Saturday, January 17, 2015

NOIR CITY 13: THE BIGAMIST (1953)—By Frako Loden

Screening in a restored 35mm print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Ida Lupino's The Bigamist (1953) joins a line-up of unholy matrimonies at the 13th edition of Noir City (NC13) that honors actress Joan Fontaine in a double-bill matinee tribute. As stated in NC13's program notes: "A San Francisco couple (Joan Fontaine and Edmond O'Brien) wants to bolster their unfulfilled marriage by adopting a child. But when a social worker (Edmund Gwenn) checks the husband's background he learns there's a second wife (Ida Lupino) in L.A.! This remarkable film uses a familiar noir framework to turn the genre's tropes inside-out, flipping gender roles and dissecting the pitfalls of buying into the matrimonial myth of 'happily ever after.' "

Back in March 2009 Frako Loden wrote up a profile of Ida Lupino for The Evening Class and I repurpose same for NC13's screening of The Bigamist.

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Ida Lupino (1918-1995), was another actress who turned to directing mid-career. Lupino herself can't exactly be considered lost as a director—she has a decent body of feature-film work and an impressive television resume. But seeing what she left behind, it's tempting to think how many more films she might have helmed had she the opportunity of, say, a Don Siegel, to whom she's often compared with the condescending "poor man's" prefix.

According to Lupino's biographer William Donati, a conversation with Roberto Rossellini had a profound effect on Lupino. Complaining about Hollywood, he asked her, "When are you going to make pictures about ordinary people, in ordinary situations?" He meant it rhetorically, but perhaps she took it personally.

Lupino's directing career began in her early 30s, when she was starring in Columbia productions like Lust for Gold (with Glenn Ford) and her husband Collier Young was a screenwriter and assistant to Harry Cohn. When Young resigned in a fit of anger, the couple joined up with a B-movie production company named Emerald. A few days before shooting began for Not Wanted (1949), director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack and producer Lupino took over. The film, about an unwed mother, was the first of hers that tackled bold and controversial themes such as polio, bigamy and rape.

The Bigamist (1953), a Filmakers production, was made the same year as Lupino's tense, Mexico-set The Hitch-Hiker, often cited as the only true film noir made by a woman. Bigamist's screenplay was written by Lupino's ex Collier Young, who was currently married to co-star Joan Fontaine. A meld of melodrama and mild procedural driven by an adoption agency investigator, the film has only a superficial noirish resemblance to Double Indemnity in that the confessional male voiceover constantly refers to a "Phyllis" living in Los Angeles. At one point it seems Fontaine's businesswoman wife, "in one of her executive moods," will be blamed for her husband's seeking affection elsewhere. But Lupino manages to keep both her and the second, tougher waitress wife (played by Lupino) sympathetic, while lending some compassion to a husband (Edmond O'Brien) whose traveling-salesman loneliness gets him into one fine mess.

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Some further notes from NC13's slick program (designed by the formidable Michael Kronenberg):

"RKO Pictures had distributed many films produced by Ida Lupino and Collier Young through their company, The Filmakers. Tired of losing out on profits, the partners decided to finance and self-distribute The Bigamist on their own. Its failure at the box-office spelled the end of The Filmakers, and unfortunately derailed Lupino's big-screen directing career for 12 years, until she was hired to helm The Trouble With Angels in 1965.

"Collier Young's script was a reflection of his own life: he was married to Joan Fontaine, but his ex-wife was his business partner and the film's director, Ida Lupino. Fontaine took over the role, unsalaried, as a favor to her husband when Jane Greer, originally cast as Eve, had to back out."

The rumored enmity between Joan Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Haviland is abbreviated in the Fontaine quote: "I married first, won the Oscar® before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it."

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