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