Directed by: Ida Lupino
Written by: Collier Young
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn
Infidelity shatters a trust forged through love and the impact it leaves on those affected can be intensely brutal. Getting cheated on with taxes, on examinations, and other forms of dishonesty cause harm, but the emotional connectivity we have as humans make relationship infidelity all the more harrowing. Knowing this informs the decision making made by a character who’s made some mistakes.
In the effort to adopt a child, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) struggle with a marriage that has become strained once Eve gets more involved in the family business. As part of the adoption process, an investigator looks into the lives of both potential parents to ensure no skeletons lie in any closets, but the investigator soon finds that Harry has another wife and child in a different city.
The idea that any man could live a double life and have two families almost makes me respect how they can handle the back and forth to leave each family unaware of the predicament. These situations arise out of a selfish desire by the men, but in the case of The Bigamist, it turns into a scenario of emotional longing that almost leans into justification. The film walks a fine line because of the era in which it was constructed. Made in 1953, the Hays Code was in full effect to preserve the virtues of Hollywood productions. It restricted feature films from showing many things that would be considered scandalous or promotes immoral behavior. For this feature, it had to walk the tight line of infidelity where filmmakers were barred from showing anything positive about an unfaithful person. Through the course of the story, that person needed to be lambasted for their negative behavior and must not have a happy ending. Even with this restriction, director Ida Lupino really pushed the boundary, which made me wonder how it made it through.
I would credit it with the tactful filmmaking style of Ida Lupino in the way she constructs the story. Historically, she was one of the pioneers for female directors and in this feature, she also served as one of the co-stars. She creates such suspenseful stories with this film and The Hitch-hiker, which leaves the characters in precarious situations that need quick thinking. Her buildup to the revelation and subsequent explanation puts me in a place of concern trying to figure exactly how the entire situation will play out. As the film points out, the act committed by Harry is illegal and could result in jail time, which only raises the stakes for how Harry will explain the situation to the investigator.
The narrative does not move in such a straightforward manner, which it could have easily done, but instead, it shows the perspective of all three individuals involved. It focuses more on Harry, but it also explains what makes them act. For Eve, Harry’s first wife, her infertility forces them to try to adopt if they wish to have a child, which leaves a bigger impact on her than it does her husband. In that time, birthing a child suggested a status and duty that she could not physically fulfill and the opportunity to dive into the business gives her a sense of purpose in life. Phyliss (Ida Lupino), the eventual second wife, is looking for love and has no clue about Harry’s life outside of their arrangement. The more difficult perspective to examine belongs to Harry because he’s the one causing the harm and the illegal action here.
His perspective revolves around the absence of love he feels from his wife. When he falls in love with Phyliss, he wants to break it off with Eve, but different events and life circumstances get in the way of it becoming a reality. Eve provides the security blanket while Phyliss is a brand new start to life where he can leave his baggage behind. In the slight justifications, the film presents, it does not allow Harry to remain unscathed and also highlights the shameful cowardice in his actions. He could have been straightforward with his intentions but the way he wishes to not bring harm to either of them does the most damage, which the conclusion of the film demonstrates.
In what could be described as an unfaithful man trying to justify his actions, The Bigamist builds sympathy for all parties involved in its attempt to humanize the situation at hand. It demonstrates the directorial strengths of buildup by Ida Lupino and why her contributions to film made a large impact for all women trying to break into the industry. This risky story could have been chopped up and tossed by the regulations in place, but she masterfully navigated around it for the film to reach an audience that had not seen stories of this sort in the past.