Saturday 21 March 2015

The Bigamist (1953)

Jeg Er Bigamist
”The ”Bigamist” claim to fame is that is one of the earliest films to be directed by a woman who would also be starring it. That woman is Ida Lupino.

I suppose that is enough to make a spot on the List, since so many other firsts of otherwise obscure quality got their place. Fortunately “The Bigamist” has more to offer than exotic novelty. It is actually a decent film with an interesting and unusual story.

Not surprisingly “The Bigamist” is a story about bigamy, the curious and usually illegal situation where a man or a woman is married to two different people at the same time. In most stories this would be some triangle drama with a man or a woman taking a lover and there suddenly be one person too many. This is also the way “The Bigamist” runs, but it plays out differently and the drama is if not absent then taking a different form than usual.

Since this is a movie in the film noir tradition we start near the end and get most of the story in flashback. Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine) is meeting an agent from an adoption agency, Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). They want to adopt a child and he needs to find out if they are suitable people to receive a child. Harry is a travelling salesman while his wife Eve runs the back office, so Mr. Jordan follows Harry to Los Angeles (from San Francisco) only to find out that he has practically disappeared. Everybody likes him, but nobody know anything about him outside work. Mr. Jordan discovers that Harry sometimes uses the name Harrison and that he under this name has an address in town. He pays him a visit and we get one of the great reveals of the film. Not only is Harry in, he also has a little child and a wife in this home in Los Angeles. That scene is just awesome. The shock reads so clearly in Jordan’s face that it is almost funny. Harry on the other hand seems fatalistic about it and almost relieved that his double life has been exposed. For the better part of the movie he now tells Jordan how it came to pass that he got married to both Eve and Phyllis (Ida Lupino).

Without going into too many details here, Harry was feeling lonely. His relationship with Eve had lost its intimacy and become more of a business relationship, literally, and so during one of his trips to LA he chatted up a girl he met on a bus. It seems quite deliberate on his side, not like an accident, but something he really wanted to do. Only when he had already befriended Phyllis did he seem to realize that this may be a mistake, but at that point he was trapped. Both Eve and Phyllis need him, not economically, but for his care and affection and Harry just cannot get himself to refuse them. He is aware on a larger scale that he needs to break clean with one of them, but every time he is preparing to do so it just seems a wrong and hurtful thing to do. As his urgency become greater so do the women’s need for him. Eve’s father turns ill and dies and Phyllis is getting their baby. He is trapped and cannot get himself to break with any of them and so he spends time in San Francisco and Los Angeles in his two homes with his two wives, none of them knowing anything about the other.

It is of course an explosion waiting to happen, but when it does happen it is different from what you would expect. Mr. Jordan did not turn him in, Harry did it himself. Instead of coming clean with either of his wives he simply resigned from the game and put the cards on the table for the world to judge him. Of course the women were shocked, but no screaming or shouting or throwing accusations or curses ensued. Just sadness. Everybody lost out.

Such an ending may seem anticlimactic, but it is very much in thread with the movie. Ida Lupino never portrays her three characters as evil or deliberately mean. In fact they are all being so nice and decent to each other to a fault. If Harry had not been such a nice guy he might have been able to ditch one of his women, but he just does not have the heart to be cruel although this inaction actually ends up being cruel. He is sucked into this mess until it just implodes.

I find it difficult to dislike Harry. It is so much easier to judge people from the outside. When you are in the situation it is so tempting to avoid the conflict and just try to make everybody happy. Several time I wished he had a little more backbone, but he is not a bad guy. His big mistake was to involve himself with Phyllis in the first place, but even that weakness is kind of understandable. In his situation I think most people would need some sort of company.   

There are essentially only four roles in this movie, but with Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino the female cast is very strong. Both are well known on the List and both fill their characters very well. Theirs are tragic characters, but they are not played for melodrama, which requires some restraint. Lupino of course, being the director as well, must take extra credit for that. The movie however belongs to Edmond O’Brien. He manages to give his character all the complexity it needs.

The question remains if I liked the movie. I think I respect it more than I liked it. I found it rather painful to watch these three people get more and more mired in this disaster and there were parts I almost could not watch. That however is a credit to the movie, that it manages to hold me engaged with these people, but it is a tough ride. Maybe the ending was a bit flat, though the more I think about it the more it feels right.



  1. I don't disagree. I think this is a good film, but it's one that is much easier to admire than it is to enjoy. Note that I didn't say that I liked it.

    What really makes it work for me, though, is that it could have been really lurid and dirty, and it really isn't.

    1. Yes, my point exactly. This movie was, for better or worse, a very different take on the love triangle and that made it interesting an clever. Even if the resolution was a bit of a fizzle.

  2. I thought this movie was okay. I found it interesting that Lupina restrained herself from demonizing the husband. Like you said, you can kind of understand how he got into the situation. Movies nowadays would get a ton of shit if they tried to present the same situation as sympathetically and even-handedly as this film does.

    1. This would have been a very different film today and not nearly as interesting. At least not as a big budget Hollywood production, though I could somehoow see this as a modern French production.

  3. I'm kind of lukewarm on this one. The film directed by Ida Lupino that I loved was The Hitchhiker. Of course, it's a film noir! O'Brien is very good in that one as well.

  4. I do not know that one. The Bigamist is the only Lupino film I have seen. I am not oversold myself, but I have a lot of respect for the film.