Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Bigamist (1953)

Directed by: Ida Lupino
Written by: Collier Young
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmond O'Brien

Black & White, 80 minutes

Grade: C-

Back in the 1940's, Ida Lupino was "the poor man's Bette Davis (her words not mine)," but as such she managed to work with directors like Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, and Nicholas Ray, and she was even able to snag lead billing over Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra. Quite impressive for such a B level actress. At the end of the '40's she became fed up with the studio system, and decided to put her talents behind the camera, one of the few women at the time to do so, or should I say, be able to. Working closely with her ex-husband Collier Young, Lupino focused on serious minded issues, such as rape and adultery, and managed to construct a small handful of films that have seemingly faded from the memories of critics and film buffs around the world. I can't exactly speak about her other directorial outings, but if The Bigamist is any indication as to what else she has to offer, it's not hard to see why. This is a banal, muddled, self-conscious mess of a film that isn't even worth viewing, let alone remembering.

Our story focuses on traveling salesman Harry Graham (Edmond O'Brien), the bigamist of the title. As the film opens, Harry and Eve (the lovely Joan Fontaine), his wife of eight years, are trying to adopt a child. The process is going well, and all looks to be peaches and cream for the Grahams until Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), the head of the adoption agency, informs them that their personal lives are now subject to the utmost amount of scrutiny, right down to the smallest detail. Now, anyone with the smallest notion of adopting a child knows this fact, but somehow it slips Harry's mind, and he's more than a little flustered about it. The music swells, the camera pushes in on Harry's face, and we get the overwhelming feeling that this guy is tangled up in some bad business. Harry attempts to play it cool, but Jordan isn't having it, he's let a child go to a bad set of parents before, and he isn't about to make the same mistake twice. Harry heads out of San Francisco for a business venture in Los Angeles with Jordan snapping at his heels. Jordan pokes his nose around town, asking questions, and he finally catches Harry's scent. He finds Harry residing in a small house that just happens to have a baby wailing in one of the bedrooms. Caught red handed, Harry relays his story to Jordan, and us, through flashback. We get all the sordid details about how Harry, traveling between San Fran and L.A. so much, became increasingly lonely, and accidentally fell in love with a waitress named Phyllis (Lupino). Their sideline romance eventually results in an accidental marriage, and accidental child. Having neither the balls, nor the common decency, nor even the dignity to tell either woman about the other, he now faces a quagmire. Will he somehow fix the problems he's caused? Will he essentially ruin the lives of everyone involved? Will you care either way? I sure as hell didn't.

Screenwriter/producer Collier Young takes what could be a deeply observational treatise on what drives people astray and ruins it by giving us one-dimensional characters that we couldn't possibly care about, and to make matters worse, he makes pitiful excuses for their actions, and then betrays himself by resorting to speechifying at the end of the film. Seeing as how Young divorced Lupino so he could marry Fontaine only a year before this film was released, one gets the sense that he's doing his best to try and justify his own personal actions. The fact that both women agreed to work on this film says more about their own friendship than it does about Young's attempt to make things right, and it shows in their performances. To be honest, I would probably watch an episode of Grey's Anatomy if Joan Fontaine were in it, so I obviously think that she's always worth watching. Lupino, however, is an actress that I've never really cared much for, but her performance here is solid. O'Brien has the hardest time, mostly because Harry is such a hapless loser and you're never interested in anything that happens to him, and it's hard to believe that one woman would fall for him, let alone two, but his acting is sincere enough for me to go easy on him.

With such an acceptable level of acting, Young's soppy writing could have taken a backseat had a solid filmmaker at the helm. Sadly, Lupino botches her chance; her direction is all over the map. At times, she'll play a scene for the highest melodramatic quotient, and at other times she'll treat everything in such a relaxed manner, you wonder if she ran out to grab a smoke and just continued to let the cameras roll. Her timing is off, her pacing is excruciatingly slow, and she doesn't know whether to punch the accelerator or hit the brakes or to just let it all fly of the rails. It's sloppy filmmaking at best, and at times it borders on amateurishness.

Mediocre talent aside, one must commend Lupino for finding a way to carve a path in a, continually, male dominated occupation. She was only the second woman admitted into the Director's Guild and her career behind the camera would continue through the years, mostly in television shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Nonetheless, my admiration for her doesn't change my opinion of her talent. Her films may have been a bit daring in her day, but in the today's world, they suffer from what I call The Hal Ashby/Warren Beatty Syndrome; when a film becomes dated and often a pain to sit through. As a director, she's nothing to write home about, but she deserves to be remembered for breaking the mold, and as watershed for Hollywood, then and now.

4 comments:

H. Stewart said...

Hahaha Hal Ashby syndrome, right on. I've never seen any of Ida Lupino's directorial efforts, and I guess I'm glad. Too bad Hollywood's only female director is a real stinker. Has anything really changed, though? I can hardly think of the last movie I saw that was directed by a woman.

If Lupino was the second woman to get into the Director's Guild, who was first?

H. Stewart said...

By the way, Edmond O'Brien looks really sincere in that picture.

Clayton L. White said...

According to my extremely reliable source (wikipedia! haha) is correct, it was Dorothy Arzner, who worked mostly in the silent period.

O'Brien does look sincere, doesn't he? It's that baby face, I think.

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