The Bigamist (Film Chest, NR)

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Still, the restored version of The Bigamist looks better than a lot of films from the period, and I’d have to say that watching the DVD is a far better experience than watching online.

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Ida Lupino only directed seven films, but given the male domination of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, it’s a minor miracle that she was able to do that many. A noted actress, she reportedly got into the directing business when the assigned director for a film she was acting in had a heart attack and couldn’t finish it. Another strand of the story was that she became interested in directing while on suspension (in the bad old days when actors were signed to long-term contracts, they were penalized for turning down roles).

As a director, Lupino is best-known today for The Hitch-Hiker, which is regarded as both the only film noir directed by a woman, and the first major feature film directed by a woman. It’s also a great film and a must-see for anyone interested in the period. However, Lupino didn’t use her unique access to the director’s chair just to make films on conventional subjects—instead, several of her films treat “women’s issues” largely overlooked by mainstream Hollywood, including rape (Outrage, 1950) and the conflicts inherent in being a female athlete (Hard, Fast, and Beautiful, 1951).

The title of The Bigamist gives away the central conflict of the story, so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it here. Successful businessman Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) is married to two women: Eve (Joan Fontaine), with whom he maintains a home in San Francisco, and Phyllis (Lupino), who lives in Los Angeles, where he frequently travels for work. What is surprising is how sympathetic The Bigamist is to Harry, and how it works in other themes (infertility, adoption, women with real careers) to create a fictional world where there are no bad people, although good people may sometimes act badly.

The Bigamist is a melodrama, and as such is far more concerned with moving the story forward than with surface plausibility, but shouldn’t be an obstacle as it shares that characteristic with other many popular films and TV shows. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Harry tries to explain himself to a rather persistent adoption officer (Edmund Glenn), which is appropriate for a film more concerned with exploring the reasons for someone’s behavior than with simply keeping you guessing about what will happen next.

The acting performances range from pretty good (Lupino) to peculiar (O’Brien, who seems to be suffering from permanent indigestion), with a nice almost-cameo by Jane Darwell. Poor Joan Fontaine is saddled once again with the role of the clueless wife (Suspicion, anyone? How about Rebecca?) but does the best she can with it. All in all, The Bigamist offers an interesting look at several social issues through a 1950s lens, and the location shooting in San Francisco and Los Angeles alone is worth the price of admission.

The Bigamist is in the public domain and can be watched for free on sites such as archive.org. This raises the question of what you gain by buying the disc, as there are no extras on it other than scene access. The DVD is billed as being “restored in HD from original 35 mm film elements,” and that answers the question: the picture and sound are both much better in the restored DVD version than in the free versions available online. Ironically, the sharper picture sometimes makes the remaining flaws (mainly flickers and the occasional scratch) more obvious. Still, the restored version of The Bigamist looks better than a lot of films from the period, and I’d have to say that watching the DVD is a far better experience than watching online. The Bigamist is distributed on DVD by Film Chest Media Group, who also did the restoration. | Sarah Boslaugh

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