This photo of Eleanor Parker is the current wallpaper on my laptop screen:
…and I’ve decided it’s time to change it, simply because it gets in the way of my work. Every now and then, while I’m working, I need to move to the desktop to open a folder or file that’s there. Invariably, I end up gaping at the gorgeous Ms Parker and forgetting all about why I’d arrived at the desktop in the first place.
More to the point: today, June 26, 2012, is the 90th birthday of this very beautiful actress, best-known for her role as the Baroness in The Sound of Music (I have reviewed a couple of other films of hers, including Scaramouche and The Naked Jungle). Eleanor Parker, however, was not just exquisitely lovely, but also a fine actress. And this film is a good showcase for her abilities as a thespian.
Lizzie begins in a museum. The day’s work is just starting, and two of the women employees walking in are discussing their schedule for the day—and wondering if Elizabeth will be coming in or not. Or will she have another of her perennial headaches?
But Elizabeth—Elizabeth Richmond (Eleanor Parker)—does come in soon after. She’s dressed very conservatively (even severely); her shoes are flat-heeled and practical, her hat and coat dowdy, and her face devoid of any makeup.
Her personality seems to be reflected in her appearance. Elizabeth is a quiet young woman, obviously an introvert who would rather be left to herself. She admits to her friend and colleague Ruth (Marion Ross) that she does have a headache, but goes off to her office despite that. From the way Elizabeth drags her feet and hauls herself up by the railing while Ruth trips lightly upstairs, it’s apparent that Elizabeth really isn’t well.
In her office, Elizabeth finds something on her desk that distresses her and sends her calling in a panic to Ruth. Ruth comes, and has a look. It’s a badly scrawled note from someone named Lizzie, threatening to kill Elizabeth.
“It’s just someone trying to tease you,” Ruth says reassuringly, as she tries to comfort her friend. But Elizabeth cannot be consoled; she is certain that this unseen Lizzie is hell-bent on killing Elizabeth. But why? And who on earth is Lizzie?
Despite Ruth’s best attempts, Elizabeth remains very distressed, even when she’s back in her office and trying to get her work done. It turns out, also, that this seemingly dedicated employee is falling short when it comes to her work: her boss phones her to remind her of some work that is long overdue—and Elizabeth, stammering and nervous, reassures him that she thought she’d completed the task, but must have forgotten.
There is something obviously the matter with Elizabeth.
That evening, we are introduced to the person Elizabeth lives with: her Aunt Morgan (Joan Blondell), Elizabeth’s mother’s sister. Aunt Morgan is a die-hard bourbon drinker, and has already imbibed quite a bit by the time Elizabeth comes home. Elizabeth refuses bourbon; she doesn’t drink—she’d much rather have a cup of cocoa. Aunt Morgan scoffs. Cocoa! Pooh.
But Elizabeth has more important things to discuss with Aunt Morgan than the relative merits and demerits of cocoa and bourbon. “Have you ever thought you were losing your mind?” she asks timidly, when she’s finally managed to get Aunt Morgan to sit down and listen to her.
When Aunt Morgan asks Elizabeth what makes her think she is losing her mind, Elizabeth is confused, and admits that she doesn’t know.
…though she gives an illustration. Sometimes at night, when she can’t sleep, she gets up and goes to the mirror. “…and I stare at myself,” she says, “and—and something strange seems to happen. It’s as if somebody else was staring back at me!” She says she ends up wondering who she is.
But Elizabeth does worry, and isn’t able to get to sleep again that night. She gets out of bed, goes to her dressing table, sits down and looks at herself in the mirror—and her expression, her demeanour, undergoes a sudden change. Instead of the timid, anxious-eyed Elizabeth, the woman in the mirror has sultry, excited eyes and an almost predatory smile.
Elizabeth hurriedly pulls out a drawer and quickly does up her eyes, dons lipstick, and pulls her hair up.
Later that night, she turns up in Rick’s Tavern. This is an Elizabeth nobody—not Aunt Morgan, not anybody at the museum—would recognise. She’s bold and brassy, swinging her cardigan over her shoulder and making eyes at the men in the tavern. Within moments of entering the tavern, she’s flirted with a man and got him to buy her a drink—a bourbon.
Further down the bar counter, Elizabeth sees her co-worker, Johnny Valenzo, sitting with a blonde. In a trice, Elizabeth’s sashayed over to him and begun flirting with him, much to his surprise. She gets him to buy her a drink, calls him Robin, and invites him to get comfortable with her at a corner table. Valenzo, of course, knows her as Elizabeth. But Elizabeth is brutal in her assertion that she is not Elizabeth; she is Lizzie.
In fact, Lizzie is so annoyed at the mere thought of Elizabeth that she gets all riled up. Snatching a pencil and tearing a menu card in half, she scribbles a note: telling Elizabeth that she, Lizzie, is having a ball—“while you, silly thing, are asleep!” She signs off with an ominous “I think I will kill you,” and signs as Lizzie, before popping the note into her handbag, maliciously saying that ‘that silly thing’ will find it the next day.
Valenzo is thoroughly confused, but Elizabeth/Lizzie rudely shakes him off when he tries to ask questions.
