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Jean Seberg is absolutely captivating in this film. Yes despite the wig
she wears, due to the fact her hair was cropped short for her previous
films, she is as lovely as ever. One of my favorite films of all time
and certainly the best one that deals with insanity in and honest and
true way, not only avoiding the cliché' but completely reversing it and
debunking the stereotype. Robert Rossen is a great director, one of
history's most under-appreciated and few others could helm this story
the way he does. Based on the novel by J.R. Salamanca, the story is of
a young war vetern who returns home and seeks a job at the local mental
institute. There he gets too involved with several of the patients and
learns much about their past, which reflects the tragedy in his own
life involving his mother.
It's true Warren Beatty does play the role blandly and stiff. While that's a turn off for many people watching the film, I think they fail to understand that just like Ryan O'Neil in Barry Lyndon, it's the character they're playing. Not the actor and certainly not the direction. Wonderful supporting cast from Kim Hunter and Peter Fonda as well as a brilliant cameo by Gene Hackman, which oozes of a marriage gone sour in his bit part.
It's a very hard film to figure out because so much is left untold and rightfully so leaving the audience to decide what happened. Playing on the fable of the past coming back to haunt us it plays deeply on buried memories and traumatic life experiences that were covered up rather than confronted. There is so much positive to say about this amazing film, but even so it's actress Jean Seberg that is the crown jewell in this picture. Criminally underseen, now that it is on DVD anyone interested in deep character studies should make it a point to watch this ASAP.
Jean Seberg was a woefully inadequate actress in almost every role in
which she was cast but she seemed born to play Lilith, the unstable,
deeply amoral 'heroine' of Robert Rossen's last film. It's an
extraordinary performance and it's extraordinary because it doesn't
appear to have anything to do with 'acting'; it just seems to exist.
The theme of the film is madness, not 'mental illness' but madness in
the truly Shakespearean sense of the word, and everything about the
film is heightened, a little unreal. Eugen Schufftan photographs the
film in a hazy monochrome with the emphasis on white. We peer at the
characters through shafts of sunlight, (and there is a lot of water on
And Seberg isn't the only extraordinary performance. There is excellent work, too, from Warren Beatty as the young nurse drawn into Lilith's web, Kim Hunter as the woman who runs the institution where Lilith is housed and Peter Fonda, (the best of his early performances) as another patient obsessed with Lilith. Indeed the whole cast, (which includes a brilliant, early cameo from Gene Hackman), is working at the top of their form.
The film is an adaptation of a J R Salamanca novel but Rossen renders it in wholly visual terms. He uses his camera the way an artist uses his canvas to convey the inner lives of his characters. It isn't a total success. There are times when it dissolves into hysteria and the symbolism tends to get a bit top-heavy, but it is still a fearless, totally uncommercial movie, possibly it's director's best, and a key American movie of the sixties.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Lilith' is an overpoweringly claustrophobic film - I left the cinema
gasping for air. Although it sometimes rather self-consciously strains for
poetry, there is very little like it in American cinema. Not only is
'Lilith', like its characters, largely restricted to one setting - an
asylum for the rich - it is locked in the heads of two protagonists, who
filter the world with their mental imbalance. There is no respite, we can
never stand outside them, stand back. Imagine 'Vertigo' if Judy hadn't
revealed to us who she is. Sometimes it's too much. The only other film I
can compare it with is 'Curse of the Cat People', another twisted fairy
overwhelmed by the subjectivity of its alienated protagonist.
Like many fairy tales, 'Lilith' opens with a stranger entering an enchanted realm, walking up an avenue towards a 'castle' with huge rolling grounds, an island surrounded by a sea of forest. It is Vincent Bruce (a beautiful Warren Beatty, a sad James Dean shorn of all the mannerisms), an ex-soldier who has come to work in this sanitorium. Only very later on do we discover that his own mother was mad. Before we know what the place is, we might think we've entered a dream, such is the suspended nature of the grounds, the reflections of the light giving a magical sparkle. But it is a nightmare too, as Bruce passes what look like zombies, shattered people locked in their own world, petrified. One doctor calls them singularly brilliant people who got too close to revelation and were destroyed by it.
