Female Filmmaker Friday: The Bigamist, 1953 (dir. Ida Lupino)

I read about this film in a book that traced the history of Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill in the movies (mostly focusing on film noir) and this film was mentioned because Lupino filmed several scenes in that neighborhood. After I saw the synopsis and the cast (Edmond O’Brien, Joan Fontaine and Ida herself), I just had to watch it. It’s a great drama (with film noir elements; I think you could definitely make the case that it is noir) about a man who finds himself married to two women.


As far as I know, this is the first time an actress also directed herself in a feature-length film (I know a few silent ladies directed themselves in shorts, like Mable Normand). Ida Lupino was a great director – and a formidable actress – and she shines in front of and behind the camera in this film. It starts out in the present with a couple who have been married for eight years (O’Brien and Fontaine) who can’t have children, so the decide to adopt and then takes a dark turn when the adoption agent starts investigating the couple.


The adoption agent is played by Edmund Gwinn (who played Santa in Miracle on 34th Street; something that is winked at when some of the characters go on a bus trip to see the homes of the stars). Also featured is Jane Darwell, who won an Academy Award 13 years earlier for her work in The Grapes of Wrath. She’s only in the film for a bit, but she’s fantastic as always.


Edmond O’Brien is probably best known for D.O.A. another low-budge noir that was filmed between S.F. and L.A. He’s sympathetic enough in the role of the titular bigamist. Actually, he’s quite emotional for a male role in the 1950s. It makes me wonder if it took a woman director to get such an emotional performance from such a gruff actor.


I just have to throw this shot in because Union Station! So many great noirs (and non-noirs) filmed in L.A.’s Union Station!


Also proof it’s noir: blinds! But, actually, most of the film is told in an extended flashback, a technique often used in film noir.


O’Brien is a traveling salesman who has grown lonely ever since his wife (Fontaine) has started working (she threw herself into her work after she found out she couldn’t have a baby – she even goes so far as to say she “failed” her husband at one point). So this lonely man finds himself in L.A. and on a bus tour on a lonely Sunday, there he meets a lonely waitress (Lupino) and after sometime, the two begin a love affair. Not surprising, Lupino’s role is the meatiest role (though also has the least screentime). She’s been kicked around a lot in life, but she’s not afraid to grab ahold of what life gives her.



This was one of 17 films George Lee made between 1943 and 1955.


So when O’Brien discovers Lupino is pregnant (after having decided to break it off with her because his wife has finally decided she wants to adopt a baby – we’re almost caught up to the beginning of the movie in the flashback), he decides the only thing to do is to get married. This works out because his name is registered differently in L.A. and S.F. (I’m not really sure this would work, but heck, it’s just a movie!). This scene is pretty is intense, with Lupino giving her speech about not wanting anything from him with such real tenderness. This could have been really soapy, but Lupino (as director), makes sure the tone is always serious. This domestic drama is serious because it is the lives of many women, and deserves to be treated as such.


I just wanted to include this great downtown L.A. shot. So good!


I took this screenshot on accident, but I think it really sums up where these two find themselves at this point in the movie, even though wife Fontaine doesn’t realize she’s being cuckolded.


This shot is great because you see an ironing board and a few slips in the background. Fontaine has been cleaning out the spare room for when they get their baby (months, maybe years, early) and we get a quick pan into the room and these intimate articles of clothing are just as natural as can be. This is such a woman’s touch, showing a woman’s world without titillation.


Obviously, as the movie ends, O’Brien is found out and his two wives meet in a courtroom as he is found guilty of bigamy. Again, this scene could have been soap city, but instead, it’s done so gently and the two women regard each other with anger, but also understanding. They love this man, this man loves them. They’re jealous of each other, but they also both know how wronged they’ve been. The film ends without us knowing which woman – if either – will take O’Brien back, but we do know that all of their lives will never be the same.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on November 28, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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