The Man I Love has a memorable first scene: when they hear the music playing in a NYC nightclub, a couple of drunken swells bang on the doors, demanding to be let in. But the place is closed; the after-hours jam session is off-limits to the likes of them. After a long night, the musicians, for a change, can play for themselves.
As the camera takes us inside, “The Man I Love,” written by George and Ira Gershwin, begins and we get a luminous close-up of Ida Lupino. She stars as veteran singer, Petey Brown, inhabiting the melancholy mood conveyed by the song’s descending melodic line, as if she were the one hoping, “Someday, he’ll come along.” While Lupino, in real life, has a competent singing voice, which can be heard in Road House (1948), here she’s expertly lip-syncing.
The smoky and sultry atmosphere has overtones of noir, with the promise of a fateful encounter hanging in the air. Petey looks rather tired as she’s finishing “The Man I Love;” the song’s massive hook will be a musical motif used throughout the film.
Taking stock of her most recent breakup, Petey claims that she’s homesick and needs a change of scenery. Her gal pal, while serving the musicians drinks, drily comments that Petey never loses much in love – although, Petey responds, the last guy made off with her only watch. As she departs the club, Petey hears the guys talk about a guitarist. He’s good, they say, but the pianist he used to play with, San Thomas, is sort of a lost legend.
It’s Christmas time, and Petey travels to see her sister, Sally, who’s stayed where they grew up, Long Beach, CA. Compared to NYC, the West Coast is a step down for Petey in terms of job opportunities (the West Coast musical scene wouldn’t gain widespread prominence until the 50s). She couldn’t care less, since she’s made enough in NYC to arrive at Sally’s apartment with a boatload of presents.
Making a quick study of her family, Petey decides to stick around to help out. The family’s problems chart the post-war noir landscape: Sally’s husband, a former war hero, is in a mental hospital with PTSD. Sally works back-breaking shifts in a restaurant in a nightclub run by Nicky Toresca, a local two-bit gangster. Nicky has designs on Sally. He also employs her and Petey’s wide-eyed younger brother, who copies his every move.
Petey pulls a switcheroo, showing up in Sally’s place to meet with Nicky. He’s no match for her; she parries his obvious come-on and talks her way into a singing job, which allows her to keep her eyes on him and her errant brother.
With Petey we take in the lightly sleazy atmosphere of Long Beach after dark. Her brother’s latest dim-witted exploits have resulted in a fight, which gets him jailed. Petey ditches her job to bail him out, only to find out that he’s already been sprung. In an impulsive move, she bails out the guy who fought with her brother.
That guy is San Thomas. No longer playing professionally, he’s taken a job on a tramp steamer (a merchant ship, that unlike a freight liner, has no fixed schedule/ports of call). On shore leave, his brief jail time has caused him to miss his ship; the next one departs in a week.
His drifting way of life is an attempt to escape the enduring heartbreak of the end of his marriage to a rich socialite. He sure doesn’t look like a hard-nosed brawler; he’s gaunt and pale, a ghostly figure haunted by a woman he can’t forget (yet this mysterious woman never appears in the film at all).
Petey runs into him again that night at a beach-side jazz joint. The cheesy bamboo-heavy décor screams that it’s not a place at all for real musical afficionados, but the club pulls in enough business that Nicky is interested in acquiring it, and Petey has joined him to check it out.
Petey and San leave the club and Nicky behind, and walk along the foggy pier. She invites him up for coffee in her relatively spacious hotel room. It’s warmly lit, as opposed to the cold, hard lighting that illuminates the claustrophobic space of Sally’s apartment. He plays the piano, having somehow retained his musical chops. He confesses that he’s attracted to her but knows it cannot last, and wants to make sure she knows it, or else, he fears, he’ll leave her singing the blues, and that’ll be one more burden he’ll have to live with.
Petey says, of course, she gets what he’s telling her, but it’s her own choice, after all, to risk her heart. He turns to her and they embrace passionately.
But their romance is abruptly halted. As the week draws to a close, he disappears. Nicky, barely hiding his glee, shows Petey the newspaper announcement that San’s ex has returned from her latest round of romantic intrigue, and Petey fears the worst. When she gets back, dejectedly, to her room, she can, however, hear the sound of piano through the door.
The opening of this scene, that closely parallels the start of the film, promises a feeling of intimacy far removed from the local squaresville. But Petey wants more than what San can give her. Not only is the time fleeting; it must be shared with the memory of another woman. In not so many words, she tells him to shove off.
The stage is set for the plot, involving Nicky and Petey, to resurface. In a more conventional noir, Petey’s kicking the ass of one of the many guys who has good reason to murder Nicky would be a talked-about example of ownership. In The Man I Love, Petey’s bravery only sets her apart from the world she’s now ready to leave, having helped Sally get back her husband and her brother get free of Nicky.
Petey won’t be leaving with San. He tracks her down to say goodbye, and reminds her that what she said when she kicked him out was the right thing to do. He admires her for that, and if it’s not exactly what Petey would want as a woman, it casts her indelibly as the noir anti-hero, more often characteristic of male performers. The ending is partly lifted from Casablanca (1942), partly something that wouldn’t be captured until Wille Nelson co-wrote “Night Life” decades later: “The night life ain’t no good life/But it’s my life.”