How do you approach a Classic Hollywood character like Petey Brown? She solves everyone’s problems, slaps men around and disarms them – physically and emotionally – and dominates narrative trajectory and point of view. She’s tough, confident, witty and attractive and the only truly and consistently competent, admirable character in her story, men included (or especially). And because her strength and independence are not ridiculed, tamed or stolen from her – a privilege typically reserved for male action heroes – it’s tempting to read her as proto-feminist, an anomaly that somehow crept through a crack in the mainstream studio system. What’s more, she’s played by Ida Lupino, who in just a few years would become one of the very few successful female directors in a male-dominated profession.

Petey (significantly, a male name) is the protagonist of the domestic melodrama-musical-film noir The Man I Love (1946), an unusual hybrid for its time but an influence on such later genre mashups as A Star Is Born (1954) and, most directly, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977). Because it was directed by Raoul Walsh, one might approach it with the Lacanian psychoanalytic reading that Pam Cook and Claire Johnston applied in their paper “The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,” 1 arguing that the strength of the women in his films is more apparent than real. This article, however, proposes a different take, adding another genre into the mix to examine how narrative conventions typically associated with a “male” genre, the Western, structure the film and propel an essential ideological project, the restoration of male power to the American household at the end of World War II.

The Man I Love

With men away fighting, women of necessity filled the void in the workforce, most notably in manufacturing to meet the demand for war materials in jobs that were once almost exclusively reserved for men. Once the war ended, federal and civilian policies were put in place to restore the pre-war labour and family structure. It was seen as natural and patriotic for women to surrender the responsibility and economic independence they had only recently achieved. Films of the period often implied this message to one degree or another, whether they were male-centred dramas of readjustment (Pride of the Marines, 1945; The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946), melodramas that “punished” female independence with marriage, death or ruin (Mildred Pierce, 19452) or the emerging film noir, with its cautionary note about ambitious and sexually aggressive femmes fatales.

In The Man I Love, the message is more explicit, even though the plot only glancingly features a veteran. He is significantly off-screen through most of the story but frequently referred to, worried over, evoked as missing from his place in the home – “the man I love” as the structuring absence of the text. As Petey takes on the mission of restoring his presence and redressing the imbalance, we have to look at her in relation to the anxiety of the returning veteran confronted with continued female power and independence. Any conclusion about her, then, must stem from an understanding of the choices by which her fiction is created and of the way ideology is articulated through the formal and thematic patterns of Classic Hollywood cinema.

The Outlaw Hero

To begin with, the narrative structure demands that we compare Petey not with other apparently strong female roles of this period but with the type of male subject that Robert Ray defined as the “Outlaw Hero.”3 In this respect, her closest kin are such characters as the title role in Shane (1953) and particularly Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946). Essentially, The Man I Love is what Ray calls a “disguised Western,” his term for the appearance of the Western narrative form in a number of American genres as a mechanism for the displacement of social and cultural anxieties into individualized solutions, “the conversion of all political, sociological, and economic dilemmas into personal melodramas.”4 The central feature of this form is the reluctant hero – an individual pressed into the service of the very civilization from which he has chosen to – and must always – remain separate.

The conflict at the heart of such stories is played out on the frontier (Dodge City in Clementine), where the opposing values of Wilderness and Civilization are engaged in a struggle that will be reconciled through the hero’s (Wyatt Earp’s) intervention. Although he is introduced in a milieu outside civilization (the rootless Earp boys living on the open range, apart from the life of the town), an event that touches him personally (the Clanton gang’s murder of one of Wyatt’s brothers) propels him into the struggle. In the absence of civilizing authority, the hero takes on the power of the law (Wyatt becomes town marshal). At the story’s end, he has successfully mediated the conflict in favour of a civilization he can never be part of (Wyatt leaves Dodge City for farther frontiers, unable to fulfil the promise of love and stability in his own life as represented by Clementine).

