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“The Bigamist”, “Letter From An Unknown Woman” and Joan Fontaine: 2013 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #1

August 6, 2013

This is my first post in the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted once again by Michael Nazarewycz (Scribe Hard On Film) and Jill Blake (Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence), and I thank them for letting me participate again this year. I must admit, I could not choose between which of these two wonderful Joan Fontaine films to write about, so I chose both. Enjoy!

In the movie Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the treacherous housekeeper, says at one point to the unnamed main character (Joan Fontaine), “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” In that particular scene, Mrs. Danvers was referring to a negligee that was under the bed cover, but she might as well have been talking about the actress playing opposite her. Though Fontaine went on to play haughty (The Emperor WaltzIvanhoe) and domineering (Born to be Bad), the image she most often played to was that of a vulnerable woman. This came through in her most famous roles, including RebeccaSuspicion (for which she won her only Oscar), and Jane Eyre. Admittedly, unless she was teamed with the right director and material, it could come off as awkward (Damsel in Distress, where she’s clearly overmatched by an otherwise fun film) or tiresome (The Constant Nymph). But along with Jane Eyre and Rebecca, she was shown off to beautiful advantage in Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953), and five years earlier in Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

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In his documentary A Personal History Through American Movies, Martin Scorsese described Ida Lupino as a director who would use film noir visuals to force the audience to share the ordeal of young women when their ideal existence was shattered by some kind of traumatic experience. If it may seem odd that Lupino – who was often called “the poor man’s Bette Davis” (to be sure, Lupino joked about this as well) in that like Davis, Lupino often played tough, hard-luck and/or neurotic characters – mostly directed films about vulnerable women (and in the case of The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a vulnerable man), Lupino made it work. Whether dealing with a parent living through her child (Hard, Fast and Beautiful), rape (Outrage), or children born out of wedlock (Not Wanted), Lupino took potentially soap-opera plots (and, in the case of Hard, Fast and Beautiful, a subject she had already explored as an actress in 1943’s The Hard Way) and directed them with a sensitivity yet toughness that, allowing for Code restrictions of the time, managed to skate past their potential soapiness. For me, the best example of this is The Bigamist.

Eve (Fontaine) and Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien).

Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien (who also starred in Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker) play Eve and Harry Graham, a couple who own a refrigerator sales company; she serves as the executive secretary, and he’s on the road much of the time as a salesman. Eve can’t have a child, so they’ve decided to adopt, and Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), their case worker, tells them he’ll have to do a routine background check on them before he can approve an adoption. Eve doesn’t mind, but Harry seems guarded; a little too guarded for Jordan (who explains to the office cleaning lady (Jane Darwell) that he doesn’t want to make a mistake where a child is concerned). While the Grahams live in San Francisco, Harry does the bulk of his business in Los Angeles, but, to Jordan’s surprise, he doesn’t appear to stay at any hotel or boarding house. While visiting the Los Angeles office Harry operates out of, Jordan notices a letter opener with the name “Harrison Graham” on it. Wondering about the discrepancy, Jordan tracks Harry to a house that night. Harry is still guarded, but apologizes for being brusque before and explains the name change (he thought “Harrison”, his real name, sounded too formal, and the phone company got it mixed up). Jordan is about to leave, satisfied, when he hears a baby crying. Turns out, of course, the baby is Harry’s.

The bulk of the rest of the movie is in flashback, as Harry tries to explain himself to a disgusted Jordan. According to Harry, when Eve found out she couldn’t have children, she became bitter until Harry suggested she join him in his business. Soon, she became successful at it (increasing sales in her first year), but ironically, it made Harry feel more lonely, as if their marriage was merely a business partnership. One day, while in Los Angeles, he decided to take a tour bus (touring the areas where Hollywood stars live), and strikes up a conversation with Phyllis Martin (Lupino), a waitress at a Chinese-American restaurant (she couldn’t care less about Hollywood stars, but she loves long bus rides). Though indifferent to Harry at first, Phyllis soon warms up to him, and they start seeing each other (mostly at the Canton Cafe, where she works, though they go other places as well). Eventually, they fell in love, but Harry felt so guilty about what he was doing to Eve he didn’t want it to go any further. As it happened, Eve had to leave town to look after her ill father, so Harry stayed in San Francisco to look after the business. When he finally returned to Los Angeles a few months later, he discovered Phyllis had quit her job at the Canton Cafe, and was pregnant. Even though Phyllis insisted she didn’t expect anything from him, Harry felt he was in the classic conundrum; he didn’t think it fair to leave Eve, yet he wanted to do right by Phyllis.

