BFI Film Classics: The Bigamist

Author: Amelie Hastie

Of all the films in the BFI Film Classics series The Bigamist (1953) is perhaps the biggest surprise inclusion. Not that this film should not be considered a classic because it is right to consider it, but rather because it is has never really been recognized as one of the films that broke new ground. This is to do the film a disservice and author Hastie argues this point. Her point is to set star and director Ida Lupino and the independent team from indie studio Filmakers which includes ex-husband Collier Young (he wrote the script and produced the film) as auteurs. In this defence Hastie argues that this and Lupino and the studio’s other films dealt with subjects of a social conscience, something that America had seen little of since the Great Depression with the so-called Problem Picture apart from a brief output at the end of the Second World War in which some films dealt with the problems of returning servicemen readjusting to society after the war.


Hastie compares this film throughout her book with others Lupino made for the studio including Outrage (1950) about a woman coming to terms with a rape and how this affects her, Private Hell 36 (1954) focusing on a policeman who is too tempted to steal found money from a bank job and Not Wanted (1949) about an unmarried mother. What is so special about these films? After all most of them are low budget quickies. The answer to this has to be taken with the history of Hollywood. Since the early 1930s and the production code there had been hard fast stringent rules regarding what could and what could not be shown on screen – any wrong doing had to be met with a fall. Films like all these just mentioned broke many of those taboos with, it has to be said the blessing of the Production Code guardians and thereby relaxing much that previously would have been forbidden. The story of The Bigamist centers on a travelling salesman (Edmond O’Brien) who is married to a businesswoman (Joan Fontaine). She is unable to have children and so the pair begin the process of adoption. An investigator into the backgrounds of the couple (Edmund Gwenn) is suspicious of the would-be father and investigates in the other city he travels to, Los Angeles where he discovers he is married to another (Lupino) and already has a baby with her. An ashamed O’Brien tells Mr. Jordan of how he got himself into this situation.


The film is told in flashback just in the same manner as a crime film noir and was expertly directed by Lupino (Hastie compares the actress/director to being a female Humphrey Bogart and even goes into the films she starred in with Bogie made by director Raoul Walsh) and her films although they can be read as female melodramas, they are by no means feminine in the way that Douglas Sirk’s films are. Indeed her films are often quite macho in tone. The Bigamist is from a male perspective and he is dealt with very sympathetically; it is also well acted by O’Brien who appeared in a couple of Lupino’s films. What is surprising is that the book’s author does not make too much out of Lupino as a woman director but instead rightfully places the director as underrated (perhaps because she is a woman) not does she use much in the way of psychoanalytical tools to dissect the film. Instead the book is conventionally laid out in chapters: an introduction to the studio and the principles behind Filmakers, a detailed scene by scene telling of the film, more detail into different scenes and aspects, critical responses (including much in the way of theory in auterism using theoretical texts by Peter Wollen and Pam Cook which help canonize the film) and a curious final chapter focused on the bus journey around Hollywood in the scene where Harry (O’Brien) meets Phyllis (Lupino) as a trope about the cinematic figure and landscape.


It was interesting to revisit this film again as well as read the book and its analysis of the film and interesting that this film was the one chosen rather than the arguably better The Hitch-Hiker (1954). This was probably because due to the taboos that the film broke. Of course it has dated somewhat but is still a strong drama in the manner in which it deals with the film, the director and the company which made the film. It is, however, unfortunate that O’Brien’s performance isn’t given the credit it is due for making him a sympathetic character rather than a monster.


Chris Hick

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