Ida Lupino is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of cinema, breaking ground in numerous ways as basically the only female director working in Hollywood in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, she also wrote, produced and starred in numerous films, including her 1953 masterpiece, The Bigamist, in which she gives a brilliant performance. Her films, particularly this one, defy societal conventions, and in fact Hollywood conventions as well, dealing with themes and underlying issues in ways that are uniquely sensitive to feminine/masculine identity and sexuality and in fact the concept of marriage and career for both women and men. It’s hard to watch this film in a complete vacuum and take it in as it would have been seen in 1953. In fact it’s hard to turn off our understanding of the true second wave of feminism in the 1960s. But there are stepping stones created in this film and elements of feminism that are incorporated into the script effectively. True, the film is rather melodramatic, but it’s honest and sincerely told.
Edmund O’Brien gives a career best performance as Harry Graham, husband of Eve (Joan Fontaine), who is unable to conceive children. So they pursue the option of adopting a child after 8 years of marriage to each other. While the adoption agency worker, Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwynn) looks into the background check process, he finds out many things about Harry…..in fact far more than he wishes to find out. Harry is in fact a traveling salesman for refrigerators in a business that is headed by his wife Eve, who quickly became a leading saleswoman in the business after she pursued a sales career once she realized she couldn’t have children. She in fact is deemed a “career woman” by her husband, and is actually better at her job than Harry is. Though their apartment is in San Francisco, Harry travels often to Los Angeles for work. While alone there and feeling restless, lonely, and depressed, he meets Phyllis (Ida Lupino) on a tour-bus ride. They strike up a friendship. Soon though, Harry begins to crave her attention and affection and begins to feel appreciated through her attentions. His wife Eve is often unresponsive to his feelings and needs. When Eve has to fly to Florida to care for her ailing father, Harry has significant time alone with Phyllis in L.A., where they have sex on his birthday. Phyllis knows nothing of Harry’s personal life, and when Harry learns that Phyllis is pregnant, his guilt and shame overcome him and he determines that he will have to divorce Eve to care for Phyllis and the child, but he doesn’t tell Phyllis this. Through circumstances beyond his control, he is unable to tell Eve, and thus begins a scenario where he becomes married to two women at the same time, leading a double life.
Several key themes come to the fore in this film. One is the against-the-grain characterization of Eve, by Joan Fontaine. Eve is a career woman, better at her job than her husband, and who in fact we suspect makes more money than her husband does. She is satisfied by her work, and in fact pays little attention to her husband's emotional needs, even though she's not really that insensitive by nature....it's just that she is trusting and is rather "un-clingy". Harry is the disenchanted, lovelorn husband, emasculated, flighty, depressed, emotional, and rather unstable. In fact, their roles can be positioned as the opposite stereotypes of male/female roles, particularly in traditional social and cinematic values. When Harry wanders to Phyllis, we listen to his internal monologue as he explains why he does what he does out of need to connect emotionally and spiritually to another human as his needs have become unfulfilled by his wife. His sensitive and emotional needs are quite a stark de-masculinization of male gender values, and particularly enhanced by O’Brien’s effectiveness in the role. Joan Fontaine is fabulously believable as the career woman, shunning her traditional duties of domestication and female subservience. Ida Lupino is equally impressive as Phyllis, seeking companionship but not demanding anything from Harry, pursuing HIM when in fact he wants to break off the relationship and refrain from sex. Yet she's a good woman at heart and really is doing nothing wrong. Their sexual encounter is subtly hinted at when he tells her “I have to return home tomorrow.” She says, “Tomorrow is a long way off.” When her pregnancy is made known, it is of particular interest that she has made no intention of finding Harry to tell him and is ready to care for the child on her own as a single mother.
Lupino’s direction is often raw, and unpolished, but is remarkably honest in its emotional clarity, providing moments for each character to be deeply felt by the audience. Tendencies for melodramatic elements are keyed by circumstances which aren’t just believable, they’re remarkably simple and understandable. When the moment comes when Harry feels the need to confess to Eve, we understand his lack of will when he realizes her father has passed away. The bad timing continues, and he’s never quite able to tell her. It’s not that we sympathize with him…it’s just that we understand HOW such a thing could happen. His manipulation of the situation is enhanced by the circumstances which allow for the deceit to continue. It’s a remarkably balanced script by Collier Young, who was in fact married to Fontaine at the time, and was previously married to Lupino, adding an interesting layer to the background of this film. The love triangle of sorts is also fascinating in that we do believe that Harry loves both women and the film ends on an appropriately ambiguous note. True, though the film asks more questions than it answers (and probably couldn’t go quite as far as a film made in the late 1960’s could go) regarding the elements of gender reversal, the honest approach to female sexuality, career, motherhood, marriage, and the terrific love story at the core of the film make this film a must see and a unique slice of the 1950’s for a pioneering woman in the field of cinema. Whether you like the film or not may depend on your sensitivity to melodrama..... but if Sirk, Fassbinder, and Almodovar can be praised for their melodramas, so can Lupino. If not, then it's a double standard that needs to be corrected.