Neither a Doris Day musical nor a ferocious James Cagney gangster film, Love Me or Leave Me is a fascinating hybrid. It’s actually a slow crawl through a hellish relationship: the girl loves her career more than her man, using him as a loyal patron; he inwardly seethes and takes every opportunity to psychically knock her down even as he helps her to fulfill her dreams. Nightclub-singer-turned-actress Ruth Etting (Day) was “discovered” by gangster Martin the Gimp (Cagney). He initially secures her stage work to get in her pants, but when he discovers her silky jazz voice—realizing her talent and her potential—he falls hard. Though the scenes between them take on the repetitive cycle of domestic abuse and forgiveness, it’s a surprisingly complex portrayal of those twisted feelings. Day gives one of her better performances, not relying on her gorgeous body and cute smile. When playing opposite her generous co-star Cagney, her limited acting ability actually takes on a stoic kind of depth. Ruth is given heaps of abuse and limitations by the Gimp, and never asks for pity. Instead, she accepts this lot in exchange for the ability to shine as a singer, where Day is inherently graceful and sexy. Her 12 musical numbers all light a fire, helped by Cagney’s eager intensity on the sidelines. If we don’t necessarily want her to stay with this corrupt boor, we at least understand her motivation and see how difficult it is for her to weave her way out. Cagney offers not only unbridled rage but also insecurity, shame, warmth, and encouragement in rapid-fire beats, well deserving his Academy Award nomination that year. Ruth and the Gimp were both still alive when the movie was made, and though Love Me or Leave Me has an edge, it does pull punches: When Ruth slips into alcoholism, it never feels ugly enough, Day’s crying scenes feel increasingly strained, and the Gimp gets off a little too easy at the end, after attempting violence on the piano player (an indifferent Cameron Mitchell) he believes to be her lover. But the first time the Gimp and Ruth have sex, discreetly off-screen, Love Me or Leave Me shows the chilling moment right before: Ruth falling on the bed, giving in to the inevitable, as the Gimp grins wolfishly before lunging for her. The production values, cinematography, and script are all adequate, the running time too long, and the story too cyclical to rate this one a classic. But it’s bold for its time, and the unlikely pairing of Cagney and Day generates bleak chemistry that feels like the worst, most painful kind of love.
Top notch: The widescreen compositions are preserved nicely, and the colors are rich with only the occasional hot spot and shimmer. The audio is more impressive, in Dolby Surround 5.0. Doris Day's songs are handled with tender loving care, with "You Made Me Love You" and "Love Me or Leave Me" especially impactful.
A featurette about the making of Love Me or Leave Me might have been interesting fodder. Instead, there are two short films starring the real Ruth Etting; forgettable stuff, but they'll no doubt satisfy curiosity seekers hoping to compare Day with Etting (they look nothing alike!). There's also a 15-minute promotional film for MGM's 1955 CinemaScope line-up, including a particularly strong dramatic clip from Love Me or Leave Me.
Cagney's charisma and Day's effervescent beauty help sustain this abuse-ridden march toward divorce, peppered by some vibrant musical numbers. Love Me or Leave Me is painted in broad strokes, sometimes too obvious, but the actors lend a rich subtext.