Lizzie (1957)

US / 80 minutes / bw / Bryna, MGM Dir: Hugo Haas Pr: Jerry Bresler Scr: Mel Dinelli Story: The Bird’s Nest (1954) by Shirley Jackson Cine: Paul Ivano Cast: Eleanor Parker, Richard Boone, Joan Blondell, Hugo Haas, Ric Roman, Dorothy Arnold, John Reach, Marion Ross, Johnny Mathis, Karen Green, Carol Wells.

Lizzie - 4 Johnny Mathis sings

25-year-old Elizabeth Richmond (Parker) is a repressed, hypochondriacal, insecure museum worker who defies all the efforts of friendly colleague Ruth Seaton (Ross) to bring her out of her shell; she rebuffs almost tearfully the advances of the museum’s cut-price lothario, Johnny Valenzo (Roman). A particular source of misery is that she keeps finding poisonous letters on her desk or in her purse from someone signing themselves Lizzie.

Lizzie - 1 the first time Aunt Morgan encounters Lizzie

The first time Aunt Morgan (Joan Blondell) encounters the snarling Lizzie (Eleanor Parker).

One night, however, the timid Elizabeth startles the hard-drinking unsupportive aunt with whom she lives, Morgan James (Blondell), by suddenly snarling at her, “You drunken old slut!” Later that night, transformed into the predatory vamp Lizzie, she goes out to a club (where the young Johnny Mathis is the singer) and picks up Valenzo, the two of them making whoopee until the small hours. When Elizabeth palely complains of a headache next morning, a wrathful Aunt Morgan suggests this might not be unconnected with the fact that the other half of Morgan’s bottle of bourbon vanished overnight.

Their neighbor, writer Walter Brenner (Haas), who keeps a benevolent eye on Elizabeth and an interested one on Morgan, suggests Elizabeth might visit his friend, psychiatrist Neal Wright (Boone). Wright promptly persuades Elizabeth to let him hypnotize her, and soon, under his ministrations, the Lizzie personality emerges. Some while later he also discovers a third personality dwelling within the woman’s body: Beth, the woman Elizabeth could be were it not for the vengeful secondary personality Lizzie.

Lizzie - 2 neighbor Walter advises Morgan

Neighbor Walter (Hugo Haas) advises Morgan (John Blondell) on how to cope with her troublous niece.

Through Beth, Wright is able to establish the first of the “blocks” that have so hampered Elizabeth, the time when, aged 9, she (Green) came across her slatternly mother (Arnold) necking on the beach with vile boyfriend Robin (Reach), the two of them discussing how if they could only get rid of “the brat” they could run off to Mexico. (This explains why Lizzie—although Valenzo could care less—always addresses Valenzo as Robin.)

Lizzie - 3 Wright dictates notes after first session with Elizabeth

Psychiatrist Wright (Richard Boone) dictates notes after first session with Elizabeth.

There’s a much darker incident in Elizabeth’s past that she’s been keeping a secret from herself. On the evening of her 13th birthday her mother came home drunk with Robin and, when the young Elizabeth (Wells) pushed her, dropped dead of an alcoholism-induced heart attack. Wright gets her to confront this event—and persuades her of her innocence—through, with the aid of Walter and Morgan, re-enacting the fateful birthday party.

Lizzie - 5 the first time Elizabeth encounters Lizzie

The first time Elizabeth encounters Lizzie (both Eleanor Parker).

But what even Morgan doesn’t know is what happened immediately after the mother’s death, when Robin drove Elizabeth by menaces into her bedroom and raped her . . .

Lizzie - 6 Robin, lust in mind, advances on the young Elizabeth . . .

Robin (John Reach), lust in mind, advances on the young Elizabeth (Carol
Wells) . . .

Lizzie - 7 . . . even as she retreats

. . . even as she retreats.

Lizzie was released a little over seven months before the far better known The Three Faces of Eve (1957) dir Nunnally Johnson, based on the recently published book of the same name by Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley. At one point in Lizzie, presumably to dissociate this movie from the “Eve” case, Wright refers to a book on an instance of multiple-personality by US psychiatrist Morton Prince, likely (although it’s not named) Prince’s The Dissociation of a Personality (1906), about the Christine Beauchamp case. Of course, Jackson’s novel likewise predated the Thigpen/Cleckley book.