Harry and Phyllis (Lupino) during happier times.

In Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game, the character he plays remarks at one point, “The awful thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.” Lupino and writer Collier Young (working from a story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor; Young – who, interestingly enough, had divorced Lupino two years before and had married Fontaine a year later – also co-produced) operate by that principle. Everyone is treated sympathetically here – even the judge at Harry’s trial at the end says Harry is punishing himself more than any court sentence could – so when Mr. Jordan tells Harry late in the movie, “I don’t even want to shake your hand, and yet I almost wish you luck,” it feels believable, rather than a screenwriter’s contrivance. Unfortunately, to get to that point, Lupino and Young do rely a little too much on contrivance (a devastated Eve tells Harry her father has died right before he’s about to tell her he’s fathered another woman’s child), but they mostly handle it with a light enough touch that it isn’t too annoying. It would have been nice if the movie had been able to show more instead of relying so much on Harry’s voice-over narration, but that’s probably the price Lupino had to pay for working on a lower budget (or it could tie in to Scorsese’s point about Lupino using noir technique to tell non-noir stories). In contrast to some of the other films she directed (especially OutrageHard, Fast and Beautiful and The Hitch-Hiker) doesn’t contain many visual flourishes (with a couple of exceptions I’ll get to below), as she and cinematographer George E. Diskant (who also worked with her on the film On Dangerous Ground, which she directed part of; he also shot They Live by Night and The Narrow Margin) choose to shoot it simply and cleanly.*

It also helps Lupino had the cast to pull this off. One of the few visual flourishes I mentioned before is how she and Diskant always seem to emphasize how much of a cog in the machine Jordan is (as he’s about to enter a building, a crane shot always falls down from the top of the building to the bottom) and how much bureaucracy he has to go through to find out what he needs to know. Yet Jordan is someone who cares so much about his job this doesn’t matter, and Gwenn strikes the right balance between dedicated and compassionate (Lupino and Young also have a little fun with him; at the beginning, both Eve and Harry agree Jordan looks like Santa Claus, referencing his Oscar-winning role in Miracle on 34th Street, and on the tour bus Harry and Phyllis first meet on, they drive by Gwenn’s house, and Harry mentions how much he liked Gwenn as Santa Claus). Lupino had played this kind of working-class heroine many times before, but she plays Phyllis with a softer edge without pouring on the pathos. O’Brien, of course, has the toughest role, and while he admittedly overdoes both the initial hostility we see between him and Jordan at the beginning (because he’s afraid of what Jordan will find out), he also shows us the essential decency that draws both women to him, as well as the weak will that makes him unable to choose between them.

Harry and Eve at the end.

But upon watching this film a second time, Fontaine’s performance was the one that stayed with me the most. As I mentioned earlier, Harry described Eve as being bitter until she found an outlet in helping him with work, to the point where he felt more like a business partner than a husband. To that end, there’s a great scene where Eve and Harry are having dinner at home with a potential client, and while Eve is able to snare the client by being both knowledgeable and charming, when Harry tries to approach the client from a more personal level, Eve quietly but firmly steers the conversation back to business. Without ever descending into the cliche of the hard-ass career woman, Fontaine is able to pull that scene off. Yet, without ever telegraphing it, we can see it’s an act to hide the pain she feels. Later, when she’s become committed to adopting a child, you can see the woman Harry fell in love with, and the passion she does feel towards him. This, of course, makes the scene where she finds out about Harry all the more devastating. It’s not done through dialogue – Harry tells Eve simply he has to go, but he’s always loved her, and she watches, confused and upset, from their balcony as he gets into a car and is driven off – but through Eve’s reaction as Harry’s lawyer tells her on the phone. In their other major visual flourish, Lupino and Diskant move in for a close-up as Eve hears the news and tries not to cry but fails, and then pull back as she turns away and starts sobbing. And in the final scene of the film, it’s Fontaine’s reaction that Lupino focuses on, and it’s one of the reasons why The Bigamist is much better than the made-for-TV movie it may sound like.

*- The Bigamist has long been in the public domain, and there are prints where the Los Angeles scenes between Lupino and O’Brien are darker than the scenes in San Francisco between Fontaine and O’Brien. However, again, it should be stressed it’s hard to tell if this was Lupino and Diskant’s intent, or if this is simply issues with the quality of the print.

