[Film Review] The Bigamist (1953) 7.1/10 and The Hitch-Hiker (1953) 7.0/10
Possibly the only female director working under the stricture of studio system of Hollywood’s Golden Age, actress-turned-moviemaker Ida Lupino has two pictures released in 1953 (soon her production company would close up shop and she would only direct one more picture in 1965), both grittily tackles the thorny, contentious maladies of American society at large.
THE BIGAMIST is a moral conundrum, San Franciscan couple Harry Graham (O’Brien) and Eve’s (Fontaine) conjugal harmony begins to crumble after they they find out Eve is infertile, turning her disappointment into business-driving entrepreneurship, Eve distances both emotionally and physically from Harry, who feels excruciatingly lonesome when on his business days in L.A, where he meets Phyllis Martin (Lupino), a waitress he finds rather sympathetic.
Collier Young’s script (yes, he is also the producer, Lupino’s ex-husband and Fontaine’s current hubby, talking about in-jokes and self-reference!) eminently portrays Phyllis as an independent-thinking, no-string-attached sweetheart that even a decent man like Harry cannot resist her blunt, unsentimental spell, “I don’t want anything from you.” is Phyllis’ opening remark. Therefore, in order to validate that Harry and Phyllis’ reluctant union (after Phyllis has a bun in the oven) is out of unalloyed mutual love, Eve has to take the short stick on account of her distancing maneuvers, sheer insouciance when Harry mentionsto her his first encounter with Phyllis on a Hollywood tour bus. Eventually, it is Eve’s belated decision to adopt a baby that puts Harry’s double life on a line, when a diligent adoption agent Mr. Jordan (Gwenn) is keen on getting to the bottom of it.
While the narrative gains on a typical melodrama, Lupino the director refrains from performative hyperbole and swelling music to elicit audience’s sensorial response, instead she adopts a matter-of-fact tenet to map onto the triad’s mental trajectories with admirable exactitude, with O’Brien strenuously carrying off Harry’s beset disquietude and Lupino herself, playing pitch-perfect notes of Phyllis’ fragile brave face. THE BIGAMIST is a searing drama but its intensity is not exterior but interior.
THE HITCH-HIKER, released 9 months before THE BIGAMIST, is a taut all-hombre film-noir based on the lurid true story of a psychopathic hitch-hiker on a killing spree, a polarized remove from Lupino’s woman-issue B pictures she has cranked out since 1949.
Two ordinary men Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (O’Brien and Lovejoy) are heading to a fishing trip in Mexico, but incur a hostage to fortune after picking up Emmett Myers (Talman), who, at the drop of a hat, points a pistol at them. Coerced to do Myers’ bidding, the two friends come in for psychological and physical torment while they traverse through the expansive, often barren terrain in the heart of the Baja California Peninsula (Lupino and her team make great play of extensive location shootings that renders the pair’s noir-ish nightmare melt under the sweltering sun).
Talman, with one “bum eye” whose eyelid cannot be closed on a chilling, odiously smug mug, makes for an excellent villain and unregenerately spouts Myers’ venomous affronts one after another, letting his baseness and slyness get the better of the hapless duo, who are the essential salt-of-the-earth type, driven to crack under mounting pressure (O’Brien’s Collins is the one who almost loses it and Lovejoy’s Bowne is more resilient, patient and astute).
If Lupino really enters into the spirit by building up the tension and confrontation, THE HITCH-HIKER’s finale somewhat sags when the inevitable comeuppance transpires patly, elicits a bathetic feeling, why the heck they couldn’t act sooner to end their protracted misery?
Showing her laudable proficiency in molding two disparate pictures, Lupino’s singular case only woefully reminds us gender is never an issue in movie business’ division of labor. Ergo today, collectively and unflaggingly we should welcome women and members of the minorities into all the tiers of the moviemaking edifice, just for the sake of putting it to rights, since the century-long accumulated debts are plain outrageous.
referential entries: Byron Haskin’s TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949, 6.7/10); Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941, 7.6/10).