One of the problems faced by films on this subject matter - from 'King of Hearts' and 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' to 'Smiling Suicide Club' is the tendency to allegorise, to suggest that rather than looking at a specific group of people with genuine problems, we are actually looking at a metaphor for America, a capitalist system that has crippled its servants, about the emotional cost of the struggle for wealth and status. How offensive would it be if we used the disabled or AIDS sufferers in the same way? Rossen, of course, was a Communist, and I don't think he avoids this wider political dimension here, but mercifully he works out the surface narrative properly, never betraying his characters and their world.
the film opens with a kind of Chinese shadowplay of sinister webs; and later the doctor will use this metaphor to describe the difference between 'normal' people, with their unthinkingly ordered webs, and the schizophrenically insane, with their nightmare constructions. The story itself could be described in similar terms, with Bruce, and the viewer, as the innocent fly caught in Lilith's nightmare web. It's crucial, however, that we think of Bruce as at the very least on the verge of mental breakdown himself. The film's chronology is appropriately suspended, so it's not clear what war he fought in, but its physical scars have had a traumatic psychological effect. Even before we discover his mother's past, we wonder how Bruce ever got into a position of responsibility in the asylum - his blank gaze, his withdrawn personality, his difficulty with communication, never mind his tendency to hallucinate and watch, as he gibbers, Japanese World War Two victories on TV, show someone as emotionally fragile as Lilith.
When Lilith and Bruce meet, different worlds collide. Lilith, appropriately, is a sphinx-like figure, who talks in unanswerable epigrams, communicates in a language only she understands, whose 'insanity' seems disturbingly sane, as she, siren-like, destroys all the males in her wake, turning Bruce into a knight-cum-killer, Stephen into a despairing suicide. God knows what she whispers to the boys. Yet the recreation of her world, linked to water, nature, sun, archetypally female principles (and Lilith was biblically the first woman) inscrutable, pregnant with mystery and seeming truth, is extremely, dubiously, beautiful.
She is destructive and creative, as all artists must. Bruce is wholly destructive, someone who obliterates the boundaries between helper and patient, exploiter and lover, insane and sane, just as the film crosses from Lilith's unseen, all-seeing point of view, powerful because disembodied, her body being the 'cause' of her 'madness', to Bruce's domineering (again like the viewer), treacherous gaze. The final killing is ambiguous - how much do we infer, in Bruce's motives, jealousy, male insecurity at alternate sexualities, his mother's past (the mirror (photographed) image of Lilith, another reference to 'Vertigo', men trying to dress women up according to the past), his military training. He is the critic, the man who discusses and analyses Lilith, finally killing the artist. The visualisation of his breakdown, as narrative and point of view fragments, must surely have influenced Polanski and Scorcese in 'Repulsion' and 'Taxi Driver'.
Although a handful of his films are of undoubted quality, Rossen has always been too wordy a director for my tastes, too in love with the sound of his own voice. There are a lot of words in 'Lilith', but at last, Rossen has managed to make them serve a complex pattern of sound and image, rather than tell the whole story themselves. His compositions here are stunning, alternating wide, melancholy, almost Resnaisian spaces you could get lost in, with close ups and mid-shots that seem ready to burst the screen, while miraculously, coolly avoiding a hysteria the subject could so easily have descended into.
This film was referred to me by a classmate at the U.S. Navy school I
was attending in mid-1965. I was a naive young sailor who invariably
felt like I didn't fit in. I had felt very connected with James Dean,
specifically in REBEL WITHOUT a CAUSE -- talk about a misunderstood
young man! Being a bit disturbed seemed to work with both James and
myself when attracting kind-hearted and trusting young women.
That being said, and having no idea what the movie was about, I paid my dime (at the base theater), entered, visited the snack bar and proceeded to have my whole world altered. Warren Beatty a kindred spirit -- honest, compassionate, trusting and vulnerable, with a few secrets of his own best kept buried deep within. Jean Seaberg was a vision of desire, sensuality, and intrigue, with more than enough dark secrets herself to draw me and Warren into her world like the largest, strongest magnet on Earth. Before long the co-stars were as one in Lilith's playground. I quickly followed eagerly -- her world looked far better than any I had ever seen or imagined. I was lead on a fabulous, ALICE IN WONDERLAND journey where, while much was familiar, I wasn't at all sure which way was up.
As the movie ended I still had no sense of direction. Hoping to gain greater understanding of where I had ended up and how to return to the "real" world, although I was not entirely sure I wanted to, I exited the theater, paid another dime and returned to my still-warm seat.
No answer was forthcoming -- only more questions, as I re-entered Lilith's wonderland. I think I have never left, nor do I have even the slightest desire to.
