#253. The Bigamist (1953)

The brevity of The Bigamist is why it took me three days to finish it.

I’d get home from work kinda late, eat a big dinner, have a drink and then tell myself that, given how short it is, I could sit down and watch the whole thing. Never turned out to be the case. I kept falling asleep after fifteen minutes even though the movie’s perfectly interesting, stimulating. It’s just kinda quiet. Chatty.

Also, when I went to stream it from Amazon I found that it’s got no poster art. Just still shots from the movie–which I guess somehow suggested that it’d be really light fare?

Also, it only cost like a dollar to rent. I think the only other couple movies on the List that were so cheap were The Seventh Victim and Detour, both of which, by merit of their brevity and affordability (also the way their filmmakers navigated shoestring budgets to tell intimate stories), felt small to me in a way that had nothing to do with their subject matter.

            The Bigamist is a big story insofar as it weaves between two tricky narratives that are also kinda helically the same: an average guy named Harry (Edmond O’Brien) is married to Eve (Joan Fontaine) and, after reconciling themselves a few years back to the fact that they couldn’t have children, are now finally looking into adoption. We see Harry get tense when he finds that the orphanage is gonna do an extensive background check on both of them before determining their eligibility.

            Eventually the guy from the orphanage, the investigator, realizes that Harry’s married to two people in two different cities. The other wife, Phyllis, is a tough and wiry blue collar worker played by Ida Lupino, who also directs the picture, and who first appeared on the List in Story of a Cheat, where she stole my attention with a disproportionately huge and wonderful smile, and where here she’s catching my attention for quite a bit more.

Ida Lupino, killing it with the most nuanced performance in the picture. A woman who’s in a tight financial situation, wants to be taken care of, but is also totally capable of and willing to take care of herself. She’s in love, but she’s prepared to take it or leave it.

            There’s an interesting bit of commentary on The Bigamist, and on Lupino as an actor and filmmaker. In particular I found this video on YouTube where an academic, Orly Yadin, speculates about Lupino’s feminism.

It’s easy to imagine a modern audience balking at The Bigamist, which is clearly soliciting sympathy for the protagonist who talks about betraying these two women, loving each of them equally, because they satisfy different needs in his life. I was pretty surprised, in fact, to find that a woman had directed it, as its hard to imagine a modern female filmmaker painting such a tender portrait of a guy who’s lying to two women who’re totally loyal and for whom he appears to mean a great deal more than either of them mean to him.

            At the end of the movie, when Harry turns himself in to the police and stands trial for bigamy, with both wives in attendance at the trial, Lupino and Fontaine look at and elicit slight smiles from one another before walking out of the courtroom. It’s unclear whether they’ll forgive Harry and, if so, which of them will end up taking him back. If either. It stands to reason that they might all like each other, and go forward with a polyamorous relationship after one or the other divorces him.

The idea that a movie from the early 1950s might have put that thought in the audience’s mind is as surprising as the element of extramarital sex, which is handled in a dignified way but not necessarily discreet. Aside from that, there’s a compelling argument from Harry’s lawyer, before the judge dismisses the court, wherein he talks about how, if a man cheats on his wife and has a baby outside of marriage, he faces no penalty. But if a man like Harry seeks to correct what he’s done by standing by that other woman with whom he fostered a child, marrying her and providing financial and emotional support and tenderness and love, he’s deemed a criminal. A bigamist.

            The more I read about it, the more impressed I become, and in part it’s because different commentators are opening my eyes to things that Lupino does here that are subtle, ambiguous, and totally non-judgmental (which is pretty strange for the era) but also because I think the aforementioned $1 rental fee and the fact that it had no poster, the fact that its runtime was so short, made me watch it like it was something more disposable than it really is.

            Why have I never even heard of this? In all the little remarks I’d read about Lupino prior to this, regarding her appearances in Story of a Cheat and High Sierra, there was never any mention of her going on to direct her own films. She started a production company with her husband and called it The Filmakers [sic]. Started taking on projects that addressed social issues and apparently reaped a good measure of praise.

            And in respect to the social issue of bigamy, yeah, this definitely gave me a new perspective on it. I’d never really given it much thought, to be honest, except in the sense that I’ve always puzzled over these stories that come up now and then of some guy being brought up on charges for having three or four different families that all took a decade to find out about one another. Well, The Bigamist addresses that. Lupino’s trying to make her protagonist sympathetic, and she wants the audience to see shades of gray in the crime, so he’s portrayed as a too-nice guy whose bigheartedness is also his weakness. He commits the crime because he’s trying to do the right thing in the wake of his adultery. He’s obviously still a scumbag, because it also means that his penance for adultery is to commit more adultery with the same woman so that she doesn’t feel used, thereby betraying two people at once. But still. It’s born out of good intention and he falls into the situation pretty gracefully, gradually, believably.

            And on top of that she just got me seeing how, though it’s a crime that hurts many people, there can be sides to the story. The crime is the crime, and there’s cruelty at the heart of it, but it’s refreshing in 2019 to sit on the knee of a storyteller who isn’t flexing her morality by passing judgment on her characters. Seems every depiction of a crime on TV or in film today is either too-condemned or too-empowered. And Twitter’s right there to lay down a black-and-white moral appraisal. The Bigamist, by contrast, is nuanced. Tender and smart.

             Speaking of tender and smart: I’ve got as avid a crush on Joan Fontaine in The Bigamist as I did in Rebecca and Letters from an Unknown Woman – but I’d like to see her play something other than an exploited and/or oblivious heroine, put-upon by men, ending each performance in heartbreak or trauma. I’d like to see her play somebody monstrously tough, like Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, or sexually assertive like Mae West or just fucking over the top crazy like Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

            Ida Lupino’s career as a filmmaker, like John Ford’s and Charlie Chaplin’s and Orson Welles’s, will be one that I follow outside of the Project. I don’t think any more of her directorial efforts appear on the List, but I intend to hunt them down, and to do all that I can in the service of shedding some modern light on her achievements.

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