Home Video Hovel: The Bigamist, by Scott Nye
Though hardly what one could call a film noir, as such, Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist does exemplify so much of the emotional tenor of the movement – a man makes a terrible mistake, and desperately tries to right the wrong. The man is Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman whose home life has slipped a great deal since his wife (Joan Fontaine), upon discovering she can’t have children, took the reigns of managing his company. She proved better at it than either expected, and has let it consume her. Life on the road is lonely, but more so when you know you don’t really have much to come home to. Easy to see how a man, even one devoted to domestricity, could stray. Easier still to see how he could get wrapped up in trying to please two women once the second has his child.
And so goes The Bigamist, a film with sex appeal aplenty, but which is fundamentally a very sad story of how a single wrong move can redefine your life. Harry isn’t a womanizer or a sex fiend; he doesn’t get off on his debauched lifestyle, and his affections aren’t all that torn. He’s just too eager to please, too reticent to confront, and probably more used to managing problems than solving them. Lupino plays the other woman with all the allure required of such a role, but that hardly diminishes the fact that he has Joan freaking Fontaine waiting at home. While Lupino is clearly meant to be the more seductive force, their connection is brought about more by shared loneliness than anything else.
By the beginning of the 1950s, Americans no longer had a war or a Depression to contend with. Much of what drove the American cinema to that point had been addressing these issues, either as direct confrontation or an indirect escape. There was no great battle left. What there were, were a lot of people who were suddenly adrift, having lost friends or family forever, or perhaps simply finding that the peace they’d fought so hard for was not quite as fulfilling as had been promised. That film noir and the melodrama should suddenly flourish is no surprise; both were all about regret and missed opportunities, the aching desire to connect, to feel alive, to get a taste of the potential you’d once been assured you had.
Lupino, one of the only female filmmakers at the time, and the first woman to direct a film noir (1952’s The Hitch-Hiker), really captures that sensation, isolating Harry in shots of him wandering the streets of Los Angeles, a bustling town full of starstruck tourists and busy workers with no time for a traveling salesman who just wants someone to talk to. Even Phyllis (Lupino) isn’t particularly interested in him at first. But a little charm goes a long way in the sales trade. Yet even though he’s ostensibly there to work, we never see Harry actually sell anything; he and his wife has a business dinner, but only as a function of showing her talent for their work. Time after time, Harry is shown only as a supportive figure, lower in stature in business, caring for the child he had with Phyllis while she rests; emasculated and downtrodden, his attempts to connect with others has only left him further isolated. Lupino doesn’t approach this cynically; none of the characters are the “bad guy,” just people trying to do the best they can, making mistakes along the way, and unable to fully atone for their transgressions.
Though Film Chest’s new release of The Bigamist on DVD is billed as a new restoration, I can’t say I see a lot of evidence of it. The print is quite damaged, and the in the process of transferring it, they’ve obviously made an attempt to smooth over these issues with a good deal of digital noise reduction, leaving the image looking like a cracked vase. A little disappointing, but given that this was an independently-produced and -distributed film, fallen into the public domain, there’s no studio left to rescue it either, so I’m simply happy that Film Chest has made Lupino’s fine film available at such a low price ($11.98 at the time of this writing, the day of its release).