I came across this movie included on a DVD bringing together three strangely-assorted films under the title Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen. However, despite Joan Fontaine getting top billing, the lead character is definitely fourth-billed Edmond O’Brien, who stars as lonely travelling salesman Harry, torn between two wives and two lifestyles.
Today, though, the film is mainly remembered because it was directed by Ida Lupino, a rare woman director in 1950s Hollywood, who also stars as Harry’s second wife. It was the only time she directed and starred in the same movie. (Oddly enough, the screenwriter and producer, Collier Young, was Lupino’s real-life ex-husband and had recently married Fontaine.)
I’ve seen several films recently which, while they don’t exactly justify murder, seem to try to make it understandable, and show how an apparently sympathetic character could be driven to kill. ‘The Bigamist’ does the same with a lesser crime, showing how an apparently good, hard-working man like Harry can drift into a double life entirely built on lies.
At the start of the film, Harry and his wife, Eve (Fontaine) are trying to adopt a baby. He seems less than enthusiastic, though – and, when Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) from the local adoption agency investigates, he soon finds out why. Harry is already the father of a young baby, and leading a second life in another town as the husband of Phyllis (Lupino). Confronted by Mr Jordan, a weary, sweating Harry tells his own story in voiceover, as the mess he has made of things unfolds in flashback.
Just recounting the plot, it sounds as if Eve should be blamed for pushing her husband into the arms of another woman. She’s a business-minded career woman, who concentrates on helping Harry to sell washing machines rather than using them herself, and she hasn’t had time to start a family. By contrast, Phyllis, who also works – as a poorly-paid waitress – seems more family-oriented and gets pregnant the first time she sleeps with Harry.
However, actually watching the movie rather than just reading a synopsis, I felt it managed to sidestep most of the predictable stereotypes and avoid creating “good” or “bad” girls. Eve might work hard, but she isn’t an uncaring or cold character – every time she speaks to Harry, the friendship and shared history between them come across loud and clear. In one scene, where he tells her on the phone that he has had a date with a little “brown-haired mouse”, she laughingly assumes that he is joking, because she knows him so well that of course he must be. Similarly, Phyllis is no femme fatale – Lupino must have enjoyed the chance to play against type for once as somebody warm and dryly humorous. And she certainly isn’t a stereotyped “fallen woman” or someone out to trap a man. I was interested to see that she seems prepared to bring up her baby as a single mother before Harry suddenly returns and offers marriage.
The fact of him being involved with both women is easy enough to believe, but what is harder to swallow is the fact that he refuses to choose between them or to tell either one what is going on. The obvious real-life solution of keeping Phyllis as his mistress never seems to occur to him, even though it seems as if she would settle for that. There are also other plot holes and incongruities – how can this salesman, who never seems actually to sell an appliance, afford to support two households in different cities? And why on earth does he agree to go to the adoption agency in the first place, knowing that he will be investigated as a result?
I found the film compelling to watch, but with jolting changes of pace and tone at times, as well as intrusive music to signal key moments coming up. There are also a few odd in-jokes about Edmund Gwenn’s role in Miracle on 34th Street, which seem out of place in an emotional drama like this.
As a footnote, I see that the BFI is bringing out a book by Amelie Hastie about the movie in April in the UK (February in the US), which would be interesting to read if I manage to get hold of it, and probably show me a lot that I’ve missed in thinking over this melodrama. To be honest, I’m rather surprised that a book is coming out about this film since it isn’t all that well-known and doesn’t immediately seem like the sort of classic likely to get such attention – but, from the Amazon billing, the book sounds as if it will be worthwhile and shed light on Lupino’s career as a pioneering woman director, as well as looking at how the film reflects the age when it was made.