joan fontaine

The Bigamist was a Great Film… Except for the Title

I suppose the fact that the title spoils one of the ‘Aha!’ moments of the 1953 film The Bigamist, should bother me less than it does. But even though this reveal comes early in the film, audiences already knew it was coming… and it would have been a wonderful moment.

I suspect that this bad decision was caused by either the marketing folk sacrificing a delightful moment for a lot of box-office prurient interest (the film was on shaky financial footing pre-release) or the director wanting to stop the shock of the reveal from becoming the most important part of the film so audiences could focus on the human interest story behind it. Whatever the reason, it led to my main disappointment with this one. I would have loved to be shocked by the discovery that the main character was a bigamist instead of knowing exactly why he was worried in the first scene before it was revealed.

The other disappointment was knowing it would end badly. The Hays Code (which we hate) meant there could be no unambiguous (miraculous, seeing the mess this dude was in) happy ending allowing people to leave theaters uplifted. I don’t mind unhappy endings, but I prefer not to know it’s coming from the off. When that happens, it weighs on me all the way through the movie, the dread of bad news to come.

And the prophecy comes to pass, even if the ending isn’t as awful as some of the crime movies where everyone ends up dead.

Joan Fontaine is utterly charming in this one–an actress in her mid-thirties who was much more attractive than she herself was in her twenties, unusual as that may sound.

Anyway, you already know what the guy’s crime is, and you know it won’t end all that well… but watch it anyway. It’s a good psychological study which goes right to the heart of human emotion and is just as relevant today (perhaps more in our alienated world) as it was in 1953.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own look at human emotion is a book entitled Love and Death, a novel told in short story form following a cast of characters whose lives, unknowingly intertwined, form a single coherent narrative. I won’t tell you whether it has a happy ending, but you can check it out here.

An Unexpected Melodrama

In my mind–and I may be completely wrong–melodrama in film has two golden ages.  The first was when Lillian Gish was Hollywood’s biggest star, and the second began when producers realized that you could fill theater seats by slowly killing someone of cancer over the course fo a two-hour feature film.

I always considered the late forties to be the province of late noir and uplifting films about how life can be awesome if you just let it.  There are few important melodramas in the mix.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a significant exception to the rule.  A film with a narrative frame using one story to tell another, and then tying them together is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, in showing a crisis for one character distracts you from knowing about another’s impending problems (don’t want to give spoilers here).

It’s a story of tainted love that isn’t anyone’s fault, of misplaced ideals and of lost innocence… but it catches you by surprise.

In those illness films from the seventies, the masochistic audience always knows that they’re supposed to be suffering.  You watch the character you’ve come to care about die (or lose their love, or lose their child to something horrible) with the same numb sense of stupefaction as a cow being led to slaughter.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter is a very different kettle of fish.  Unless you already know the plot, the film itself never leads you to think that it’s anything but a period play, possibly an exciting one.  By the time you understand that you’ve been lured into the world of melodrama and that the supposed main character (who actually isn’t) has been changed into an honorable man by the events of the film… the credits are rolling.

It’s an amazing transformation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of this one before watching it.  Yes, the hammer blow at the end falls… but the memory of the film will not be the unfortunate ending but the magical lead-up.  This film deserves its place on the 1001 movies list – Max Ophüls was a genius, and his vision of Vienna in 1900 is a visual feast, even though much of the film takes place at night.

Recommended, but only if you haven’t read the review above (oops).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t really do melodrama.  He does do thrillers, though, and his novel Timeless is a good example.  You can check it out here.