Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Man I Love (1947)

"Who's looking for happiness?  At the present time my life is a comfortable blank, and it's ok with me!"

Add this one to your list of Christmas noirs.  Sure, it's heavier on the christmas and domestic drama than the noir, but there's no extricating the two elements from one another in this relatively obscure entry in the Raoul Walsh directing oevre.

Based upon a Maritta Wolff novel, the script is crafted by the under-appreciated Catherine Turney, who also wrote for such noteworthy film noir classics as Mildred Pierce, A Stolen Life, Cry Wolf, and No Man of Her Own. also credited with writing duties is Jo Pagano, perhaps best known for his screenplay for The Sound and the Fury.

 Sprinkle into this mix a liberal helping of music by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, and others, excellently arranged and woven into the score by Max Steiner, and the result is an intriguing and hard-not-to-love piece of entertainment that engages the audience on multiple levels.

The great Ida Lupino is the central figure around whom the various dramas and plot threads revolve. She plays Petey Brown, a nightclub singer (singing voice performed by Peg la Centra, who also doubled for her voice in Escape Me Never, as well as for Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: Story of a Woman) who comes home for christmas with her two sisters, brother, and their families, and winds up finding herself in the position of having to resolve all their problems for them before she can leave again. She also finds herself caught up in a two-sided romantic triangle that I'll go into in more detail shortly.

Upon her arrival on Christmas Eve, we are introduced to the whole family.  First is married sister Sally Otis(Andrea King), whose soldier husband Roy (John Ridgely) is in a mental hospital recovering from some kind of war fatigue, who works as a server at a local Italian restaurant while trying her best to raise their young boy, who we first encounter showing off his black eye.  She has a brief flashback sequence to relate to her sister the troubles with Roy, which seem to be very severe, including and irrational jealousy and suspicion of his wife's faithfulness to him while he's been at war and in the hospital.

Also living with Sally is the younger sister, Virginia "Ginny" Brown (Martha Vickers), a happily single young lady who'd rather stay at home than run around trying to find a man. The third sibling is Joey Brown (Warren Douglas), who, despite his siblings' objections, has taken a position working for the big bad guy in the film, Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda, who, incidentally, made his start in Hollywood playing Gershwin in the entertaining, if not completely accurate, biopic Rhapsody in Blue), who owns the local night club and perhaps most of the illegal business in town as well.

Petey catches Toresca making unwanted advances toward Sally, and seems to conclude that the best way to protect her sister is to draw all the fire to herself by taking a job  performing in Toresca's club. Working there, she also manages to keep an eye on her brother Joey, who manages repeatedly to get himself into trouble while doing Toresca's dirty work for him.

It is as a result of one of these incidents that she first encounters San Thomas (dependably stolid but largely forgotten actor Bruce Bennett), a famous pianist whose work she has admired from afar, and whose spirit she falls for when they wind up drawing closer during the course of the story.  She has gone to bail her brother out of jail for a brawl, and when she meets Joey leaving the police headquarters with a self-sufficient strut, she decided to bail the other guy out instead.  This turns out to be Thomas, who is initially ungrateful, but who by their second meeting is a bit more receptive to Petey's charms.

They quickly bond over a piano and some booze.  His playing (dubbed evocatively by the fingers of Raymond Turner) strikes deep resonant chords (sorry not sorry) that pluck at her heart strings (I told you I wasn't sorry!).  Their romance is not all hearts and flowers, though.  He is divorced, but still hung up on his ex-wife, the named but never on-screen presence that haunts the couple's relationship and hopes of happiness.

He warns her not to fall for him. "Petey, you're swell - I don't want to ruin your life, too."
But his words fall on deaf ears. "Look, let me handle my funeral in my own way, will ya?" Petey says, pulling him down to embrace and kiss him. There is some attempted dramatic conflict when each separately sees an article in the paper announcing that his ex wife will be in town, but there is little real question of whether he will leave Petey to chase after her. The event causes them temporarily to be separated, but it is clear by now that more than their mutual love of music connects them.

This little fling does not sit well with Nicky Toresca, who wants her for himself, and doesn't care if she doesn't want him back, saying almost exactly that to her at one point.  Meanwhile, other problems are brewing.

The wild card in the deck is the family's neighbor, and particularly his boozy, floozy wife.  Johnny O'Connor (Don McGuire) is a good honest hard working guy, but he works nights and can't find time to spend with his wife Gloria (Dolores Moran), so she finds other men to give her attention, letting Virginia watch her twins while she's out on the town at night.  Where troubles begin to accelerate for everyone is when she begins to spend her time with Toresca, and word of her philandering gets back
to her husband, who throws her out.

Toresca, who is not interested in her except as some free side action, tasks Joey with getting rid of her.  This job goes horribly wrong, with her jumping out of the car and stumbling drunkenly into oncoming traffic and to her own death. At this point, film takes a sudden turn from fairly standard drama to a twisted noir convergence of broken people lashing out at one another, with only Petey able to bring things to a peaceable conclusion.

Johnny O'Connor is out to kill whoever was responsible.  Petey hides her brother in her apartment (not a very creative hiding spot, but it works to move the plot along).
Toresca, unaware of Johnny's vendetta, tries to use the situation to force her to abandon Thomas in exchange for not calling the cops and pinning the blame for Gloria's death on Petey's brother Joey. Then the big showdown happens, as Johnny shows up to get his justice.  How Petey resolves the situation is unique for its time in the position of dominance it bestows upon her as a female character.

Petey is here shown to be a stronger presence than any of the men in her world.  How many film from the era can you think of where the final confrontation has the lady doing all the slugging? She ends up literally slapping sense into Johnny and figuratively doing the same to Nicky with the same blows. It's a dramatic encounter, and much like in real life, it is over as quickly as it erupted.  Petey's actions protects Joey, keep Johnny from doing something foolish, and stun Nicky into doing the right thing by not railroading her brother.

This conflict resolved, we are given the coda to her romantic fling with San Thomas, in a wistful goodbye in the fog.  Though they are parting for now, he going back to sea with the merchant marines, and she going away to Chicago to work, the both seem to have been better for the time they had together.

In their parting words, there is an exchange that seems like a riff on Bogart's line from Casablanca.

Thomas calls back to an earlier conversation, "Remember you once told me, 'all of us are standing in the mud,' "
She remembers. " 'but some of us are looking at the stars...' "
Taking her in his arms and looking far out into her eyes, he says, "Here's lookin' at you, babe."
Then they embrace with a longing farewell kiss.

With Roy returning home to his wife Sally, all cured somehow from his mental issues, Petey leaves town having pretty well fixed everyone's problems, except the widowed Johnny O'Connor and his infant twins, but there is, if one looks hard enough, a possibility that he might find happiness with young Virginia Brown, who at one point is accused of having a crush on him.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there is a lot to appreciate about this film, particularly all the music, even if it is mostly the work of off-screen talents.  Ida Lupino is the clear stand-out in the picture, but she has a solid cast supporting her, which in addition to those already listed, is audience favorite Alan Hale, working the comedy relief angle as Riley, a man in Toresca's employ at the club.  Unfortunately the plot at times lacks focus, like it is juggling too many threads (let my mix my metaphors how I like), and the end result is some nice colors that never completely mesh into a proper tapestry, but is still an interesting window dressing to look at.

*** out of 5

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