Like plenty of folk, last year I started doing #52filmsbywomen, attempting to watch at least a film a week directed by a woman. There is a huge range of great films to choose from and I easily filled my quota. But I was also keen to check out some older films directed by women, which are not as immediately findable as those on my Netflix queue. Which led me to the career of Ida Lupino, generally regarded as one of the true pioneers when it comes to female directors.
The Bigamist (1953) is one of Lupino’s most famous films and shows her willingness to take on material that is challenging, or was considered taboo at the time. The film subtly and effortlessly sets up the core plot machinations. A husband and wife, unable to conceive a child, are undergoing the adoption process. They are both presented with a form, allowing the powers that be to look into every detail of the private life. He’s aghast. She signs immediately. And from this simple, yet great sequence the audience is hooked, wanting to know where his hesitation stems from. The plot is not all that big on tension. When it is, the film plays like Double Indemnity (1944), but about adoption rather than insurance fraud. If the film does sag a little, it is during a very lengthy flashback. This is partly an issue because it sidelines the character of Eve Graham, played by Joan Fontaine who is perhaps the most interesting in the film or at least the character impacted by the events of the film in a most meaningful way. There is a lot going on in Eve’s relationship with her husband. Their inability to conceive a child and the business bent their relationship takes on because they work together. Perhaps most important is the fact that she’s so capable, better at his business than he is, a fact that clearly wounds his masculine pride. Fontaine delivers a great, emotional performance here, in a role that could have been kind of thankless in lesser hands.
Eve’s husband Harry is the bigamist of the title and Lupino delivers a very complex character. In a way he is set up as an almost sympathetic figure. Or perhaps more accurately a figure of pity. We see different sides to him – the doting enough husband, an annoying womanising cad – as the film progresses and depending on which woman he is with at the time. However for all the back and forth Lupino gives you with the character, it is clear that he is a weak scumbag and that is the overwhelming impression she wants to leave you with. In the end, the adoption inspector is the one who nails him and verbalises the audience’s feelings when he rebukes Harry by saying: “I despise you and I pity you.” The intricacies of the characters are one of the film’s real strengths. They are all interesting to some degree and Lupino establishes layers to them. The director controls the narrative in such a way that we are given fleeting peeks at these different elements when she chooses.
Verdict: The Bigamist starts out as a crime story with a difference, quietly morphing into a flashback heavy character study. The gender politics are pretty forward and Lupino excels at delivering complex characters that will challenge you as to exactly how you react to them. Pint of Kilkenny
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