Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double (1846) is often cited as one of the earliest representations of dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) in popular culture. In it, the protagonist Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin claims he experiences multiple senses of self, and that these other selves impact and twist his behaviour. In fact, Golyadkin pre-dates the first medical diagnosis of the disorder, which occurred in 1865, shortly followed by French neurologist Pierre Janet’s discovery that ideas could ‘split’ from a main personality whilst patients were under hypnosis.
A mental disorder that enables at least two distinct identities within one individual clearly has strong narrative potential, and authors – including Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886) and Virginia Woolf (The Waves, 1931) – structured enduring stories around the mental illness. But it was Shirley Jackson’s 1954 novel The Bird’s Nest that focused solely on the disorder, employing an inventive storytelling structure to convey the tale of a young woman trapped inside her body and mind. Jackson essentially defined what would become a popular narrative technique, and her efforts were quickly recognised by Hollywood – the book was adapted for Hugo Haas’ film Lizzie, released in 1957 and starring Eleanor Parker. So if The Bird’s Nest was the defining tale of dissociative identity disorder, Lizzie is the definitive film? Not quite.
Haas’ film was released a mere seven months before The Three Faces of Eve, itself based on a nonfiction book of the same name by psychiatrists Corbett H. Thingpen and Hervey M. Cleckley. Ironically, Thingpen and Cleckley’s tome was rushed into publication following Jackson’s success. Today, Eve remains the better-known film, partly due to Joanne Woodward’s Best Actress Award but also because it’s a better film – although that’s not to say Lizzie is without merit.
Upon it’s release, Bosely Crowther of The New York Times concluded that it was a ‘foolish and generally tedious film’ filled with ‘insight and expediation to be found only in cheap fiction’. Whilst Lizzie has moments that lag and the conclusion is wrapped up a little too neatly, it’s lifted by two performances: Parker in the title role and Joan Blondell as her Aunt Morgan. Although often accused of overacting in the role, on the whole Parker gives a great turn as a woman with three personalities – the meek and timid Elizabeth, the seductive and ‘bad’ Lizzie and the hidden Beth, the true façade.
Haas’ budget and time constraints (unconfirmed reports suggest that the entire movie was shot in less than a week) probably worked in the film’s favour here. Because the whole package is decidedly less glossy and polished, Parker’s performance feels more real and nuanced, more highly-strung and nervy. Some of the final scenes, during which Elizabeth and Lizzie battle for dominance, are slightly heavy-handed and over-labour the inner turmoil and the personality disorder. Watched with a contemporary eye, Lizzie is the most disappointing transformation. She’s played slightly too much like a caricature, her ‘sluttish swagger’ is out to charm men – she’s a budget vamp in a B-movie.
In spite of that, the visual transformation between Elizabeth and Lizzie is effective. The dowdy Elizabeth favours shapeless skirts and cardigans, flat sensible shoes and demure blouses. The vampish Lizzie is revealed simply through a smear of lipstick, a tousled updo and a tied-at-the-waist shirt. Costume designer Sabine Manela clearly knew how to work within the confines of a budget.
Joan Blondell excels as Elizabeth’s heavy drinking, dressing-gown wearing aunt, who remains something of an enigma for the duration of the film. It’s disappointing that the character as a whole feels a little under-developed – who is this relative? Where has she come from? Was her sister’s death responsible for her reliance on bourbon? – but she certainly gets the choicest lines in a film that’s dominated by hit-and-miss dialogue. For every clunky exchange (most notably the conversations with a neighbour that reveal how long Elizabeth has being seeing physiatrist Dr. Neal Wright) there’s a moment of lightness and insight – consider this exchange with her neighbour Walter (played by Haas himself): “Ahh, you’re bending the cards again. That’s why I never married. You women are always bending the cards.”
Ultimately, this is a film about mental illness. Although popular understanding of dissociative identity disorder was considerably more limited in the 1950s, Haas doesn’t shirk away from the darker sides of the affliction, hinting at murder and suicide, aspects that are missing in the more light-hearted Eve. Perhaps you must return to the source material to truly uncover what’s compelling about Lizzie – in spite of the heavy handed direction and the occasional moments of camp, this is a personal and intense study of a disorder that’s difficult to examine without exploitation or pathos. Haas almost gets it right. It’s just a shame he was too transfixed by Lizzie, a caricature vamp that reduces both the impact and the potential of the entire film.
Further reading: Life of Human Loss: Hugo Hass’s Strange Fascination