The Man I Love seems at first glance to have little to do with the setting and concerns of a classic Western. Petey Brown, a small-time professional singer living for the moment in New York, travels to California to spend Christmas with her family: married sister Sally, whose husband Roy is in a sanitarium recovering from war-related trauma; younger sister Virginia, who takes care of the house and Sally’s son Buddy while Sally works nights as a waitress; and younger brother Joe, who has an unspecified night job and also “runs errands” for Nicky Toresca, the shady owner of both a nightclub and the restaurant where Sally works. Also involved in the story are their next-door neighbours, Johnny and Gloria O’Connor. The amiable Johnny also works the night shift and does occasional odd jobs to earn extra money for his self-absorbed, demanding young wife.

The Man I Love

Petey arrives to find Sally in distress. Nicky has been making persistent sexual advances to her. Roy has become increasingly hostile and withdrawn. Virginia is turning into a spinsterish drudge at only 18. Joe is falling in with a bad crowd, and Buddy is getting into street fights with other kids. Quickly assessing the situation, the tougher, more worldly-wise Petey decides to remain in town to help her family. She manipulates her way into a singing job at Toresca’s club, deflecting Nicky’s interest from Sally to herself while managing to keep him just at arm’s length. She meets and falls in love with San Thomas, a legendary jazz pianist who years earlier quit music and disappeared into the Merchant Marines, but their affair is strained by his personal demons and his obsession with his ex-wife, a glamorous, destructive socialite. By the end of the movie, all the family problems have been solved through Petey’s intercession. Her affair with San, however, remains problematic. When he sets sail again, she decides to leave town, continuing her wandering life as an entertainer with only faint hope for their future together.

A closer look reveals how this plot conforms very closely to the narrative structure of a Western like My Darling Clementine. Petey’s “outlaw” status is established at the opening of the film even before we meet her.5 The first characters we see are two men attempting after-hours entrance into the nightclub where she works. A handyman explains to them that the music they hear coming from inside is a jam session “just for them maniacs in there.”6 As they leave, the men reiterate this notion of a “private party for crazy people.” The misfit social milieu is defined, and Petey’s opening dialogue places her as an inhabitant of this nighttime world – a woman who lives by her own rules, uncommitted to the future, unattached by choice, romantically disaffected and wary.

Her trip West (Long Beach as Dodge City) results in the personal event that triggers her decision to stay on and confront the threat to her family (Nicky’s attempt to buy Sally’s favours with an expensive gown). In the absence of the patriarchal figure from the home, Petey takes on the male-identified power (becoming the “marshal”), expressed, as we’ll see, in her command of language and frequent control of the shot/reverse shot pattern. As in Clementine, the necessary defeat of the villain (Nicky as Clanton) is delayed while the conflict between Wilderness and Civilization (the nighttime world of Toresca’s businesses vs. Sally’s home) is played out under her mediation. Finally, Nicky’s attempted framing of her brother (like the Clanton shooting of a second Earp brother) precipitates the final showdown, literally, at Toresca’s club (the OK Corral). Having restored order in the family and set the stage for the return of the absent father (law and order), Petey leaves, despite her sister’s pleas to stay and settle down (as the other Western example has it: “Come back, Shane!”).


Publicity shot for The Man I Love

Good Guys and Bad Guys

The Wilderness/Civilization dichotomy is appropriate to a reading of a film defined by oppositions that call to mind the schematic for the Western form proposed by Jim Kitses7. It could as easily have been titled after another old standard song, “Night and Day.”

Night Day
The World: action, danger (Nicky’s nightclub) The Home: preparation, reflection (Sally’s apartment)
Bad Man: wounding, victimizing (Nicky, Petey’s ex) Good Man: wounded, victimized (San, Johnny, Roy)
Bad Woman: self-centred, attracted to World, sex for fun and profit (Gloria, San’s ex-wife) Good Woman: selfless, domestic, sex for love and procreation (Sally, Virginia)
Bad Son: introducing threats into the Home (Joe) Good Son: defending the Home (Buddy)
The High Life: exciting, tempting, corrupting (Nicky’s stylish wardrobe, Gloria’s fox stole, the gown to seduce Sally; jazz and dance music; cocktails; the new Christmas tree; New Year’s Eve on the town)  The Simple Life: commonplace, unglamorous, upright (Johnny’s t-shirts, Virginia’s apron and house clothes, Sally’s waitress uniform; Christmas carols; beer; last year’s Christmas tree; Christmas Eve at Sally’s apartment)