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After working with Ophuls on two films (The Reckless Moment and Caught), as well as being attached to a film Ophuls was supposed to direct but ended up never being made, James Mason composed the following ditty about him:

I think I know the reason why producers tend to make him cry

Inevitably they demand some stationary set-ups, and

A shot that does not call for tracks is agony for poor dear Max

Who, separated from his dolly, is wrapped in deepest melancholy

Once, when they took away his crane, I thought he’d never smile again.

This reliance on tracking shots (which didn’t allow for studios to do their usual post-production cutting on them; some editors at the time disliked them for the same reason) along with a desire to avoid close-ups (a stock-in-trade of any star-driven film of the time) were two of the major reasons why Ophuls, like other European emigre directors such as Jean Renoir and Robert Siodmak, left Hollywood not long after coming to it. After a bad association with Howard Hughes, and a friendship with Preston Sturges that quickly soured, Ophuls made only four films in Hollywood before returning to France (he was born in Germany) to make several of his best (and best-known) films, including La RondeLe Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame De (Lola Montes, his final film, has much to recommend it but falls short for me compared to the others). But while The Exile, a swashbuckler film he did with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was apparently cut to ribbons (I never saw it), the other three films Ophuls did in Hollywood are well worth seeking out; Caught and The Reckless Moment, the two films he did with Mason, are both terrific, and Letter From an Unknown Woman is even better.

As with many of Ophuls’ best-known (and best) films, this is set in the past, in this case Vienna in the year 1900. Stefan (Louis Jourdan) is a second-rate concert pianist who, as the film opens, is going to his house after being challenged to a duel, and remains flippant about it (“I don’t mind so much being killed, but you know how hard it is for me to get up in the morning”). As it turns out, he has no intention of keeping the engagement, and as soon as he gets home, he plans with his butler John (Art Smith) to sneak away that very night (“Honor is a luxury only gentlemen can afford”). But John hands him a letter from St. Catherine’s Hospital that begins with the line, “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” and this stops him short. It turns out the letter is from a woman named Lisa Berndle (Fontaine), a woman he’s met three times but has no memory of.

The first meeting between Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) and Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan).

As the letter, and three different flashbacks, explains, Lisa had fancied herself in love with Stefan ever since he moved into a neighboring flat when she was fourteen years old (though Fontaine was 31 when the film was released, she plays Lisa all the way through). Even before she met Stefan, Lisa was enraptured by Stefan’s playing (we see her listening, transfixed, as Stefan practices a piece by Franz Liszt, which her friend dismisses as “just noise”). The “meeting” here is nothing more than Lisa, as if on a dare, running upstairs to the door leading into his apartment, and then holding it open for Stefan, for which he courteously thanks her. Of course, he takes no other notice of her, but as embarrassed as Lisa was that she couldn’t bring herself to say anything, it was heaven otherwise. Though, in listening to and watching Stefan obsessively after that, she noticed how many women he’d bring home, that didn’t matter to Lisa; she still listened to Stefan practice as if he was playing only to her, and, as she describes in the letter, she sought to improve herself by taking dance lessons, putting an effort into her appearance, and studying the great composers he played. Then it all came apart. One day, she and her friend helped John put a rug into Stefan’s apartment, and she took the opportunity to sneak into Stefan’s practice area. As Lisa was reaching for some sheet music, it fell to the floor, and John (who’s mute) caught her; mortified, she ran out of the apartment, only to see her mother kissing another man at the foot of the stairs. Turns out, her mother (who has been a widow) is getting remarried, and she wants to move with him to Linz (her future husband Kastner is a tailor there), but Lisa refused to go. As a matter of fact, though her mother and Kastner got her as far as the train station, Lisa ran back to the apartment, which was empty. Several hours later, Stefan did return, but with another woman, and Lisa, who had planned to declare herself to Stefan, changed her mind and went to Linz.

The second meeting becomes the night of Lisa’s dreams.

The second meeting – a real one this time – took place about four years later. Lisa had stayed in Linz during that time, and when she was eighteen, her mother and stepfather had tried to arrange a marriage with Leopold (John Good), a young army lieutenant. However, as they both listened to a concert they had been brought to, Lisa lied to Leopold and told her she was secretly engaged to be married. Once again, she fled for Vienna, this time for good. Lisa got a job at a dress shop, modeling outfits for customers, and while her boss and the customers found her charming, her only thought was waiting outside his apartment every night, hoping he’d notice her. One night, her dream came true, as Stefan, after giving money to a group of street musicians, finally did notice her and started talking to her. Though Lisa was too tongue-tied to reveal much of herself, she did manage to praise Stefan’s playing (she tells him he played as if he hadn’t quite found what he was looking for, and he responded, amused, “How long have you been hiding in my piano?”), and flattered and attracted, he took her out for a night on the town, including a restaurant, an old fairground (they went on a cyclorama ride), and dancing before finally taking her back to his apartment, where she willingly submitted herself to him. The next day, Stefan found her at her workplace, and told her he had to leave that night for a concert tour, but he’d be back in two weeks. Lisa kept her hopes up when he invited her to see him off at the train station that night (and told her, “I don’t want to go. Can you believe that?”), but as the train leaves the station, we hear Lisa’s voice-over say, “That train was taking you out of my life.”

