My streaming gem: why you should watch The Bigamist

The latest in a seres of writers highlighting underrated films available to stream sees a recommendation for Ida Lupino’s taut 1953 drama about a love triangle

Ida Lupino is the great director of noirs, thrillers and message pictures from the 1950s – an inspired film-maker to compare with Nicholas Ray and Robert Siodmak. She combined it with being a producer, a distributor and, most importantly of all, a star, directing herself in this fierce, extraordinarily potent drama, which candidly delivers its subject matter right up front in the title. It tells us a lot about the sexual politics of the age.

Is The Bigamist really a noir? Maybe it doesn’t have the cynicism, the open sexuality or the violence to count: a love triangle of three basically decent people whose decency is never for a moment seriously impugned or undermined. The most flagrantly noir thing about The Bigamist could be the moment in the Chinese restaurant when one of the customers is briefly revealed to have a sizable scar down his face: he is glimpsed only for a moment. Yet The Bigamist is certainly about a serious criminal offence, and it is certainly about sexual infidelity – that driving force of the noir.

Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine play Harry and Eve, a childless married couple in their 30s, who jointly run a business selling deep freezers (a tellingly chilly unromantic commodity). Harry is out on the road a lot as a travelling salesman, spending a good deal of time in Los Angeles, where the units are manufactured and warehoused, and Eve is back at home in San Francisco handling the admin, a job she is really good at, and the couple has agreed she should abandon the traditional stay-at-home wife role for this businesslike career-woman identity, at least partly because she can’t have a baby – a symbolic coincidence.

Lupino contrives a droll flashback sequence in which, with Harry narrating his tale of woe, she ends the accompanying montage on the image of a store-window mannequin, the picture of Eve’s supposed sleek emptiness. And in truth, it is not a particularly sympathetic role for Joan Fontaine, whose character seems pretty obtuse about all the festering unhappiness and dishonesty in their marriage – although there is a real sensuality in their embraces. Fontaine has a seductively intimate mannerism of allowing her gaze to dart up and down O’Brien’s face.

Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine in The Bigamist.
Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine in The Bigamist. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Allstar/The Filmmakers

But they have decided to apply to adopt a baby, and the state official, Mr Arnold (played by Edmund Gwenn) senses a shifty evasiveness in Harry when he tells them he will have to investigate their home life. Arnold is the nearest thing this film has to a cop, with a Columbo-like persistent politeness. And when he tracks down Harry to his “alternative” home address in Los Angeles, Harry opens the door to him with an air of infinite wretchedness and guilt, and Arnold is astonished to hear a baby crying behind him.

Miserably, Harry confesses that in his loneliness, he had struck up a friendship with a woman on an LA tour bus showing the movie stars’ homes – archly, one starry home mentioned by the tour-bus driver is that of the real-life Edmund Gwenn, famous for playing Kris Kringle, the “Santa” in Miracle on 34th Street, and the movie makes it clear that he is to be no Santa for Harry.

The woman is Phyllis, wonderfully played by Lupino; they meet when he lights her cigarette – that time-honoured quasi-sexual moment of contact. She is low on cash and waits tables at a Chinese restaurant, but is humorous, unsentimental, utterly without self-pity, warm and yet vulnerable in a way that Eve isn’t. Their affair blossoms, and like Celia Johnson with Trevor Howard in the early stages of Brief Encounter, poor Harry tries making light of it in conversation with his spouse, jauntily declaring that he is having an adventure with her, as if trying to convince himself that there is naturally nothing in this chance meeting, adding that she is “not really beautiful, but nice – a funny little mouse”. It’s not a bad description of Lupino, but doesn’t begin to convey her allure. Actually, he’s the mouse.

So things continue from there. Aghast, Arnold asks Harry the key question: “Did you think you could live this lie for a lifetime?” Weak and stricken Harry has no real answer, but the movie very plausibly shows how, step-by-step, encumbered by his own respectability and terrified of hurting the feelings of either woman, he’d got into this jam.

A classic noir might show a married man falling in love with another woman and then conspiring with her to murder his wife. This is a kind of tragic or tragicomic variation on that – in some ways a more relatable one – in which the poor sap isn’t sufficiently wicked for anything of the sort, and just tries to have the best of both worlds, while sinking into a state of denial. This is the bourgeois-surrealist version of noir, the timid noir, in which the man lives in dual fantasy households, rather than carry out the act of daring involved in choosing just one. His lawyer will later point out that society would probably hypocritically wink at the idea of him taking Phyllis as his mistress, but is scandalised at him making her his second wife.

The mysterious figure in all this is probably the film’s producer and screenwriter Collier Young, who was married to Joan Fontaine when the film was made, and before that was married to Ida Lupino. So he was engaging in a kind of creative or imaginative bigamy of his own; both women have to be sympathetic for the drama to work, though he interestingly makes Phyllis far more attractive than Eve. (In fact, Young went on to direct Ida Lupino’s TV sitcom Mr Adams and Eve in which she starred with Howard Duff, with whom Lupino had been unfaithful – and got pregnant – while married to Young.) The Bigamist is a taut, muscular, controlled picture, and Lupino shapes all three performances with pure mastery.

  • The Bigamist is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and US

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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