What appears on screen as a primary truth – that Home without Father is an unstable, potentially destructive environment – is, in fact, constructed out of the interplay of opposing values, settings and actions through which the story is told. These oppositions propel the family crises, sites where the anxiety of disequilibrium erupts onto the body of the text. For example, when another boy blackens Buddy’s eye in a fight, Sally’s only means of comforting her son is to show him a photo of her husband in uniform, thereby equating the present state of the family with the absence of the father. The crisis cannot be resolved, only delayed until the “wounded” man is healed and returned to the home. (Sally also places the blame on the other boy’s mother, one of many ways the narrative centres responsibility for the wounded man on the woman.)

The black eye also figures in a key exchange that articulates the fear of the returning soldier confronted with female power. When Petey first sees Buddy she tells him, “You didn’t have that black eye the last time I saw you.” – the wound that connects him with the powerless Good Man. He counters with, “And you didn’t have that colour hair the last time I saw you.” – the identity and sexuality of the independent Bad Woman.

This contrast is amplified in a flashback to Sally’s visit with Roy in the hospital (the only time we see him until the end of the film). Here, clothing (the new hat she bought herself) and cigarettes (telling him she recently took up the habit and questioning whether he has “given up”) are signifiers of the newfound power of the woman against the lost power of the man, igniting his rage and fear. He accuses her of “doing a lot of things now you never did when I was home” and rants about what she is now able to buy, assuming an attachment to another man as her only means of getting them. Sally is unable to say or do anything to resolve the conflict; the scene ends with doctors rescuing her from Roy’s physical assault. Her ability to provide and take control (an otherwise admirable trait) becomes a threat.

Likewise, neighbour Gloria’s desire for fun and material possessions is seen as evil when contrasted to Virginia’s satisfaction with the simple pleasures of home and family. Both characters are introduced in a Christmas Eve scene and their opposition established solely through visual cues and crosscutting (they never exchange a word). Gloria arrives provocatively attired, smoking a cigarette while her husband Johnny holds their twins. His hand is bandaged from an injury he got on a second job, one he took to afford the fancy fox stole Gloria flaunts. (This wound is significant; when it gets infected, Johnny ends up in the hospital – like Roy – opening the way for Gloria’s meeting with Nicky and her eventual downfall.) In contrast, Virginia (the virgin) is introduced emerging from the kitchen, aproned and plain, a crucifix prominent in her close-up. The opposition of the narcissistic Bad Woman against the devoted Good Woman is further emphasised in cuts from Gloria primping in her new fur to Virginia cooing over the twins.


The Man I Love

The positioning of Nicky as the Bad Man further stacks the cards in favour of returning the Good Man to his “natural” position in the home. In contrast to the rough masculinity of Roy, San and Johnny, he is sleek, stylish, equated with “feminine” habits. In his tuxedos and silky robes, he is almost pretty; a close-up of his hands with Petey’s reveals them to be as smooth and bejewelled as hers. Unlike the other men (apart from Joe, who feebly tries to imitate him), he is shown at various times primping in front of the mirror, an action equated with the self-absorbed narcissism of the noir femme fatale. 8 The threat he poses is linked to his foreignness (his Italian-sounding last name and his uncle’s heavily accented English) and by a reminder of the historical circumstances in which his attempted seduction of Sally takes place (the USO sign in the window between them, the largely military restaurant clientele). He is a warning of the exploitative male who, rather than fighting the war, has stayed home profiting from it, preying on women whose men are absent, offering the economic advancement that, in Gloria’s case, will lead to disgrace and doom.

Faced with Nicky’s power, Sally is helpless. Although she apparently held her family together all during the war, she is here portrayed as ineffectual in dealing with her problems. (Contrast this to films of the war years, like Since You Went Away, 1944, in which, for the sake of the war effort, Mom is seen as the capable stalwart of the homefront.) She gets no help from her brother Joe, the most logical replacement for the “man of the house.” Unlike Buddy, who fights to defend his family, Joe introduces the threat of the Night World into the home, bringing Sally the gown Nicky hopes to buy her with.