This forgotten, totally under-appreciated film from 1964 is very powerful (I
believe it was Robert Rossen's last film). Strangely hypnotic and
frightening in a very subtle way, this showed Beatty three years before B&C
showing the potential he had in Splendor in the Grass. He also met Gene
Hackman while making this and later cast him as his brother in B&C which
There is also a splendid performance from Peter Fonda, of all people. As Hackman's wife, Jessica Walter showed how amazing she was at a relatively young age and just never got the right parts in decent films. You'll also see a young Rene Auberjenois and Olympia Dukakis in a bit part. I hope more people look into this devastating piece on mental illness.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When filmmakers are coming to the end of their lives, occasionally they
make a film that transcends their place in cinema. Such a film is
Lilith. Robert Rossen was a fine and highly competent director, but,
even in 'The Hustler', there was no sign in his work that he could make
anything quite as jaw-dropping as Lilith. Rossen was dying when he made
this film, and his veteran cinematographer, Eugene Shufftan was also
getting very old. It seems to me that they both thought 'we won't get
another chance like this' and went for broke.
Lilith shows the very best of Rossen, the very best of Shufftan and the very best of Jean Seberg - the 60s' most luminously beautiful star. I have read J R Salmanca's novel, and it weaves a wonderful spell. In the up-market asylum, Salamanca found a metaphorical island somewhat like that in 'The Tempest' where pure aspects of the human psyche could be explored - particularly that most precious and fundamental aspect, love.
Indeed, the film deals in visual/conceptual metaphors in many ways - think, for example, of the analogy that is drawn between spiders and the inmates of the asylum. The Beatty character, Vincent, sees the beautiful Lilith as a victim of schizophrenia, being trapped in it, as if in a spider's web, but he ends up being trapped in her web.
Rossen does a fabulous job in keeping this really very static story moving and ensuring our identification with the central relationships. Vincent seems excessively mannered, but, like Travis Bickle, he is just back from the war and is trying to integrate back into society. We rarely see Vincent other than in a hospital environment until he has completely fallen for Lilith, so his attempts to re-integrate into society are, in effect, attempts to integrate into madness.
Seberg as Lilith is completely dazzling, her beguiling beauty hiding a gorgon in disguise as she plays each character off against the other until she has them helplessly reliant on her. She never looked, or acted close to this level before or after. Forget Breathless, forget Bonjour Tristesse or Saint Joan; forget even Birds Come to Die in Peru. This is essence of Seberg!
It is the visual aspect of the film, however, that is so wonderful, and that visual splendour is such that seeing the film on a television barely gives a small reflection of its qualities in this respect. Shufftan's black and white cinematography would get my vote for the greatest black & white cinematography of all time (Seven Samurai comes close...). On a cinema screen, you get the impression of being able to see every hair on the head of the central characters and light becomes a vehicle of meaning and wonder as in no other film that I can remember.
As the silent cinema came to an end, there was one monumental masterpiece that showed what was being lost in its passing - Dovzhenko's Earth. Now, as black and white cinema was coming to a close, Rossen and Shufftan showed what had been lost. There have been several major black and white films in the last forty years, but nothing that has the visual splendour of this magnificent work.
One of the great pleasures of watching older films is that, beyond the
obvious joys of character and plot, they also offer us a look past the
films' action and into the world in which they were made: the fashions
of dress, design, and social attitude that prevailed at the time. All
of this "background," so taken for granted by the filmmakers in their
day, can, when seen across a focal space of time and social change,
reveal fascinating elements unguessed-at when the films were made.
So it is with LILITH. Other comments on this film have more than adequately discussed the plots and motivations of the characters; what I found unexpectedly mesmerizing and appalling was its view of the mental institution of the mid-1960s. Warren Beatty's character has no experience in such a setting, but he'd like to "help people," so he's hired on the spot and immediately put in charge of patients who, by definition, aren't responsible for their own actions. The inmates seem to be mostly left to do as they please, whether it be teetering at the edge of a precipitous cliff or wandering off in the woods, easily slipping away from their inattentive keepers.
When Beatty's character begins to be attracted to Lilith, the chief shrink calls him in and asks if this is the case. "No, I don't think so," says Beatty, patently lying through his teeth. "Well," says Dr Big reassuringly, "it's not unheard-of for patients to fall in love with the orderlies, and sometimes, unfortunately, it happens the other way as well." And that's that: with this appalling (to modern-day ears, at any rate) bit of 'advice,' or possibly nudge-wink encouragement, he pats the oafish horndog on the back, tells him he's doing a great job, and sends him off to town on yet another date with Lilith. Whenever Beatty does express concern about anything job-related, the medical staff just interrupts him with "don't worry, you're doing a fine job" and gently shoos him out.