The final page of the letter from an “unknown” woman.

The third and final meeting happened ten years later. When Stefan left Vienna that time, he left behind both Lisa and the son she’d have from him (whom she names Stefan Jr.; she also refuses to tell the nuns at the hospital who the father is). Despite the fact she was an illegitimate mother, Lisa was eventually able to marry Johann (Marcel Journet), an Austrian aristocrat who doted on both of them (we see Lisa ask Stefan Jr. (Leo B. Pessin), who has apparently inherited his birth father’s talent for music, to call Johann “father”). One night, ten years after their last meeting, Lisa and Johann attended a production of The Magic Flute. During the intermission between the first and second acts, Lisa heard several of the other concert-goers talking about Stefan, who had just arrived (talking mostly about the promising talent he had wasted). Pleading a headache some time into the second act, Lisa tried to flee the concert, but as she was waiting for her carriage, Stefan joined her. He still didn’t remember her, but while he’s was longer the musician he was, he hadn’t lost his capacity for flirting, and he tried to get her to see him later. Lisa put him off temporarily, but she was clearly torn between what she had and her feelings towards Stefan, and Johann warned her she’d have to choose between one and the other, with no turning back. One day, she put Stefan Jr. on a train (an action that, unbeknownst to her, would seal both of their fates), and then went to see Stefan for one last time while unbeknownst to her, Johann followed her. She found Stefan at his apartment, and everything seemed magical again, at first. But as they started to talk, and Lisa tried to tell him about their son, she began to realize just how shallow and unworthy he was, especially since he couldn’t even remember who she was. With a heavy heart, she left the flowers she had bought for him, and walked out of his life for good.

As Richard Corliss points out in his seminal critical study of Hollywood screenwriters Talking Pictures, writer Howard Koch (adapting the short story by Stefan Zweig) deserves a lot of credit for this movie as well; Koch was a screenwriter and playwright who often used letters as a plot device (most famously in Casablanca), or worked on films where it was used the same way (the Bette Davis film The Letter and Otto Preminger’s remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, called The Thirteenth Letter), and though wildly different in tone, the film does contain echoes of Casablanca, from the fact the man knows so little about the woman he’s involved with to the train station. And Koch works completely in sync with Ophuls in showing how love (or, in a way, lust) can be both magical (setting part of their big evening at a circus, full of magic and make-believe – particularly the cyclorama sequence – is a perfect metaphor for how magical, and fleeting, love and lust can be) and heartbreaking (the final meeting). Koch’s dialogue is also terrific, capturing both the smooth tones of Stefan the seducer (when Lisa tries to tell them about their son, he brushes her off by saying, “We can’t possibly be serious this early in the morning”), but also the supporting characters, such as the halting tones of Leopold when he’s trying to court Lisa (“I have every reason to believe that your parents are not opposed to my keeping company”).

I mention the bit players and supporting characters because it’s something that tends to get overlooked when it comes to Ophuls and his roving camera (the cinematographer here is Franz Planer, who worked with Ophuls in Germany, as well as on the ill-fated The Exile). Obviously, the moving camera is intended to capture the sweeping emotion that’s churning underneath his characters, and it does so here, as in the scene where Lisa runs out of Stefan’s apartment only to be confronted with her mother and another man, or Lisa at the opera when she first hears Stefan is there. But even though the story is focuses almost obsessively on Lisa and Stefan (which does make sense, of course), Ophuls is careful not to lose sight of of the people around them, from the ever-present John (who, unlike Stefan, remembers full well who Lisa was),  Lisa’s boss at the dress shop (who wonders where she goes and what she does) to Johann (who becomes *very* important before the story ends) and even to the orchestra that plays for Lisa and Stefan when they’re dancing (you hear a few of them complaining about how late it is, and how they wish they were playing for a couple who was married and would therefore know to leave early). In his book Movie Love in the Fifties, James Harvey praised Ophuls for this aspect in The Reckless Moment – calling it an example of how acutely Ophuls captures Americana in the film – but it’s present in all of Ophuls’ best films. And even though this is Hollywood Vienna and not the real Vienna (Alexander Golitzen did the art direction, while Russell A. Gausman and Ruby R. Levitt did the set direction), Ophuls is able to incorporate the city in his theme of both the magic, and fragility, of love (and given the magic part, Hollywood Vienna makes sense).

