“Harry Graham …” the adoption agent, Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), contemplates, once the man in question (Edmond O’Brien) and his wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine), have left his office. Harry and Eve have decided to adopt a child, which means agreeing to let Mr Jordan “check into every detail of [their] private life”. Earlier, on hearing about this requirement, Harry looks concerned, pausing before signing the requisite forms. Importantly, the camera captures Mr Jordan noting his hesitation. “We must be most careful,” Mr Jordan reinforces. “After all, it’s a child’s life. Our investigation can’t be too thorough.”

Who is Harry Graham? This is the puzzle that The Bigamist (1953), Ida Lupino’s fifth film as a credited director, sets out to solve.1 Something bothers Mr Jordan about Harry from the start: his impatience, and what he sees as “a chip-on-the-shoulder sort of attitude”. Within this opening sequence, a space is provided for the audience to form its own first impressions of Harry alongside those that the tenacious investigator has begun to record. The Bigamist is an inquiry into who the bigamist is, and specifically, the social conditions and hypocrisies that have produced his dilemma.

We know the basics and we will slowly learn more. Harry is 38. He and Eve run an electrical-appliances company in San Francisco – Eve takes care of the “office work”; Harry, sales – and the couple also have a well-appointed apartment. But there is a mystery beyond this crisp, bright surface that begins unravelling as soon as Mr Jordan re-enters the picture. When he visits the Grahams at home, he is quick to reveal to Harry that his investigation has commenced and that “everyone speaks very highly of you”. He has also learned that Harry spends “a great deal of time in Los Angeles, on business”. We know that, to find out who Harry Graham is, we will have to travel beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.

In Los Angeles, it emerges, Harry has a second wife, Phyllis (Lupino, directing herself for the first time), and a new baby boy, Danny. Lupino builds unease as we head towards this revelation, despite the film’s title and opening credits having already signposted the inevitability that Harry’s double life will be exposed. Mr Jordan’s fated discovery of Harry’s other home and other life – after talking to a colleague at Harry’s LA office who refers to him as “Mr Exclusive” and “the original invisible man” – isn’t so much about the disclosure itself but about the question it poses. “How could a man like you, successful, admired, get into a position as vile as this?” he asks. What unfolds, as Harry begins to tell his story, is an explanation of the how.

The Bigamist was the final film produced by Lupino’s independent production company, The Filmakers (founded in 1949 by Lupino, Collier Young and the screenwriter Malvin Wald). It is both a social-issue and suspense film that upheld the company’s goal to entertain audiences while reflecting America back to itself.2 Defined by its moral ambiguity, The Bigamist embodies a number of the noir features that Lupino perfected in her previous film, The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Camera angles suggest entrapment; distinctions in lighting between the San Francisco and Los Angeles sequences capture two different worlds. But, largely, Lupino’s visual style is less innovative here than it is in her other films. The Bigamist is significant and powerful for its presentation of a ‘taboo’ subject matter in a melodramatic as well as a matter-of-fact way. The film has a documentary-style realism that conveys an emotional truth about human behaviour in both its narrative and aesthetic frames.

While Lupino specialised in stories of tumultuous women, here her focus is on a man under stress. Through flashback and Harry’s voiceover narration, we learn that he fell in love with Phyllis during a period in which he and Eve were emotionally estranged, and his “aloneness was like a pain”. Harry first meets Phyllis on a tour bus driving around Beverly Hills, looking at actors’ homes. A tentative romance develops, then something deeper. But Phyllis becomes pregnant at the point when Harry decides he wants to “stay put” with Eve. Rather than divorce Eve, who will have no chance of adopting a baby if she is not married, he tries to do the right thing – to be a good man, and, eventually, a good husband to two wives. But he vacillates when it comes to making decisions, ultimately paralysed by his failure to act decisively when it counts.

Despite these weaknesses, Harry is never presented as a malicious, manipulative man. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. His bigamy is seen as the least damaging of the options open to him – as Mr Jordan describes it, “both a gallant and a foolish scheme”. In the end, the judge presiding over Harry’s bigamy trial in the film’s courtroom finale provides a summary of his character: “Harry Graham is in no sense a hero. But neither is he a monster. He’s an ordinary man who made one terrible mistake.”

While The Bigamist critiques social hypocrisies regarding marriage in the postwar era, it does not judge Harry. How we are encouraged to view him remains ambiguous. As Harry and Mr Jordan part ways, the latter notes: “I can’t figure out my feelings towards you. I despise you. And I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand. And yet, I almost wish you luck.” Mr Jordan’s response to Harry’s dilemma embraces these poles, understanding that there can be no easy, clean resolution to this story. We are also trapped between two possibilities. Before Harry leaves the courtroom, Lupino cements this ambiguity in an exchange of glances between Harry and Phyllis, then Phyllis and Eve, and finally Eve and Harry, positioning the women as equals in the eyes of their husband. Harry’s decision, once he leaves prison, will not be an easy one. The Bigamist asks a lot more questions about the messiness of human relationships than it is able to resolve, and it is a far more fascinating film for it.

• • •

The Bigamist (1953 USA 80 mins)

Prod Co: The Filmakers Prod: Collier Young Dir: Ida Lupino Scr: Collier Young Phot: George Diskant Ed: Stanford Tischler Art Dir: James Sullivan Mus: Leith Stevens

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn, Edmond O’Brien, Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell

Endnotes:

  1. The Bigamist is renowned also for its behind-the-scenes relationships. The film’s producer and screenwriter, Collier Young, was Lupino’s ex-husband, and at the time of filming was married to Fontaine.
  2. Annette Kuhn describes the films that Lupino directed for The Filmakers as “the high point” of her long career; see Annette Kuhn (ed), Queen of the ‘B’s: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995), p. 4.

About The Author

Joanna Di Mattia is a writer and film critic. She has a PhD in Women's Studies from Monash University where her research examined anxiety about masculinity in contemporary American cinema. She contributes to a number of publications and her writing reflects her interest in the aesthetics of desire, sexuality, and the pleasure of looking.