Petey Rides to the Rescue

Having established the conflict at the “frontier,” the stage is set for the intervention of the one person who can straddle the worlds of Night and Day and take on the power of the law. It’s important here to move beyond mere comparisons to the Western genre and look at how formal devices such as language, camera placement, editing and mise en scene construct Petey’s status as Outlaw Hero and articulate the ideological agenda. 

The scene of her arrival in California identifies her strongly with the power she will assume until the Absent Male can be returned. Her unexpected entrance, at the moment Sally is speaking of Roy and happier times, is strikingly similar to the joyous surprise return of the soldier in other post-war films. Her ability and willingness to straddle both worlds is signalled by her decision to get her own apartment, intending to spend her nights outside the Home while reassuring Sally, “…but I’ll spend my days with you.” Petey is the logical mediator, valuing the virtues of stable family life but preferring to live outside it, a denizen of the night well-versed in its dangerous ways.

Unlike her sister, Petey has the power of language, particularly the language of the Night. (This is recognized by Nicky, who tells her, “We speak the same language.”) This power, both verbal and visual, is indicated at many points throughout the film: her easy banter with jazz musicians, her appropriation of the silent “give-me-a-drink” gesture used by Toresca’s henchman; her cold, threatening stares in response to unwanted male touches; her silencing of Joe at the jail; her completion of San’s farewell line. Petey’s awareness and control of language is evidenced by the way she often addresses not the content but the form of what is said to her, as in her sarcastic replies to come-on lines (“Nicky, you say that with such feeling.”) and in this humorous exchange early in the film:

Cab Driver: “Christmas only comes but once a year, I always says.”
Petey: “That must get monotonous.”
Cab Driver: “Well, Merry Christmas, and keep the home fires burning, I always says.”
Petey: “That isn’t what you said before.”

Petey first uses her power on behalf of the family when Joe returns home with the gift-wrapped gown from Nicky, bearing a card saying “Where and when?” Sally’s response – “I’d rather not talk about it.” – demonstrates her lack of language power. Petey’s oblique answer to the “where and when” – “California, here I stay for a while” – is immediately followed by a cut to Nicky’s club where she shows up wearing the dress. Her initial approach to him is flirtatious, exploiting the intentions behind the gift. She allows him to take a cigarette from her hand, light it and give it back to her, but maintains a subtle control over the exchange inherent in the relationship. She initiates talk of a job, which she wins with her singing skills rather than using her sex as a commodity, and when he tells her, “This town could do a lot for you,” she retorts, “I could do a little something for this town.” Immediately after she’s hired, there is a noticeable change in her manner toward him. As she reaches for her cigarettes, Nicky places his hand on hers. In a gesture similar to a kid’s one-upmanship game, she puts her other hand on top of his and slides the bottom one out, withdrawing both her hands to her side of the table.

The Man I Love

Petey’s power is most remarkable in the way she controls the grammar of the film itself, particularly in the dominant shot/reverse shot pattern.9 Standing at Sally’s piano on Christmas Eve, she looks in the direction of the chair where Virginia has been playing with the twins. A cut to a close-up of the babies is followed by a close-up of Petey, this time with Virginia’s portrait prominently displayed next to her. She directs her gaze to the other edge of the frame and a cut reveals Johnny as the object of her look. A cut takes us back to Petey who, making a gesture indicating his infant sons, asks him, “What kind of vitamins do you take?” The next cut shows Johnny beaming with masculine pride (the second time that night she has pumped up his ego). In this brief exchange, Petey is already at work restoring the power (in this case, almost literally the phallus) to the man. Furthermore, her position at the centre of this triangular cutting establishes a link between Good Man/Johnny and Good Woman/Virginia that introduces a potential future relationship between them.

