Thursday 26 July 2012

1,001 Films: "The Bigamist" (1953)

One of a small but impressive handful of B-movies made by actress-director Ida Lupino in the early 1950s, The Bigamist takes the sort of "adult" material the studios of the period would have passed on, and - without sensationalism - converts it into striking, potent, eminently discussable viewing. A childless but upwardly mobile couple - travelling salesman Edmond O'Brien and his PA wife Joan Fontaine - find themselves subject to the routine investigation of kindly San Fran adoption officer Edmund Gwenn. Gwenn has doubts about the husband, confirmed when the investigator tails O'Brien to L.A., and discovers the second home he's made with another wife and a small child. The bulk of what follows is a flashback in which a contrite O'Brien tells Gwenn how he got into - as the latter puts it - "this vile position". Still, this isn't even the half of it: O'Brien meets his other woman (played by Lupino herself) on a Hollywood sightseeing tour during which they go past the "real" Gwenn's house. (Fontaine, meanwhile, is encouraged that their interrogator "looks like Santa Claus": not surprising, given that Gwenn had played Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street six years before.)

Like her fellow maverick Dorothy Arzner, Lupino has been championed by those seeking out the all-too-scarce examples of Hollywood feminism, yet - though there's some early talk here of both "a woman's place" and "women's privilege" - the film is more sympathetic to the love rat than you might expect, or than he perhaps deserves. Allowed to narrate every last tragic irony of his situation, this bigamist is closer to the existential figures of noir than a moustache-twirling cad; certainly, the direction notes the entrapment the protagonist faces in his ostensibly successful first marriage (caught up in their own careers, O'Brien and Fontaine only rarely seem to be listening to one another), while the bigamy itself is made heroic in some fashion, as a meeting of responsibilities after O'Brien has got the vulnerable Lupino character pregnant. 

This, of course, is the ambiguity B-movies specialised in; by his final scene, even the once-outraged Gwenn is forced to admit of O'Brien: "I can't make out my feelings about you. I despise you and pity you... I almost want to wish you luck." Throughout, there's an attempt to show the humdrum, quietly desperate realities lurking behind the glamour of Beverly Hills, as lived by working men and women: the other woman is the manageress of an Chinese restaurant with one authentic Asian dish on the menu, owned by "a guy who used to run a hot-dog stand". Displaying a commendable lack of vanity, Lupino makes good use of the difference in looks and style between herself and the poised, conventional Fontaine, and she gets a performance of palpably shabby sincerity from O'Brien, the missing link between Bogart and Nixon.

The Bigamist is available on DVD through Quantum Leap.

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