The next morning, at her office in the museum, quiet and tired-looking Lizzie (again with a headache) is shocked to find Valenzo trying to get fresh with her. He calls her Lizzie, tells her that they had a great time the previous night, and invites her out again on a date.
Elizabeth’s brisk and shocked reaction puzzles Valenzo. He does have an ace up his sleeve: he goes to her handbag, pulls out the nasty note ‘Lizzie’ had written the previous night in Rick’s Tavern, and brandishes it in front of Elizabeth, who can’t understand what this is all about.
Meanwhile, the scene’s shifted to Elizabeth and Aunt Morgan’s home. Aunt Morgan has been finding her bourbon bottles emptier than she ever made them, and has reached the obvious conclusion: Elizabeth—quiet, sweet, bourbon-hating Elizabeth—has been drinking on the sly.
While out throwing away the empty bottles, Aunt Morgan meets their old neighbour, a writer named Walter (Hugo Haas, who was also the director of Lizzie).
Walter has a soft corner for Aunt Morgan, and she confides in him, telling him all about Elizabeth’s odd behaviour—the usual timidity, the headaches and forgetfulness, and these completely unexpected occasions when, behind Aunt Morgan’s back, she empties bottle after bottle of bourbon. Walter listens carefully, then suggests Elizabeth see a psychiatrist. He even suggests someone he knows.
Aunt Morgan says there’s no chance; Elizabeth won’t even go to a doctor for her headaches, let alone going to a psychiatrist. Walter later tries, on his own, to suggest it to Elizabeth herself—when she’s setting out for work—but she refuses.
However, after that unsettling episode in which Johnny Valenzo reveals ‘Lizzie’ and the threatening note, Elizabeth decides to go and meet the doctor, after all.
Dr Wright (Richard Boone) is interested, gentle, and reassuring. He asks Elizabeth a few questions—about her headaches, her memory, and so on—and then asks her if she’d be willing to undergo a brief hypnosis.
Elizabeth is initially very reluctant, but finally agrees, after Dr Wright’s assured her that he will not, even while she is under hypnosis, be able to make her do anything she doesn’t really want to do.
So Elizabeth sits in a comfortable chair, and Dr Wright hypnotises her, quietly talking to her and putting her to sleep—and then beginning to ask questions.
Suddenly, the nervous Elizabeth’s face changes, and in front of Dr Wright, sitting in the chair with her eyes closed, is the malicious Lizzie, sneering at stupid Elizabeth, telling Dr Wright that she is not Elizabeth, she is Lizzie. Lizzie, who likes to have a wild time, who is getting “stronger and stronger”, and who will someday kill weak-kneed, spineless Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, when Dr Wright ends the session, has no idea what has happened. Her first words—“Did I say something embarrassing?”—are a good reflection on Elizabeth’s usual prim and proper demeanour. Lizzie is gone, and Elizabeth is back again. Dr Wright, later dictating his notes to himself, points out that this seems to be a case of a dual personality: the shy, timid Elizabeth and the boisterous, nasty Lizzie—with Lizzie a stronger personality, who may well subdue Elizabeth.
But there’s more to come. Because, a few weeks down the line, during one of their sessions, Dr Wright hypnotises Elizabeth… and the woman who speaks to him is neither the reticent Elizabeth nor the wild Lizzie, but a sweet, lovely young woman who calls herself Beth, and who (when Dr Wright asks her if she would like to help Elizabeth) agrees instantly.
Equally importantly, who will win? Will it be Elizabeth? Beth? Or Lizzie?
What I didn’t like about this film:
Although my usual style is to list what I liked first, I’ll begin by listing what I didn’t like.
Although multiple personality disorders have been made the subject of films over the years, Lizzie was one of the earliest (coincidentally enough, another similar film—The Three Faces of Eve—was made in the same year as this one).
As a basis for a plot Elizabeth’s multiple personality disorder is good, even intriguing; as the only element of the plot, it left me feeling a little short-changed. The first half of the film sets the scene for Elizabeth finally going to a psychiatrist; the rest is about what Dr Wright is able to unearth from her past to account for her behaviour—and that’s it. It’s a mite too straightforward.
What I’d have liked as an addition to the psychological basis of the film was something more: say, a suspense angle (as in High Wall, or Hitchcock’s superb Spellbound). Or, a more convoluted way of discovering what lies beneath Elizabeth’s split personality (as in Raat aur Din). What it is, is an engrossing film, but one which had me saying, “That’s it?” when it ended. I honestly thought there was more coming up; ‘The End’ came as a weak, unfulfilling, abrupt surprise.
What I liked about this film:
Eleanor Parker. I must admit I haven’t seen too many Eleanor Parker films, and the ones I have seen (with the exception of Home From the Hill) generally had her merely acting the beautiful heroine (or the heroine’s rival), with little to do except be coquettish and sometimes snide. Lizzie gives Ms Parker lots of scope to show off that she could act—and very well too.
The scenes in front of her bedroom mirror, or in Dr Wright’s consulting room, when we see (in front of our very eyes) the wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly Elizabeth turn into the catty Lizzie are especially amazing. Even when she’s wearing Elizabeth’s frumpy clothes and doesn’t have a speck of makeup on her face, Lizzie is easily recognisable as Lizzie: mean, catty, out to harm Elizabeth.
Happy birthday, Ms Parker!