint and slithers into a gown, landing a job as `canary' in a nightspot operated by womanizing Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda). She keeps rather tepid company with him, until circumstance brings legendary jazz-piano man San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) into her life; the victim of an unhappy marriage, he's currently AWOL from the Merchant Marine and thinks he's lost his gift for the ivories. They kindle a volatile liaison (apparently the template from which Martin Scorsese struck the romance between Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York). But Lupino's two lives, family and romantic, start to interlock disruptively....
An unlikely amalgam of freighted, '40s romance, low-key musical and a touch of film noir, The Man I Love relies less on plot than on old-fashioned story. It's a complicated and ever-shifting story that Walsh manages to juggle adroitly (though he lets a couple of Indian clubs clatter to the floor - the shut-away husband and the Vickers character don't come to much, and the usually glamorous King is ill-garbed as the long-suffering hausfrau).
But Lupino, though she shares the movie with a large cast, stays at its center - strong and smart-mouthed but compassionate and vulnerable. (Her grand exit, smiling through tears on the waterfront, recall's Barbara Stanwyck's in Stella Dallas.) Bennett proves a good match for her, in a strong, shaded performance (though top billing among the males goes to Alda, looking like a young Danny Thomas and delivering no more than a bland, generic heavy).
The Man I Love exerts a nostalgic pull that avoids (barely) the campy and the overwrought. Though there's a violent death, it's not a violent film, nor even, really, a crime story. Coming from the immediate post-war era when emotions were still running high and not yet subject to over-analysis, it serves up its thick stew with gusto. Yes, it ends a little too daintily, but with its torch songs, its messy relationships, and unabashed commitment, it still makes a memorable meal.
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