1953, Directed by Ida Lupino, who also plays Phyllis.
Since the film is told mostly through narrated flashback, I will also begin at the end by describing the courtroom scene in which this tightly wrought personal black and white narrative is integrated into the justice system. As the judge hears the defendant’s lawyer plea for mercy on the grounds of “love” (being in this case a synonym for the complex interplay of self evaluative epiphanies and the vague desires of one or more superfluous parties to be ‘needed’ once the alienating mechanics of capitalistic self sufficiency have become routinized in their daily being), Ida Lupino cuts between close ups of the bigamist in question, Harry or Harrison Graham, and his two wives- the barren career woman with a tender heart Eve and the lonely, rationalistic Phyllis. The characters’ knit their brows desperately, as though their skin is a stubborn veil between the two types of understanding between which the film oscillates to achieve its dramatic tension: the piteous self love that hides itself while simultaneously screaming to be revealed (Harry Graham is most pathetic when he is begging to “tell you something” only to not do it) i.e. the understanding of the individual, the truth of the character; and the understanding of the world- morality, the courtroom, the office where Harry flees to avoid his drama, the salesman job which provides the possibility of his romantic dalliances. The courtroom is filled with women spectators who remain silent while the judge issues his decision (only Harry cannot bear the flattening of his difficultly achieved status as a subject on the dispassionate lips of the judge and cries out irrelevantly “Oh stop it I’m guilty!” – to which no one, appropriately, responds): “You’re basically a decent man, Mr Graham, and that’s the whole point”. Oh and isn’t it. The Bigamist is revelatory in its investigation into the deceit involved in the most basic act of a male constituting himself as a subject who loves.
The judge goes on: “When a man, even with the best intentions, breaks the moral laws we live by, we really don’t need manmade laws to punish him. He’ll find out that the punishment of the court is always the smallest punishment.” And it’s true, this whole court scene seems like an unnecessary addendum to a story that has already resolved itself. But it’s effective- lest there be any doubt as to the status of the law in regard to alienation which struggles to resolve itself deep in the imaginary, this scene is a formal abdication, a nod toward the footlights and the exit sign. Mr. Graham’s emotional masochism has been laid disturbingly bare, and the judge knows better than to reward his slavering ego with even more, completely formal, discipline. Even, at the last shot, has the filmmaker Lupino discarded this erstwhile protagonist, in the name of ethics she instead lingers on Eve, the character whose lack of emotionalism (Eve throughout the film is Graham’s wife who is focused on their shared refrigerator business and is responsible for its success (and the subsequent leisure time during which Harry plunges excitedly into his narcissistic loneliness) and has no time or physical capacity (she is barren, they are seeking adoption) for children) and sense of self sufficiency has presaged the bigamy which has rendered Harry again irrelevant. That the last shot remains on her while Harry is led out of the courtroom restores this sufficiency, which was lost amidst the swirling drama of ‘a man loving a woman’, to her, and the film retains its careful analytics.
I try to avoid the straightforward plot synopsis for what I hope is the same reason the film does: Harry Graham is pleading for your sympathy, and he wants to tell you his story. But he is an abject narcissist, plodding through a landscape which has no need for him. This is a film noir, where is the crime? The film is constructed in a way, via Graham’s confessional flashbacks to the stalwart and moral Mr. Jordan, investigator for the adoption agency, to give the sense that there is some deeper crime that will soon reveal itself. But the crime never amounts to more than just Harry Graham needing: needing to be loved, needing to be Harry Graham to somebody else besides himself. The skill of the film lies in its ability to demonstrate that the sense of criminality itself comes from the striving of the subject to exist as such within a corrupt system.
Harry is incredibly superfluous. It takes a moment to realize this maybe, but then we realize he’s peddling refrigerators offscreen and the people who work at his office are more concerned with slugging back cocktails at four in the afternoon than anything else. Even Phyllis can’t remember what he does moments before he proposes to her (“you sell water heaters or something”). I don’t know if he’s more superfluous than anyone else who has a meaningless job, but that’s everyone in this movie world. Being sensitive but not smart, he feels this but can’t trace it back to anything. He begins to feel lonely because Eve cares more about the business than him (meaning that she has invested herself in the real world he has chosen to live in more than he has, achieving instantly more integrity, though he never realizes this), and on one of his business trips to LA, this loneliness drives him to board a bus touring the movie stars houses, where he meets Phyllis. He awkwardly hits on her as the bus driver drones movie star names while she remains respectably indifferent (Harry: “I’d like to know where my favorite mule Francis lives” Phyllis: “What’s that?” Harry: “Oh. Excuse me” Phyllis: “That’s alright.”). This initial meeting lays the differences between the characters bare. Harry asks “Don’t you have any interest in how the other half lives?”, pretending as though he himself did, as though he hadn’t just stumbled onto the bus in confused self absorption, which we just saw him do. She answers “No I just like the bus. It gives me a chance to get off of my feet.” She is a materialist. After Harry blandly relates an anecdote about a pianist playing Gershwin (“It was great”), she asks “What is this, the story of your life?” Phyllis, comfortable in her loneliness because she is capable of acknowledging it as part of her life (all we ever really find out about her background during the course of the film is that she is lonely and she works in a Chinese restaurant, which is really all we need to know), never has any need for Harry’s biography, and this is the basis of his desire for her. Knowing the outlines of his character in terms of the society that he lives in (he is married, he has a job, he wants a child- pretty regular) but absolutely nothing else, Harry is overwhelmingly compelled by a person for whom those outlines mean nothing. There is more truth in her indifference to his identity than there is in that identity itself, so Harry (or Harrison, as he goes by in LA) has no choice but to follow her around, despite all the hand wringing about his love for Eve.