Finally, the two leads are terrific. In his career in Hollywood, Jourdan would complain of being typecast in the Charles Boyer role of the continental lover. Ophuls’ film was only Jourdan’s second movie in Hollywood (the first being Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case), so the typecasting hadn’t quite taken hold enough for Jourdan to look bored on screen. What’s more, Ophuls and Koch may play to the stereotype, but they also deepen it, as they show a man whose talent (which is partly why he’s able to play the seducer so well) has never been fulfilled; they also change Zweig’s ending slightly, giving Stefan a measure of dignity and making the conclusion all the more heartbreaking. But it’s Fontaine, of course, who carries this. When I watched this again, I had forgotten Fontaine played Lisa all the way through, and not only does this make sense from a story perspective, Fontaine handles this transition adroitly. Not only that, but while you remember the major emotional scenes she has, Fontaine is able to play the surface trying to hide those emotions equally well. Her final scene with Stefan is proof of this, when she’s finally able to see him for what he is, rather than what she thinks he is. Her face is churning with emotion, and she’s trying desperately not to cry, but somehow, she’s able to keep her voice under control as she talks to Stefan. It’s a masterful piece of acting, and one of many reasons why Letter From an Unknown Woman remains a career high for her, for Ophuls, and for everyone involved.

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4 Comments
  1. Excellent piece, I would agree that these two films are among Fontaine’s best with Letter being her best performance. I have to admit that I’m not her biggest fan, I don’t dislike her work generally but she doesn’t often impress me either. Actually did any actress have a more dramatic change of persona than she from dewy vulnerability to brittle hard edged sophistication in so short a time? Sometime after Letter from an Unknown Woman, with rare exceptions, she changed from sweet ingénues to a silky brand of villainy or if not a villain a tough, haughty and glacial character. Perhaps that was closer to real life, I’ve often read that she is a cold, frosty woman who was not well liked on her sets or by the press. Reading her book did not diffuse that impression, she came across on the page as distant. I know she is estranged from all her children, all of whom talk to their aunt Olivia de Havilland.

    However in Letter from an Unknown Woman she catches that sad, misty longing helped immeasurably by her director and cinematographer. Ophuls’ Hollywood films are wonderful, I especially love The Reckless Moment, but I think his style wasn’t suited for the time he was there. His films always have a more dreamy 30’s/von Sternberg feeling than the late 40’s when hard edged noir was the current thing.

    Which brings me to Ida Lupino as a director. I haven’t seen all the films she directed but of the ones I have, with the exception of the highly enjoyable but giddy The Trouble With Angels, they all have that hard edge mixed with a smattering of vulnerability that was a common factor in noir as well as her onscreen presence. Interesting that The Bigamist was the only time she directed herself considering that she was a prolific TV director and a respected name actress until her retirement, she must have found it unsatisfying.

    • Thanks for the reply, Joel! I must confess I don’t pay attention to an actor’s off-screen behavior (unless they do something like kill someone), so I never heard anything about Fontaine’s coldness in real life. I wasn’t always a fan of hers – she was awkward and out of place in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS – but when she was on, she was very good, as I think she was in these two films, REBECCA, and JANE EYRE.

      It may well have been that Lupino didn’t like the experience of directing herself, but after Chaplin and Keaton stopped making films, director/actors weren’t really a thing again until the late 60’s/early 70’s, when people like Woody Allen and John Cassavetes started doing it (Paul Newman directed his wife more often than he directed himself, I think). I must admit I could never get into THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS, but I’ve enjoyed the other films she directed, and I agree about the mix of vulnerability with the hard edge that she brought to both the films she directed and the ones she performed in.

  2. I have to agree with Joel:

    I’ve never been a huge Joan Fontaine fan, but after reading so many glowing recommendations on her performance in Letter From an Unknown Woman I must give it a go. As for The Bigamist, I have nothing but respect for Ida Lupino, so this is going right to the top of my list.

    Really excellent essay, Sean. Thanks so much.

    • Thanks, Jill! I admit, Fontaine could be annoying (as I said, THE CONSTANT NYMPH is this way to me), but LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN is one of the all-time greats, so it’s definitely worth it even if you’re not the biggest fan of hers.

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