With the blunt title hitting at some kind of shocking melodrama, The Bigamist isn't a film that you go into with expectations of subtlety and twists. Director Ida Lupino still manages to do a bit more with the material than others might have done, working diplomatically with the screenplay by Collier Young to make something arguably better than it has any right to be.
Edmond O'Brien is Harry Graham, loving husband to Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine). The two are looking to adopt a child, which puts them under the scrutinising gaze of Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), and it's not long until that man discovers that Mr. Graham has a secret, another wife (Phyllis Martin, played by Lupino). In fact, he has a whole second life, something that he surely knew would be discovered when he began the adoption process.
Interestingly, especially considering the time this was made, The Bigamist takes time to show the various little moments that lead to the main character making some very foolish decisions, but it does so without constantly judging, and tutting at, all of those moments. It also lets a fairly silly plot unfold in a way that feels grounded and realistic, thanks to Young's script, and, again, I'd say that's a very pleasant surprise for the time it was made. The hardest part to swallow is the "framing device" which allows the morally-unshakeable Mr. Jordan to learn the full details of the story.
O'Brien is a decent enough lead, he's not a special man, he's just managed to get himself in a very unique situation. Fontaine and Lupino are both excellent, showing two different personalities with enough similar appeal to the lead, and it's impossible not to feel sympathy for both as you see things heading towards a third act that needs a revelatory moment on the way to some kind of punishment. Gwenn is fine, he does what he needs to do, which is mainly listen with interest as O'Brien unburdens himself of a secret that has been weighing on his mind for some time.
It's interesting to think of how this would be perceived if directed by a man, and how the material would have been executed. Lupino, an excellent director, and a woman with one of the most interesting careers to incorporate the glowing past of Hollywood (in terms of the path she took at a time when women had even less opportunities than they do today), allows everyone to be viewed with compassion. There's a man who battles his feelings until he thinks he can make everything work, and there are two women who both love that man, and are both unaware that their very presence would be a cause of pain to one another.
You know exactly what you're getting into with The Bigamist, and yet it also delivers the central message, the expected cautionary tale, with a surprising amount of care and understanding.