One of the ways Ida Lupino was able to make the leap from actress to director in the Old Hollywood system was by framing her work as morality tales. That way, she could get away with making the first woman-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker—a throat-hold thriller from start to end—by passing it off as a lesson on the dangers of adultery with just a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Her directorial follow-up to that chilling cult classic is much more enthusiastically committed to exploring adultery as a moralistic theme, as you can tell by its attention-grabbing title: The Bigamist. Oddly, though, The Bigamist takes a much more wishy-washy stance on the dangers of adultery than The Hitch-Hiker, even though it dwells on the act for the entirety of its runtime instead of merely evoking it in a mood-setting prologue. The Bigamist is a morality tale about adultery (through its furthest extreme in polygamy) without ever outright condemning the act as a sin. It’s an engagingly ambiguous film in terms of reading its moral compass even now—more than a half-century after its initial release—but especially so for its time.
Edmond O’Brien stars as a traveling salesman who is racked with guilt because he’s hopelessly in love with both of his wives, who live in two distant cities. Joan Fontaine co-stars as his wife of 8 years, who has settled into a business partner role as the initial romantic spark of their marriage has dulled. Ida Lupino rounds out the cast as the salesman’s wife of 8 months, a fiercely independent West Coast waitress who reignites the salesman’s lust for life. The movie is set up like a murder-mystery noir where the salesman’s discomfort around anyone digging into his personal life is meant to spark the imagination of the audience. What nefarious acts could he possibly be up to on these business trips? The answer, of course, is right there on the poster and in the title: “Edmond O’Brien is The Bigamist.” Once the full details of his double-marriage lifestyle are divulged, the movie mostly dwells on the melodrama of his predicament, focusing especially on the unbearable stress of balancing a double life. The women both get their own moments of spotlight to convey their internal anguish, but this is largely the bigamist’s story, and it’s in daring to sympathize with the lout where the movie finds its moral ambiguity.
In a lot of ways, The Bigamist feels like an inverse of (and a precursor to) Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, in that it takes the husband’s love for both women seriously without poking too harshly at how the women might be working overtime domestically to make his traveling Lothario lifestyle possible. If anything, the film comes across as surprisingly pro-polyamory, since it entirely builds its melodrama on the guilt & harm of the salesman’s dishonesty rather than the usual fallacy that he can’t love both women equally at once. He initially cheats out of loneliness and confesses the transgression to his first wife in plain terms, who takes the admission as a playfully sarcastic joke since he’s just not the type to do such a thing. While most of his colleagues would just hire a sex worker to satisfy that urge, this lout can’t help but fall in love with his mistress, who initially asks that he reveal nothing about his personal life outside their relationship so as not to spoilt the mood. Both of his marriages are relatively functional in their own insular realms; what eats the bigamist up on the inside are the lies necessary to maintain his cross-country rouse. That’s a bold moralistic stance to take in a Hays Code era film where the leads have to sleep in separate beds for the sake of onscreen propriety.
Of the three leads, Ida Lupino is the most electric in her role as the salesman’s second wife. According to Wikipedia, this film has been cited as the first time the female star of a Hollywood film directed her own performance, which is pretty neat but also difficult to verify without several qualifiers. What’s much easier to verify is the strange real-life melodrama that played out behind the scenes between the director and her collaborators. Lupino had recently split with her ex-husband and creative partner Collier Young, who wrote & produced The Bigamist while at the start of a new marriage with Lupino’s co-star, Joan Fontaine. In that way, the film works just as well as a relic of Hollywood gossip as it does as a morally ambiguous noir. It even accentuates that Hollywood rumor mill DNA by setting the first scene of emotional infidelity on a bus tour of famous Los Angeles movie stars’ homes – including the homes of women like Barbara Stanwyck & Jane Wyman, who could have been cast in this just as easily as Fontaine (as well as the home of Miracle on 42nd Street‘s Edmund Gwenn, who does feature heavily in the movie as the nosy adoption agency bureaucrat who initially exposes the salesman’s bigamy). It’s a nice little meta touch for a movie so unavoidably steeped in Studio Era scandal.
Even speaking in general, Ida Lupino’s life & career are inextricably tied to Old Hollywood mystique. It’s incredible that she was able to manage as interesting & high-profile of a directorial career as she did in a system designed to lock women out of that creative process entirely. The Bigamist is not quite as immediately thrilling of example of her getting away with something within that misogynist paradigm as The Hitch-Hiker, but the longer you dwell in its moral ambiguity the more it feels like a one-of-a-kind anomaly. Like all of Lupino’s films (and even the filmmaker herself), it’s a wonder that The Bigamist was allowed to exist in its time at all.