Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Bigamist

The Bigamist marked the end of Ida Lupino's tenure as a Hollywood feature director; from here she'd move into directing for television, and wouldn't make another feature until 1966. It's an unconventional film, a sympathetic, emotionally complex portrait of a man who leads a double life, marrying two women in two separate cities. The traveling salesman Harry Graham (Edmond O'Brien) shuttles back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco for business, happily married to Eve (Joan Fontaine) until, on one of his trips, he meets Phyllis (Lupino, appearing in the only movie where she ever directed herself), who is at first just a balm for his loneliness on the road but soon becomes much more. Harry's secret double life is unraveled when he and Eve try to adopt a baby, causing them to be investigated by the conscientious child welfare agent Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), who soon discovers that Harry, who in San Francisco is trying to adopt with Eve, also has a wife and child in Los Angeles.

Harry then relates his whole story to Jordan in a flashback. Lupino makes this man's loneliness and melancholy palpable, capturing the feeling of disconnection that Harry feels, always on the road, away from his wife, who in any event is more of a business partner than a lover. He wanders around the city, passing happy couples embracing, everything barren and desolate around him, his gravelly voice sad and worn in the pulpy noirish voiceover. This is when he meets Phyllis, who's as sad and lonely as he is; Lupino projects a kind of damaged-goods wariness, embodying a tough gal who nurses a hidden hurt. Harry meets Phyllis on a Hollywood tour of movie stars' houses, where she sits with her eyes closed, not paying attention to the tour or the sights; she's not interested in Hollywood glamour, she says, deadpanning, "I'm just crazy about bus rides."

She's a complicated character, a woman with more than a touch of film noir darkness, wielding a sharp tongue and an ironic wit. She works in a Chinese restaurant — "early American Chinese," she quips about its kitschy decor — and lives unhappily until Harry comes into her life. When he kisses her, she looks up at him and simply says, "you kill me," not overstating it or trying to sound breathily sexy, as so many women (and actresses) would, but making it sound offhanded, casual, a simple statement of fact that's even sexier, somehow, for its nonchalance. Unfortunately, the film's script can't let her exist entirely as a tough, independent, sensitive woman, and towards the end of the film she veers too far into weepy melodramatics, even going so far as to apologize to Harry after she catches him cheating on her, an absurdity that's really hard to take.

The film's script was written by Collier Young, who was, in a metafictional touch, married to both Lupino and Fontaine — albeit at different times — which suggests a bit of a psychological undercurrent to the film's examination of a man falling in love with two women. Young himself appears in the film as a creepy bar patron, disturbing Harry's growing intimacy with Phyllis. Indeed, there's a bit of a Hollywood insider tone to the film in general, particularly surrounding the character of Jordan. Harry and Eve refer to Jordan as a kind of Santa Claus, giving away babies, a clever reference to Gwenn's famous role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street a few years before — which is again referenced when Harry takes the movie star tour and Gwenn's home is mentioned alongside the houses of Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck and others.

This Hollywood namedropping aside, Young's script is The Bigamist's greatest weakness, loading the back half of the film with moralist speeches and stiffly written, unsubtle discussions of the morality and irony of Harry's situation. The final courtroom scene explicitly mentions "irony" or "ironic" in virtually every other sentence, driving home the idea that, yes, this is a very ironic predicament. The film is much stronger in the way it examines the emotional stakes of these two relationships, going beyond the usual dichotomy of a cheating man seeking sex from one woman and domesticity from another. Instead, there are real and complicated feelings tangled up in both of these marriages, as well as some tension over the stereotypical roles of the man and the woman in a relationship: it's obvious that Harry feels threatened by Eve's independence, her ability to outdo him in business.

In fact, the film's gender politics are generally very interesting, if inconsistent and occasionally insulting. The film draws parallels between Eve, who's unable to have kids and thus immerses herself in business, and Phyllis, who easily gets pregnant apparently after a single night of passion. There's also a weird morality in the film, in that it seems to assume that a man will cheat on his wife, and that a woman is somehow incomplete if she doesn't have a child: in other words, it's all too obvious that Lupino didn't write this. She does, however, bring a stark, potent style to the film, crafting a shadowy, strikingly noirish atmosphere around this story of infidelity.


DavidEhrenstein said...

The script may have its weaknesses but that it's tackling a subject like this at all is more than admirable. I can't think of a Hollywood film of that era that even touches anything like this. Lupino took a lot of chances, and that she had the directorial career that she had at all is a small miracle.

Ed Howard said...

Very true, David. The film was very bold for its time and its frankness about this situation is one of its greatest assets besides Lupino's blunt but stylish direction.