“You will travel far”
It is something that I don’t necessarily wish was true, but watching an older film carries with it the process of aging. Some are timeless and relevant no matter when they are seen, while others become a remnant of the past due to style, dialogue, and subject matter. When viewing Ida Lupino’s film The Bigamist, the idea that it could have been something fresh back in 1953 kept creeping into my mind since my experience was more tv movie of the week in the present. By no means is it a bad film, I do think the production and acting is quite good, it’s just that you can’t help smirk at points screaming artifice even though that’s how it was done then. Melodrama was king and swooning women with their beaus pulling them close was the norm. I do believe that if you look past these dated limitations, the movie itself has enough interest to make it worthwhile.
The biggest knock against it, as one friend pointed out, is that all suspense is thrown out the window as soon as the title flashes across the screen. People may say, “What’s in a name?” but honestly, the answer is a lot. Just by renting the film you know it’s about a man with more than one wife, there is no question about that. So, when we are introduced to Edmond O’Brien’s Harry and Joan Fontaine’s Eve at an adoption agency, we know what’s behind his pause at signing a waiver giving full access to his background. Mr. Jordan sees the hesitation and starts to spin his wheels at wanting to find out the reason. He is in charge of placing a child with a family that’s both loving and caring, so we can’t fault him for his over-zealous nature and skepticism, (although we can fault the film for alluding to a past error of his and never expounding on it). We as an audience know the secret straightaway and know that the agency man will eventually too, so the whole film becomes an exercise in waiting to find out when and the revelation’s inevitable blow up.
So, the question becomes whether sitting through the story, told in flashback once Jordan discovers the secret for himself confronting Harry at his second home, is worth your time. Generally, a film of this kind would have the background information explained very early on so that the bulk of the runtime can be devoted to the thriller aspect of the wives finding out and what they do about it. Today’s Hollywood would make sure that one wife was unlikable, making us root for the other, along with a happily ever after ending with the deserving pair breaking free from the lying and deceit. The Bigamist does none of that, though, with its exposition being the entire film. Instead of us designating a heroine and a villain, we actually fall in love with both women and hope that, whatever happens, no one gets hurt too bad. In fact, by having Harry explain his situation to Mr. Jordan, hoping to appeal to the man’s kindness in not calling the police, we begin to see how he got himself into this situation. He has two women that when combined would be his perfect match and, if possible in some messed up way, he has stayed with both for their sakes rather than his own. You hate him for his bigamy and spinelessness towards doing the right thing, but you do, as Mr. Jordan says, kind of wish him luck.
While the entire film then becomes a moral quandary on our sensibilities, actually lulling us into believing that maybe bigamy in this situation is okay, the success of the performances slides under the radar. The only reason we would think the love triangle going on is acceptable would be because the people portrayed are so pure of heart, if not quite of mind in Harry’s case. Joan Fontaine is splendid as his first wife Eve, a loving beauty that hardened a bit once told she was unable to have children. Throwing herself into her work, she drifted away somewhat from Harry, yet retained her unceasing love for him. If anything, her ability to sell might have emasculated him somewhat, causing the loneliness that led to an affair with Phyllis, played by Lupino herself. Right from the start Harry was open with his wife about meeting this other woman because both thought nothing would happen. He never stopped loving Eve and O’Brien’s turn shows this as fact. All three are so in love that I do believe they’d forgive each other if given the chance and move to Utah to be polygamists.
I don’t want to forget to mention Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Jordan, though, and not only because his house is mentioned when O’Brien and Lupino take a bus ride to the ‘houses of the stars’ in LA—talk about a weird meta-level inclusion. Gwenn is actually our entry into the story, our surrogate being told the whole sordid tale. We see him slowly become swayed by the emotions of Harry’s words, yet still retain the professionalism and moral center to know that no matter how pure the motivations were, what he was doing was wrong. Like him, however, we are only outsiders to the situation and have no power to disrupt two houses that otherwise are completely happy. It becomes the cathartic need to tell someone on Harry’s part, and as a result his conscience finally coming through, that will ultimately lead him to coming clean or continuing the lies.
The Bigamist 6/10 | ★ ★ ½