The movie is marred by Haas’s typically rather stodgy direction, and the cinematography is similarly flat. Parker does well with the personality transformations when she’s undergoing Wright’s hypnosis, but she’s less sure at other times when shedding Elizabeth’s demure mask to become the lascivious Lizzie: a gleam of the eye, a lick of the teeth, a twist of the lip . . . and you feel that all that’s missing is a maniacal cackle for the borrowing from a Universal horror flick to be complete. Boone is more than competent in support, and there’s a very appealing performance from Ross in the small role of Elizabeth’s pal. Among the rest of the supporting cast, Wells is quite outstanding as the 13-year-old Elizabeth.

Blondell turns in a sensational performance as the boozy old aunt who takes out her loathing for her dead sister on the unfortunate child of that sister. While it’s always a treat to see Blondell at full wattage, she may for this very reason not have been the ideal actress for the role: in the scenes where she and Parker interact, it’s Parker who should be drawing our attention and our interest, not Blondell. It isn’t that Blondell is deliberately upstaging the younger actress, simply that the force of her personality sort of stamps itself on the celluloid.

18 thoughts on “Lizzie (1957)

  1. As a fan of both Shirley Jackson and Joan Blondell I’d love to see this movie. But I’m too damn cheap to pay for cable TV. So I’m out of luck until some enterprising person illegally uploads the movie to YouTube. ;^)

    Morton Prince’s book was very popular with mystery writers, too. Harriette Ashbrook wrote one of the earliest murder mysteries incorporating MPD and cited not only Prince’s book but an obscure book by Danish psychiatrist August Wimmer who pioneered the field of study involving dissociative identity disorder as early as the 1900s. I won’t give the title of the Ashbrook’s book (published in 1933) unless you want the ending ruined. Though any educated reader these days will see through the potential surprise very early.

    So glad I finally visited this blog (now bookmarked). I could spend the entire day reading your posts! I will have to buy a copy of your book soon. I’m fiendishly obsessed with crime movies and all things cinematically “noirish” as much as I am with crime novels.

    • How very good to see you here. As you’re presumably aware, I’ve been following Pretty Sinister Books for a while, and enjoying it a lot. The only difficulty, aside from finding free reading time for the delectable books you review, is finding the books themselves!

      Thanks for this very useful background info on books relating to MPD. If I get the time (I’m bang up against a tough deadline right now) I might add in the names, etc., of a few other MPD-based movies. I’m always concerned, though, about the use of MPD as a device in a mystery novel, because it seems to open the gates wide for abuse of the mystery novel’s ethos. Or something.

  2. Hmmmm. i have not seen this this, though I am a big fan of THE THREE FACES OF EVE. Your very strong regard for Blondell’s performance alone would seem to make it a must-see, but obviously there is more here, including the source by Shirley Jackson of “The Lottery” fame. I do understand you are not so pleased with the listless direction and camerawork though. Terrific review and screen caps here!

    • Thanks as always for the kind words, Sam. As you guess, Blondell alone here is worth the price of admission, but there’s a standout performance in a small role from Carol Wells, too, as the young Elizabeth. Certainly the movie is, despite its various shortcomings, well worth 80 minutes of your time. There’s plenty to hold the attention.

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  4. Great post and nice stills! Sadly this looks like it might be impossible to find in the UK but I’ll keep my eyes peeled. I’m a particular fan of Blondell (she pops up in Grease if I’m not mistaken?) so that alone should make it worthwhile!

    • Many thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words!

      Yes, Blondell was indeed in Grease — shamefully, I had to go and look that up. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since coming across her in things like Night Nurse (1931) and The Famous Ferguson Case (1932). In the former movie, and in plenty of others where she was the sassy best friend of the leading lady, she seems almost to have defined that role; all through the movies of the 1930s and 1940s there are other actresses playing exactly that role, right down to the mannerisms. Yet she was triumphantly capable of so much more. A much underestimated actress, if you ask me.

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