Raoul Walsh’s hard boiled Post World War II noir is an underappreciated classic.
Seated above are Ida Lupino and Andrea King, rehearsing on a kitchen set during the filming of Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love. The movie is based on a novel by Maritta Wolff, who, according to Wikipedia “was born on December 25, 1918 in born in Grass Lake, Jackson County, Michigan. She grew up on her grandparents’ farm and attended a one-room country school. She was a senior at the University of Michigan when she wrote a novel-length story for an English composition class that won the 1940 Avery Hopwood Award, a university prize for excellent writing, worth $1,000. Whistle Stop is a seamy tale of the Veeches, a shiftless family living in a whistle-stop town near Detroit.
The novel, depicting incest, violence, and containing much more vulgar language than was usual at the time, was published the next year by Random House. That Wolff, a mere 22-year-old, was the author of so hard-boiled a novel gave her an instant notoriety, and Whistle Stop became an immediate best-seller, going into five editions and a special armed forces edition. Yet the book was not without literary merit, Sinclair Lewis calling it ‘the most important novel of the year.’ Whistle Stop was adapted into a 1946 film starring Ava Gardner and George Raft.
Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, attracted more critical praise, especially for its dialog [and was made into the film The Man I Love]. Over the next 20 years she wrote four more best-selling novels. Always a private person who shunned publicity, Wolff, in 1972, refused her publisher’s request to go on a promotional tour for a recently finished novel, Sudden Rain, and as a result the novel was never published during her lifetime. At that point she evidently ceased writing fiction.
While at the University of Michigan she had met and married a prolific young writer, Hubert Skidmore, who published six novels before he was 30. Skidmore died in a house fire in 1946. In 1947 Wolff married a costume jeweller, Leonard Stegman, by whom she had a son, Hugh Stegman. After Wolff’s death, the manuscript for Sudden Rain, which had been kept safely in her refrigerator for the last thirty years of her life, was published (along with re-issues of Whistle Stop and Night Shift) to much acclaim.”
With a script by W. R. “Little Caesar” Burnett and Catherine Turney, The Man I Love deals with love, loss, and the search for some sort of permanence in a world that’s constantly throwing the worst at you – a world in which one expects nothing, and gets it. As Wikipedia summarizes the film’s basic narrative, “homesick for her family in Los Angeles, lounge singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) decides to leave New York City to spend some time visiting her two sisters and brother on the West Coast. Shortly she lands a job at the nightclub of small-time-hood Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) where her sister Sally (Andrea King) is employed.
While evading the sleazy Toresca’s heavy-handed passes, Petey falls in love with down-and-out ex-jazz pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennett), who has never recovered from an old divorce. Variously solving the problems of her sisters, brother and their next-door neighbor, the no-nonsense Petey must wait as San decides whether to start a new life with her or sign back on with a merchant steamer.”
The film deals with surviving on a limited income, the transience of friendship, the need to live in the moment in a world of uncertain tomorrows, and even such topical issues as PTSD – Sally’s husband Roy Otis (John Ridgely) has returned from World War II an emotional wreck, and is confined to a Veterans Hospital for most of the film – as well as Nicky Teresa’s unceasing sexual harassment of Petey.
But what is most remarkable about the film is Lupino’s performance – her singing voice is dubbed, but in the dramatic scenes, and in the intensity of her love for the seemingly doomed San Thomas, the depth of emotional investment in the role is absolutely heartbreaking. There will be no happy ending for Petey and San, “the man she loves” – after a few days of companionship, San, his career in ruins, ships out out with the merchant marine, while Petey decides not to stay with her sister, but instead go back of the road as a torch singer – perhaps in Chicago, or New York, or wherever the road takes her.
Raoul Walsh was a tough director, unsentimental in his approach to life and his work as a filmmaker, and Lupino, who learned her craft as a director by watching Walsh, steals every scene she’s in simply through the intensity of her screen presence – Walsh often just hangs on her face, as she listens to San play the piano, or lends a sympathetic era to her sister’s problems, and thus effortlessly dominates the proceedings.
As Jeremy Arnold wrote of the film, “The Man I Love is not a film which thrives on plot. Atmosphere is everything here. The late-night jam sessions, underworld characters and steamy songs all make for a memorably moody experience . . . critics were mixed to negative (‘a brittle sex romance’ is how Variety described it), but The Man I Love touched something in filmgoers and became a big hit. [Lupino biographer William Donati noted that], ‘Lupino fans, especially women, lined up to see it. When hard-edged Petey Brown, tough but emotionally vulnerable, finds herself alone when her man sails to sea, a responsive chord was struck in many a woman’s heart.’”
The Man I Love doesn’t take place in neat little houses with white picket fences; it’s a world of cheap apartments, jobs from which one can be fired at a moment’s notice, and constant scrimping and saving just to get by. No one has time to feel sorry for themselves – they’re too busy simply trying to survive. Available on DVD only in archival format, The Man I Love tells more about the late 1940s American than many better known films, and thus deserves a much wider audience – it isn’t escapism, and it isn’t really a romance – it’s more a document of a time and place, and the people who lived through an era.
The Man I Love runs quite often on TCM; when you get a chance to see it, do so.