What a different world it was, forty years ago! Mind you, I'm not judging the film by social standards that never occurred to its time; indeed, the things it reveals about the 'care' of mental patients in 1963 are what made it most interesting to me. All the characters are either entertainingly insane or arrestingly clueless idiots, and Lilith herself is a sufficiently complex and compelling character to make this melodrama watchable all on her own.
One of Warren Beatty's first films and one of controversial lead actress Jean Seberg's best performances! A classic example of how a woman (even if she's wacked-out) could manipulate a man into doing anything...even drive him nuts too! Some scenes risque for its time. Highly recommended film not available on DVD as of yet.
This is one of those films that managed to leave an enduring impression on me and I've seen it quite a few times since finding it quite by chance. It reminds me of that other great unknown the Ninth Configuration. It tells the story of a troubled ex soldier who goes to work at an asylum and quite unexpectedly loses himself in the world of one of the patients - Lilith. Jean Seberg is quite simply out of this world, her every gaze and expression drawing you the viewer in. It's easy to see how both Vincent and another patient Stephen, an introverted young man, are irresistibly attracted to her visions of ecstatic escapism from the unhappy 'real' world outside. Unlike what it says the back of the case, which rather glorifies the trouble she causes and implies a scheming manipulator of men's emotions this is essentially a poetic tale (of course that doesn't sell!). Instead I was left feeling the problems were all caused by others' reaction to her and the neurosis locked up in all of us that she has a talent for bringing out, and healing if they'd but let go of their insecurities. As a man, it left me struggling with both Vincent and Stephens actions as I can see a part of me in both of them. It also left me wishing I was in the story and how I'd do things differently from them. That's the powerful effect of this film. Also worth noting is the connection, never explicitly stated, with the legends of Lilith and the fall of Adam. In this sense you get to hear her side of the story.. quite remarkable
Robert Rossen would only direct ten films in the space of 17 years and,
despite their sometimes erratic quality, he was a talented and highly
respected figure. His neglected and misunderstood swan-song was deemed
by some a means of reparation for his former Communist beliefs and the
fact that he was a friendly witness during the HUAC hearings (the
confused hero wanting to make good but ending up disillusioned); when
the picture was mauled by critics, he got cold feet and bailed out of
his intention to present it at the Venice Film Festival!
Few American movies up to this point had revolved around insane asylums, most notably the prestigious THE SNAKE PIT (1948), Vincente Minnelli's glossy, all-star melodrama THE COBWEB (1955) and the somewhat hysterical SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) from maverick film-maker Samuel Fuller. Still, this is more of a character study than a serious treatment of its subject matter (which, outside of the inmates played by Jean Seberg and Peter Fonda – a nice early dramatic showcase for the latter – are restricted to a handful of intense irrational outbursts, for lack of a better phrase). Even so, Warren Beatty’s brooding occupational therapist protagonist is himself often impenetrable (despite the sympathetic guidance of asylum head Kim Hunter) – justifying his own breakdown at the film’s abrupt, haunting conclusion. The essential gloominess of the piece is, however, offset by passages of lyricism (the ethereal yet experimental black-and-white cinematography by veteran Eugen Schuftan – who had won as Oscar for Rossen’s previous film, THE HUSTLER  – is exquisite throughout): that said, sequences such as the lengthy interlude at the fair (complete with an archaic jousting tournament) seem to be making some obscure point or other which renders it a slightly pretentious whole.
Apart from the fact that therapist and patient are involved in a tempestuous love affair, the film’s controversial aspects entail scenes subtly depicting paedophelia, a lesbian relationship and also the temptation for an extra-marital fling by Beatty’s former girlfriend (Jessica Walter); a young Gene Hackman appears as Walter’s workaholic but uncouth husband in one scene – naturally, he would re-unite with Beatty for Arthur Penn’s seminal BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). Despite his classic good looks, Beatty didn’t conform to Hollywood standards – opting from the outset for gritty and often demanding fare (including John Frankenheimer’s ALL FALL DOWN  and Penn’s MICKEY ONE ) whenever he could. The beguiling Seberg exudes effortless sensuality in the role of the enigmatic Lilith which, reportedly, was her own personal favorite; chillingly, the climactic regression into total madness of her character parallels that of the actress herself who would eventually take her own life 15 years later!
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