Petey controls a similar conjunction of Nicky and Gloria. While Johnny is in the hospital, Petey spots Gloria at the bar in Nicky’s club and goes over to speak to her. Nicky’s arrival into the scene puts him into contact with Gloria for the first time, and he offers her another of his oily enticements of work and money. Petey’s placement at the centre of both reverse fields forms a similar triangular configuration as the earlier Johnny/Virginia bridge, connecting the Bad Man and the Bad Woman in a way that will eventually clear the field for a romance between the Good Woman (her sister) and Good Man (Gloria’s husband).

It’s important to note here that while the film is dominated by this strong, independent woman, admired and respected by everyone, even Nicky, her strength isn’t used to empower the other female characters; to do so would work against the restoration of power to the absent male. In her conversations with Sally and Gloria, Petey always urges them to put less emphasis on their own needs and feelings and to stand by their husbands no matter what. One scene transition in particular leaves no doubt as to whose side she’s on. Speaking of Gloria, Petey says, “What she needs from Johnny is a swift kick in the right place.” Identification with her male-centred point of view is naturalized by a dissolve from Petey to a close-up of a man’s hands beating a conga drum at the club.

A key line of dialogue sharpens the focus of Petey’s efforts and reinforces her position as the mediator who will shift the weight of power from the Night/World to the Day/Home side of the binary scale. Forcing Johnny to see the truth about Gloria’s late-night escapades, her advice to him is, “You’d better switch to the day shift.” Armed with her words (and echoing her position in the frame), he goes back to his apartment to confront his wife, only to back down in the face of Gloria’s anger. It’s not time for the Good Man to resume power. The project of the text can only be completed with the removal of the Bad Man and the Bad Woman from the diegetic space.

The Man I Love


The most potent example of Petey’s strength occurs at the film’s climax. Gloria dies a violent accidental death. Nicky threatens to frame Joe for it. Petey tries to intercede but Nicky won’t hear it. He offers her a deal: his silence in exchange for total possession of her. She appears to agree to this when Johnny enters the club, intending to shoot Nicky. The poles are now reversed – Nicky is diminished, weakened, cowering behind Petey while Johnny wields the menacing power in his first on-screen venture outside the Home and into the World. It’s up to Petey again to prevent the destruction inherent in the binary conflict and see to it that Johnny doesn’t cross over into the Night side of the scale. 

Standing between the two men as she has stood between the two worlds all along, once again at the centre of the shot-reverse pattern, she tries to talk sense into Johnny. When the power of her words is no longer enough, she must resort to the most “masculine” expression of her strength, physical violence. She knocks the gun out of his hand, pushes him against the wall and slaps him repeatedly until he is calm and ready to return home. Following him out of the club, she warns Nicky to set matters straight with the law. He calls after her; she turns to hear what he has to say, but he can only mutter, “Nothing.” He has been stripped of the power of language. The Bad Woman is dead, the Bad Man is defeated, setting the stage for the return of the Good Man.

Into the Sunset

The next morning, Petey returns the chastened Joe to the family and the light of Day. They find Roy there, apparently (and miraculously) cured and released from the hospital. The scenes of his recovery and reconciliation with Sally have been omitted from the narrative. The only remark Roy and his wife make about the change is that it is all thanks to Petey. By concealing the work required of the man to reunite his family, the text places the responsibility on the effort of the woman alone.

Buddy, his black eye healed, takes his uniformed father outside to show him off to his friends, bringing closure to the earlier conflict temporarily held off by Roy’s photo. Petey tells Sally she’s decided to leave town while standing before a painting of a bridge spanning a river. As she leaves the apartment, she meets Roy on the stairs. She stands a few steps above him, and their shot/reverse shot dialogue is photographed either with low angles looking up at her or two-shots of them at eye level. Roy says to her, “You know I’m all right, don’t you, Petey?” As she touches his arm and answers, “You bet I do, Roy,” she is photographed from a high angle looking down on her on the left side of the frame with Roy looming larger on the right. This break in the formal continuity of the scene signals the final empowering of the Good Man, the transfer from Petey to Roy that the film has been leading up to. The fulfilment of that project is reinforced in a two-shot of Roy walking up the stairs to Home and Petey exiting downstairs into the World.

But why does Petey have to leave? And why doesn’t the story give her a happy ending with San? Her position as the Outlaw Hero, the mediator, defined as it is by the binary textual system of opposites, is the reason. 


