The Man I Love
The connection of this film to the noir genre is through its depiction of the jazz music milieu. This is more than simply a novel item of content: breaking somewhat with the glossy Hollywood artifice of previous showbiz musicals, and anticipating the looser, more experimental forms of John Cassavetes’ jazz films, Shadows (1959) and Too Late Blues (1961), The Man I Love exhibits a truly genial looseness, a hipness that is more casual than the occasional descriptions of its “crackling hardboiled wit” recognise.
The general tone of this Warner Bros. production is set by the disarming opening scene, a relaxed after-hours performance of the George Gershwin theme tune by Petey (Ida Lupino) and her muso pals. Raoul Walsh is a director celebrated for his (frequently virile) ethos of action, comedy and romance, but The Man I Love offers a rare expression of melancholia in his career – and is angled largely from the women’s viewpoint.
As well, alongside the films soon to come from Nicholas Ray or Lupino herself as a director in the 1950s, The Man I Love explores a more supple and complex model of character psychology than American cinema had hitherto permitted.
Although the story touches on the problems of post-war masculine trauma (especially via the character of the invalid Roy played by John Ridgely), its portrait of the difficulty of intimate relationships in the modern world seems more rooted in general societal changes: the first stirrings of a Beat era counter-culture (alcohol here gingerly standing in for other intoxicating substances), and a massive shift in the way women consider themselves.
As Jean-Pierre Coursodon has observed in a Positif essay (no. 482, April 2001), every woman in this tale is defined in terms either of her independence from or understandable difficulty with the traditional wife-and-mother role: where Petey is the wisecracking outsider to such convention, her sisters and their friends struggle with often oppressive obligations and restrictions. In its focus on women’s freedom – lived, glimpsed, or thwarted – the film also resonates with the Simone de Beauvoir-style existential feminism of its era.
Yet what makes the movie so poignant, ultimately, is the heartache it locates in the gap between this dream of freedom, with its Utopian ideal of a truly reciprocal relation between men and women (such as we intuit in the exchanges between Petey and San played by Bruce Bennett), and the old, entrenched attitudes, responses and behavioural patterns – a gap caught in the subtle contradiction between Petey’s avowed tough attitudes and the abject, masochistic yearning encapsulated in the classic lyrics she sings.
Everything in this story is deliberately rather tentative, de-dramatised, incomplete, unfulfilled – an ambience immortalised in Walsh’s beautiful mise en scène of New Year street celebrations, where Petey’s traditional expectation of a kiss, even from a stranger, is met by a brisk and deflating rejection.
At once a muted “woman’s melodrama” and an unusual film noir whose centre of interest is cannily displaced from external action to internal feeling, The Man I Love is an under-appreciated, little-discussed work, marking a crucial historical transition (on several levels) in American cinema.
MORE Walsh: White Heat
© Adrian Martin 2008