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The First Lady of Noir

Celebrated actress Ida Lupino directed The Bigamist and other taboo-busting films

By David Lehman | May 22, 2021
Ida Lupino in 1953's The Bigamist, which she directed as well as starred in (Everett Collection)
Ida Lupino in 1953's The Bigamist, which she directed as well as starred in (Everett Collection)

At a time when female directors were few, Ida Lupino directed several important, unorthodox films. The Bigamist (1953), which she directed and acted in, for example, is among the most unconventional of all movies that connoisseurs tag as noirs.

In a typical crime drama, adulterous lovers kill the spouse who stands in their way, as in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, titles I juxtapose to illustrate how much variation there can be in the basic formula. In The Bigamist, however, no one gets beaten up or shot. No one robs a bank or a payroll, and the culprit’s downfall is signaled by nothing more violent than a baby’s sudden cry from out of the dark. Yet it qualifies as a noir, this smoky, black-and-white study in human failure, thwarted desire, and quiet desperation. When you add that The Bigamist is implicitly critical of the conventional moral standards governing romantic triangles, you get a sense of what distinguishes Ida Lupino’s films, as well as why I have dubbed her “the First Lady of noir.”

Born in London in 1918, Lupino contracted polio at age 16 but overcame it. A theme in her work is that self-pity sabotages the will and must be warded off—as by the blind woman she portrays in On Dangerous Ground (1951), who is vulnerable but brave, able to touch and redeem Robert Ryan, a cop so consumed with rage, he is like “a gangster with a badge.” Lupino took over the direction (uncredited) of On Dangerous Ground when the movie’s original director, Nicholas Ray, suffered a nervous breakdown.

In effect, Lupino acted in movies to subsidize her real career aspiration: to direct them. Two films she directed address the subject of female independence. The protagonist in Not Wanted is an unwed mother; in Never Fear, it is a dancer named Carol (Sally Forrest) who is afflicted with polio. A “message movie” of the kind that was popular in the late 1940s (The Snake Pit, Home of the Brave), Never Fear argues that a conscious act of will is needed to surmount the affliction; psyche must assist soma. All the therapy in the world will do little good unless the polio patient overcomes the defeatism to which patients are prone. 

Never Fear features a terrific square dance with wheelchairs.  I also love it that Carol’s upbeat doctor offers her a cigarette in her hospital bed. She says no. He lights up. He assures her that she will walk again but first must go through physical therapy and “muscle reeducation.” Before he exits, he gives her the pack of cigarettes. “You may want one later,” he says. Later, Carol evolves from being “a cripple” (“That’s what’s wrong with me,”) to feeling “ashamed of [her]self for being so full of self-pity.”

In The Bigamist, the man with two wives is far from odious. Lupino and her screenwriter wrote to understand, not to denounce. Harry (Edmond O’Brien) is simply weak though well-meaning, and the sympathetic portrayal of his plight is in its way as radical as the protagonist’s in Preston Sturges’ hilarious The Miracle of Morgan Creek (1943), a comedy made for a wartime Christmas. There are no laughs in The Bigamist, though. There is only grim disappointment.

Neither of the wives—Eve (Joan Fontaine), the ambitious blonde businesswoman in San Francisco, and Phyllis (Lupino), the melancholy brunette waiting tables in a Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles—is the movie’s protagonist. The spotlight is squarely on Harry, the traveling salesman caught between them. Technically he is a cad, but he is too nervous, too much at cross-purposes with himself, to resemble the stereotypical two-timer. If we can trust Harry’s narration, and the film expects us to do so, he loves both his wives—although the love that connects him to Eve, his first wife, is a complicated mix of pity, sympathy, co-dependence, and emotional blackmail. Beer ads may advise us to “drink responsibly,” but it is impossible for the bigamist to love responsibly.

Eve, the less likeable wife, has a professional career that she enjoys and is good at. Despite dropped hints, she is blissfully unaware of what her husband may be doing on his regular jaunts to Los Angeles. Is it a coincidence that she, the career woman, is unable to conceive and yet desperately wants a child?

Phyllis, of frail constitution and limited means, has a sense of humor and a quality of warmth that the ever-cheerful Eve lacks. Phyllis makes no bones about Harry’s other life. She and he meet as strangers taking a bus tour of Hollywood. After he lights her cigarette—so often the initiating gesture for a romance—she lets him pick her up, because what she sees in him is loneliness and need, not lust.

Harry accepts his fatherhood of Phyllis’s baby. At the same time, when Eve suggests that they adopt a child, he agrees. Does he realize the jeopardy that the adoption process will put him in? Does he want to be caught?

Caught he is by the adoption agency’s Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn, the Santa Claus of Miracle on 34th Street [1947], whose Hollywood home is pointed out by the tour bus driver in The Bigamist). The jig is up when the benign but increasingly suspicious Mr. Jordan, completing his background check, visits Harry’s Los Angeles address and hears the baby crying.  The movie ends in a courtroom scene—Harry is guilty, the crowd disperses, and when Phyllis and Eve, left alone, look at each other, the viewer is desperate to know what each is thinking of the other.

In Cleo: A Journal of Film and Feminism, Elise Moore asserts that The Bigamist “directs its criticism at patriarchal, institutional monogamy’s failure to accommodate complicated emotional, work, and financial needs and responsibilities.” Is this, translated into the jargon du jour, what I’m saying? I don’t know, but I concur that The Bigamist is not reductively “a plea for understanding for one hapless, misguided man.”

It can only add to our appreciation of the picture that Collier Young, its screenwriter and producer, was, at the time of the filming, Joan Fontaine’s husband and Ida Lupino’s ex.

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