The Man I Love

Over and over in film noir, the male protagonist faces a choice between the sweet, domestic Good Woman and the sexy, exciting Bad Woman. In The Man I Love, Petey exhibits elements of both. She appears to us as a denizen of the Night World – at home among social misfits and smoky nightclubs – but her power is devoted to the interests of the Home. Her selfless concern separates her from the dark, dangerous image of the noir femme fatale, yet because she inhabits the Night and commands its language, she can never be the wholesome angel of civilization offering a haven in the Home. She loses San on both counts.

As the mediator of opposing forces, Petey is bound in a paradox the narrative cannot contain. To preserve the unity and order of the family, she must restore power to the male. To restore the power, she must assume it. But if she possesses that power as a woman, she will destroy the order and unity of the home. If Petey continues to exist on this frontier, she would have to have the power removed from her. Otherwise, she will block the completion of the text’s project. Her identification with the power of the Night World would present an imbalance to the formal and thematic shift to the Day and the Home.

Stripping her of that power would not be without precedent in films of this period. Femme fatales usually end up dead or punished, and independent career women were often converted by men to the “pleasures” of home and family, which they are shown to have wanted all along. In films of both types, female power is seen as oppositional to the ideology of the text. In The Man I Love, Petey’s power bridges the opposition and supports the ideology, therefore it cannot be punished or removed. Allowing her to retain her outlaw status is the only possible resolution and one that makes a stronger statement about women at the end of World War II. 

As the Outlaw Hero, Petey has to ride away alone like Shane, a man who uses violence to promote and preserve a civilization, the continued progress of which depends on the avoidance of destructive force and the value of peace and order. 

Robert Warshow says of the Outlaw Hero:

“If justice and order did not continually demand his protection, he would be without a calling. Indeed, we come upon him often in just that situation, as the reign of law settles over the West and he is forced to see his day is over; those are the pictures that end with his death or with his departure for some more remote frontier.”10

The formal identification, then, of the Independent Female with the Outlaw Hero at this period of social change constructs a view of her as an anachronism, out of place in the post-war order. Yes, the text grants, her independence is admirable, her strength formidable, her devotion unquestioned; but she cannot exist in the natural order of things. She has had her uses, but her day is over.


  1. C. Johnston and P. Cook, “The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,” in Raoul Walsh, ed. Phil Hardy (Colchester: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1974)
  2. For an analysis of the relationship between formal devices and social hierarchy and how that relationship affects women on film, see Joyce Nelson, “Mildred Pierce Reconsidered” in Movies and Methods Volume II, ed. Bill Nichols (University of California Press, 1985)
  3. Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1985)
  4. Ibid
  5. Compare the similarities of this opening scene to another “disguised Western,” Casablanca (1942), in which the separateness and jaded attitude of the outlaw hero, Rick, is established before we see him.
  6. All dialogue is quoted from The Man I Love (Warner Bros., 1946), screenplay by Catherine Turney; adaptation by Jo Pagano and Catherine Turney from the novel Night Shift by Maritta Wolff.
  7. Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies of Authorship within the Western (Indiana University Press, 1970)
  8. Janey Place, “Women in Film Noir” in Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (BFI Publishing, 1980)
  9. Many writers have argued that shot/reverse shot is the most important formal component of the Classic Hollywood film. Through this device the spectator is included in the sightlines of the actors and, by extension, in the diegetic space. This is key to spectator identification with the narrative, making what appears on screen seem real and unmediated while concealing the choices by which the film fiction is created. Research has determined that the shot/reverse paradigm accounts for 30-40% of all shot transitions in films of this period. In The Man I Love, it is close to 50%. Therefore, Petey’s “control” of the cutting is crucial to fostering identification with her point of view and to naturalizing the ideological project of the text.
  10. Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience (Athenaeum, 1972)

About The Author

Rob Nixon is a writer/editor and digital artist currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. He has been a regular contributor to a number of online and print publications, most notably the Turner Classic Movies website (https://www.tcm.com) for the last 20 years. His artwork can be seen here (https://timeinlight.zenfolio.com)

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