Much is made of Ida Lupino as one of the very few women who directed a Hollywood feature during the Classic period. A creditable achievement for sure. But she is best remembered as an actress and deservedly so. As a director she was ok only. She helmed the solid desert noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and legend has it had a role in directing the studio-imposed soft-ending in On Dangerous Ground (1952) after Nicholas Ray lost interest.
The Bigamist is not really a noir in the accepted sense but it has noir overtones. As well as directing, Lupino stars with Edmund O’Brien and Joan Fontaine. O’Brien is the bigamist, and Lupino and Fontaine the hapless wives. The strength of the picture is in the lead performances and the screenplay, which for the period is quite brave, dealing sensitively with extra-marital sex and single motherhood. The film was an independent production of Lupino and ex-husband Collier Young, who adapted the script from a story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor. You could say the script is soft on the bigamist. He is punished, but there is maturity and sensitivity in a scenario where decent people get themselves into a mess not so much because of selfishness or wilful deceit – rather due to all too normal human frailties.
Visually, The Bigamist is nondescript, with Lupino as director failing to utilise the proven skills of DP George Diskant – though she does infuse street scenes of LA with the isolation of the lonely out-of-towner O’Brien. (She also failed to leverage the talent of Nick Musuraca, who lensed The Hitch-Hiker.)
The noir element is of entrapment through moral weakness. O’Brien is a lonely travelling salesman in LA when he meets Lupino a young waitress on a Hollywood bus tour. In fits and starts a relationship develops and one thing leads to another, but not before O’Brien tries to extricate himself. He has a wife in Frisco, who after finding out she is barren has become his business partner. The partnership becomes more one of business than marriage, and O’Brien who is weak and perhaps too sensitive, digs himself deeper and deeper into a bind that cannot be broken without tragic consequences. An ambivalence that refuses to judge evokes strong realistic performances from the leads, and enlists the audience’s sympathy without overt melodrama.
A film for mature adults who understand the true meaning of ‘shades of grey’.