Noir, with a woman's touch

Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953) is a film noir that dances on the edge of the “women’s picture,” in which the noir themes of adultery and the divided self unfold not within a stylized night-world of expressionist shadows but within the familiar realm of the domestic.  It’s tempting to read the film as a kind of feminist reversal of noir convention, where, instead of an “innocent” man being done in by a femme fatale, two women are effectively double-crossed by the same man (played by Edmond O’Brien).  But in Lupino’s noir world, which is perhaps all the more cynically rendered because it is so rooted in workaday reality, even the bigamist himself escapes villainizing.  The film is almost mind-bogglingly dark in its portrayal of people trapped in worlds of private loneliness, driven to keep secrets and tell lies.  In the end, the film dutifully puts the blame on O’Brien (in keeping with the strictures of the Production Code), but it’s perfunctory—no one knows who is to blame, or why, or what should be done with them.  The film fades out on its characters looking around at one another, lost and confused. 

As its title suggests, the plot of The Bigamist (which may have been one of the inspirations for Don Draper’s backstory on Mad Men) hinges on the attempt of a traveling salesman to keep two wives.  Joan Fontaine is the wife of eight years with whom he has settled into a brisk, passionless companionship.  As the other woman who meets O’Brien while he’s in California on a business trip, Ida Lupino embodies the world-weariness and desperation that lies at the heart of noir.  She’s a displaced person living in a city without friends or attachments.  She rents a single room, struggles to keep a job as a waitress at a pathetic excuse for a Chinese restaurant, and spends her free time taking Hollywood bus tours, not because she’s a movie fan, but because, as she says, “it gets me off my feet.”  She meets O’Brien right after he’s had a crushingly emotionless phone conversation with his wife.  They wind up sitting next to each other on the bus tour.  But this is anything but a standard “meet cute”: it’s an awkward, pained attempt by two guarded people to make some kind of connection. 

The Bigamist confirms that truly devastating noir films (Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Place) don’t involve hard-boiled detectives or maniacal killers but sad, ordinary people who slowly go crazy from living in rooming houses and cardboard-box apartments, from spending weeks at a time on the road and sleeping in hotel rooms.  (“We’ve only spent six nights together in the last year,” O’Brien tells Fontaine, who isn’t listening.)  In Lupino’s noir vision, men aren’t preyed upon by female vamps.  Instead, men and women alike are caught in domestic nightmare scenarios and driven to commit crimes of the heart rather than crimes of violence.  For deception, turmoil, and psychological conflict, she suggests, one needn’t look further than one’s own home.

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