- Film & Year: The Bigamist (1953)
- Type: Drama/Noir, B&W
- Studio: Filmakers Releasing Organization
- Starring: Joan Fontaine – Edmond O’Brien – Ida Lupino – Edmund Gwenn
- Director: Ida Lupino
- Producer: Robert Eggenweiler & Collier Young
- Production Notes: Music by Leith Stevens, Cinematography by George E. Diskant, Screenplay by Collier Young
I knew what I was in for when I started watching this film; the title makes no mystery out of what the conflict of the story will be. With a fairly predictable plot and no real action or special effects to be seen, whether you like the film or not mostly hinges on whether you like the 3 main characters (and the actors playing them).
Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) is a traveling salesman, who looks so much like Raymond Burr from some angles that it’s positively distracting. He is married to blond and beautiful Eve (Joan Fontaine), who cannot have a baby and is desperate to adopt. The movie begins with these two prospective parents being interviewed by Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), a careful and precise adoption agent, who probably was a detective in a past life. He sniffs out Graham’s carefully hidden 2nd marriage by surprising him at his 2nd home…while his baby cries in the other room. Graham is caught and forced to confess the whole sordid tale (through voice over narration and flashbacks).
He first meets wife #2, Phyllis (Ida Lupino), on a Los Angeles bus that’s taking them on a tour of Hollywood star’s homes. It’s hard to believe his earlier statement to Mr. Jordan when he says that he didn’t even look at another woman after marrying Eve…until this moment. He practically drools over Phyllis, staring at her relentlessly, flirting desperately, and making conversation when it’s clear she’s not interested in talking. It doesn’t feel accidental at all. It certainly doesn’t seem like behavior that just sprung out of him for the first time! If he was a single man, fine, but you as the viewer feel pretty gross when you consider that he’s got a wife at home who trusts that he’s not at that very moment hitting on the attractive woman who he just met. He finally wears Phyllis down and they go on a date.
It’s hard to tell if he’s guileless or sadistic, actually telling Eve over the phone later that evening that he tried to pick up another woman. She laughs it off, so does he…but then he keeps on talking about the other woman to the point where she changes the subject, still not believing that he’s serious. Neither one seems at all distressed by the entire conversation. It is, to put it bluntly, bizarre. I suppose this is his way of making her jealous, but he doesn’t appear to have any guilt or nerves about the whole thing, as one might think a man in his position would.
When he returns home to his wife, he tries desperately for some alone time, but she’s tired from entertaining his work colleagues while he pouts over a brandy. “A marriage is the only thing that really matters,” he says to her as she’s trying to go to sleep, a statement which seems completely hypocritical considering that he just spent the last few days doing his best to cheat on her.
Harry is such a liar that it gets to the point where you can scarcely believe his narration. His voice over tells the viewer that he’s an all or nothing guy and that he decides to cut Phyllis off (even though from the beginning, he’s been unapologetically pursuing her). He breaks a date with her, but when she shows up at his hotel room, he shows no hesitation in getting back together with her. None. Not even a thought. You begin to think that that whole charade was for the viewer’s benefit, that he knew we were all out there watching him and just broke the date to save face.
It’s easy to believe that a man whose wife doesn’t spend time with him would seek attention elsewhere, but considering that his job as a traveling salesman requires him to be away frequently, it seems more like his problem than hers as to why they’ve only spent 6 days out of the month together. Though the character is set up to be viewed sympathetically as a man torn between two women, it is also extremely clear that he and he alone put himself into this position by chasing after Phyllis. While the female leads are multi-faceted and sympathetic, O’Brien’s Harry Graham just doesn’t hit the mark. Harry’s motivations seem phony and he comes across as completely soulless for the majority of the film. He breezes through everything like it’s nothing, no guilt, no stress, no thought process, until the reality of it all slaps him in the face (by way of Phyllis’ pregnancy)…
The real sympathy lies, as it should, with the two women.
Phyllis is a waitress who admits that she’s not only lonely, but works so hard that she rides buses just as an excuse to put her feet up. She tells Harry that she’s afraid of being in love because her last love ditched her for another woman. His response is to sleep with her that night and get her pregnant.
Eve is beautiful and charming, but unable to have children and wants desperately to adopt, a plan her husband foils by being outed as a bigamist who already has a child with the wife he married while he was still married to her, as if the wound wasn’t heaping with salt already.
So, while Harry every now and then expresses sympathy for one woman or the other, I completely do not buy it. Not one word.
Ida Lupino, who also directs this film, gives an admirable and convincing performance as Phyllis. Lupino was a socially conscious filmmaker, dealing with issues many didn’t want to touch. Aside from bigamy, she also took on the topics of polio, rape, and pregnancy out of wedlock. She was a gutsy, unique force in the male dominated directorial field. Unfortunately, The Bigamist does not seem to match her energy and feels dry with a steady, slow pace, and a plot that is both bleak and predictable in it’s eventual outcome. I can’t say I would ever have a desire to watch it again. It was, however, a good starting point for Lupino, being the first film she starred in and directed at the same time. It’s much easier to see this film as a jumping off point for better things rather than a piece that stands alone.
- At the time the film came out in 1953, Collier Young was not only the producer and screenwriter of the film and co-owner of the company that distributed it (Filmakers Releasing Organization) with Lupino, he was her ex-husband and current husband of the film’s other female star, Joan Fontaine
- Ida Lupino was the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitchhiker, which came out the same year as The Bigamist)