MUBI Mondays: The Bigamist (1953)
Josh Slater-Williams | On 31, Aug 2020Reading time: 3 mins
On Mondays, two of our resident cinephiles highlight a film currently available on MUBI UK. We call it MUBI Mondays.
Alongside noir The Hitch-Hiker earlier that same year, 1953’s The Bigamist would be actor Ida Lupino’s final big screen credit as a director until the Hayley Mills family comedy The Trouble with Angels (1966) over a decade later, though she became a fixture of directing rosters for major television series of the time, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller and The Untouchables. Lupino’s work as an actor in thrillers and comedies remains well remembered and regarded, but just as much of her filmmaking career was driven by a passion for writing, producing and directing. An independent production company she established facilitated much of this before it closed shop and the TV work started, and its existence outside the traditional studio system factored into the unique body of work produced.
Most of Lupino’s directorial efforts exhibit interest in emotional truths and nuances behind various taboo subjects. Though she declined to be credited, she took over directing duties on Not Wanted (1949), the first film she wrote and produced, after original director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack three days into shooting. That film concerned the story of an unwed mother, a topic that’s not necessarily a social taboo in the majority of societies now, but was certainly a hot potato matter in late 40s America. But other films she directed – and, in some cases, co-wrote – address difficult topics still controversial today, ones quite often still mishandled in recent films when it comes to sensitivity. Outrage (1950) is about a young woman who is raped while on her way home from work. The Bigamist, meanwhile, is about… well, you can guess.
A noir melodrama partly told in flashback, The Bigamist starts with Harry (Edmund O’Brien) and Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine) approaching the final stages of trying to adopt a baby. The head of the adoption agency, Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), is suspicious of Harry’s apparent initial reticence to approve a required background check, so does some investigation of his own. Finding that Harry travels back and forth a lot between his home in San Francisco and Los Angeles, seemingly for work reasons, he ends up tracking Harry down to a second home in the latter city, discovering that he has a second wife (Lupino herself) and a baby. So as to convince the amateur sleuth not to phone the police, Harry tells the complicated story of how he ended up in two marriages.
The Bigamist is a fascinating, even-handed, strangely touching tale of tragedy; the emotions and internal struggles at play are made completely convincing by its three lead performances. While a few sequences, particularly towards the climax, are heavy-handed to an extent, there’s a compelling ambiguity to its very final moments and much of what comes before it. There is acknowledgement that everyone will emerge damaged from a sad state of affairs that got out of hand due to combined selfishness, cowardice and idiocy, but that most people really are trying to do the best they can, even if that best really can’t account for much in certain spiralling situations. There’s no malice in these tactless actions, just mistakes.
The Bigamist is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.