And what about this love for Eve? Does he love her? If so why does he neither divorce her nor stop his romance with Phyllis? The question is a red herring. Of course he loves them both. But love in this sense is meaningless. What does he do? He marries them both and promises them children while simultaneously pretending as though he has done neither. He pursues the annihilation of his social character with perverse rabidity, moaning over his own impossibility in sublimated sexual ecstasy the whole time. Explaining the basis of his desire for Phyllis to Mr. Jordan he says “For the first time, I felt as though someone needed me”. It is funny that this is how he defines his relationship with Phyllis- she goes to great lengths to disavow this needing, even when pregnant with his child she is ashamed that her pregnancy could possibly compel him to propose to her. Harry sees the swollen womb and sees “need” (for financial assistance, most of all), while Phyllis sees the fetus instead as her decision that she is proud of with or without the oppressive sense of necessity that Harry excitedly (suppressedly) takes upon himself. Phyllis does not need him, despite the fact that she is poor and he is rich, she merely prefers company and finds Harry’s romantic fussing slightly charming. Eve certainly doesn’t need Harry either, though when her father dies and she becomes aware of mortality she takes advantage of Harry’s capability of providing for a child that will not be his. It is only Harry that needs, in his stalwart role as provider, to be seen as such. These women are self sufficient, and the consternated Harry seems guilty for not being able to provide much. So he sexualizes this feeling. His voice creates swirling tapestries of narcissistic guilt in the narration: “I felt bad for leaving her”. “How could I do that to a woman I’ve been married to for 8 years” etc. At times it becomes disgusting- when Phyllis, sick and bed bound because of her pregnancy, tries to convince Harry not to marry her because he’s probably doing it out of a sense of duty, he goes to great lengths to convince her that he wants her, which is true but only because of the fact that she would be fine if he didn’t want her. It’s pathetic and violent, this insemination of his own desire into the body of another person.
And what is this desire? What’s behind the ‘want to be wanted’? Nothing but the will for desire itself. I hate to return to the flaccid penis analogy, but such is life, especially for an aging corporate man like Harry, frittering away his time on tabloid bus rides and bedroom talk about accounting. Dying to attain the illusion of his virility, Harry constructs a secret for himself. The secret, to him a convoluted mess of social affirmation, yearning and private acknowledgments, to us appears as pretty boring: Harry has two wives who don’t know about each other. But it’s the biggest thing in his life. It’s his story, and he coddles it, whispers in its ear, makes sweaty phone calls about it and juggles his schedule around it. When Harry earnestly insists “I love you” and we believe him, it’s because the sincerity with which he enunciates his “I” and confusion which surrounds his “love”. His “you” is merely grammatical. Phyllis is sensitive to this game: to his “I want you” with a silent asterisk she responds “I do love you Harry”, but knowing that Harry can’t be turned so easily, adds “And I’m so glad I do”. It’s the subjective evaluation and ownership of her love which makes Harry really want to bend in and nuzzle her as a person who really, finally understands him.
But back to the court scene, which turns out not be so unnecessary an addendum. Turns out there is no case. Just Harry, a pathetic man with a secret that is now blandly revealed in all it’s simpleness. The “decent man” brought to justice is Harry absconding out of the back of the courtroom into irrelevancy, no more belabored sexual transmogrification to hide and sweat over. The judge has it right when he predicts that Harry’s future (and that of the “basically decent man” in general) “When he’s once more a free man it won’t be a question of which woman he’ll go back to, but which woman will take him back.” The free man will realize, someday, that his activity and his decisions are irrelevant- the power lies instead in the hands of the woman who actively accepts, on her terms. That both women seem capable of doing this while also seeming unlikely to do so in Harry’s case gives them infinitely more power than the man who absconds guiltily into the curtains before the final shot.