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 view, too).
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.
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.
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 launched Hackman.
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.
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.
'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 insane 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 tale 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.
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.
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 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
This is an unusual film that has a young Warren Beatty playing Vincent, a Korean War veteran, who is taken on as an occupational therapist at a mental institution for wealthy patients. If for no other reason this is worth watching for its improbable and disparate cast: besides Beatty there is Jean Seaberg as a patient (Lilith), Kim Hunter as a doctor on the institution's staff, Peter Fonda as the introverted patient Steve, and Gene Hackman as the husband of one of Vincent's previous flames.
A good percentage of the scenes are filmed in extreme close-up, particularly the ones between Beatty and Seberg. The black-and-white photography is well suited for this, since facial expressions carry more force in black-and-white.
It's hard to pin down what the problems are that the patients have. Perhaps that is the nature of mental illness, but the patient's peculiarities struck me as a bit exaggerated. There are sexual undertones running throughout (well, in the case of Beatty and Seberg more than undertones). Steve fancies Lilith and makes timid attempts to attract her and convinces himself, wrongly, that there is hope there. Vincent's presence seems to release a sort of pan-sexuality in Lilith. Not only does she take up with him, but she also has a lesbian connection with another patient and displays an ill-defined affinity for pre-pubescent boys.
Waterfalls and running water turn Lilith on and there is a scene where she looks at her reflection in a lake and kisses the image, another indication of sexuality running wild I guess.
Vincent himself is no model of sanity. There is a connection between his feelings for his dead mother and those for Lilith, whose appearance bears a striking resemblance to his mother. Beyond that, Vincent has a lot of unresolved issues that are only hinted at. Precise character analysis is not what this movie is about and you are left wondering just what it *is* about. One thing for sure, dealing with sexuality in a mental institution is not an exact science.
There is a lengthy sequence where Vincent and Lilith go to a fair and Vincent enters a jousting contest where horseback riders use their lances to pluck small rings from suspended metal mounts. This has to be one of the oddest sequences in all of moviedom.
When it was over, my reaction was (and is), "I'm not sure what to make of this movie."
Five years earlier, and this elliptical oddity would not have been made. The period spanning the early 1960's is an era of transition for American movie audiences, as the old studio system with its emphasis on the literal and the linear begins to break down and the more complex European New Wave finds its way into America's urban centers. It's not surprising, I suppose, that Robert Rossen, a Hollywood veteran with an international perspective, would experiment with this more indirect style in a production like Lillith.
Now, I think the film deals provocatively with the distinction between madness and insanity, so I want to pursue that thread for a bit. Lilith is mad, but not insane. She simply has a different way of wanting to leave her "mark" (referred to in the movie) on the world. In effect, it's a desire to use her body (also mentioned) to merge with aspects of that world. Thus, she pursues diverse forms of interplay available in her confined setting—flute playing, tapestry weaving, Vincent, Yvonne, adolescent boys, painting, nature, etc. Indeed, as the list shows, she is sexually undisciplined in the conventional sense, as shown in the intimate scene with the first boy, which is truly unsettling. However, she's amoral rather than immoral since the whole notion of sexual morality (fidelity to one person or gender, along with age considerations) makes no sense given her basic compulsion. Thus, she's a wild card in a well-ordered social world and must be kept apart for, at least, pragmatic reasons.
Now, it could be argued that my account so far fails to separate madness from insanity and that Lilith's insanity is simply an extreme form of nymphomania. But consider the mention made of experiencing the world through a "fine instrument". Now, it's well known, for example, that dogs hear sounds that humans cannot because of a more refined sense of hearing, similarly with smells. Then too, at a more theoretical level, the lowly snail must experience the world differently than we do, and who knows what features of reality reveal themselves to even the snail's-eye view. Thus, it may well be that Lilith is in possession of a more fully developed sensing organ than the rest of us. More importantly for the movie's sake, that organ is not just attuned to the world, but to a particular aspect of it—namely, to beauty and the beautiful.
Take a look at the list again. One thing the items have in common is beauty, whether human or non-human or the pursuit of the beautiful in one of its artistic forms. So, when Lilith stares through the diffusing prism, in that aesthetic sense, she's contacting beauty in the form of rainbow colors that she not only sees but feels (mentioned in the film) in what may even be a near-religious sense. Thus, Lilth's disorder is not based on a departure from reality as ordinarily understood (insanity), but on its ironical opposite—a heightened experiencing of what the rest of us only experience in weakened form. She emerges, then, as an exceptional individual whose amoral behavior results not from a deficiency, but from a world defined by the impersonally beautiful—a world in which jealousy, for example, has no place (mentioned in the movie). Hence, when she bends down to kiss her reflected image in the lake, it's not what it appears, a narcissistic act of self-love, but a kind of communion revealed to her by a lovely image that just happens to be herself.
Now, contrast her "disorder' with Vincent's growing obsession with his mother and those who resemble her, namely, Lilith and the blonde girl at the bar. I'm in no position to psychoanalyze him, but his problem looks more like incipient insanity than madness. He's clearly got a fixation on Mom. In that sense, his desire to work at the asylum can then be viewed as an effort at tracking a mysterious Mother afflicted by her own dark mental problems. Thus, possessing Lilith becomes a way of possessing a mother who is at once strange and unknown to him (he puts her picture beside Mom's on his bedside table). As his obsession with Lilith-Mother grows, he comes to reject an overture from a former sexual attraction, the dark-haired Laura (Walter). He even steals the hand-carved box from Lilith, thus sabotaging her emerging relationship with Stephen (Fonda). (Note that the plain- looking Stephen has found a way to Lilith's heart by giving her an object of beauty.)
Now, Lilith may be amoral, but she's not unethical—she disapproves of lying (mentioned), for example. Thus, when Vincent's lies and jealousy lead to Stephen's death, her aesthetically ordered world is shattered, and she collapses into total dysfunction (a memorable image). At the same time, Vincent loses his moorings— Lilith and Mom have slipped forever beyond his grasp. And in what may be a sop to convention and the upbeat (it's still 1964), he reverses course off asylum grounds to ask for help. In his case, there may well be a cure; for Lilith, however, there is none since she is by nature attuned to a heightened world. She is, after all, mad and not insane.
As I see it, the tragic figure here is Lilith, ultimately destroyed by an exceptional sensibility and an attraction to Vincent's physical beauty. Had Vincent's quest for his mother not led him into her world, she could have remained at peace with her artistic pursuits. Thus, it's not her world that destroyed his; it's his more 'normal" world that destroyed her. As Vincent, Beatty is all conversational pauses and silences that are perhaps meaningful, but given his generally diffident manner, it's hard to tell. That's perhaps as it should be. On the other hand, Seberg's Lilith is a beguiling figure with a mysterious smile and an inner life that appears elusive and just beyond our grasp. And that's definitely as it should be.
I read the book many years ago, under the kind of full moon that induces rapport with lunatics. The prose style of J. R. Salamanca's novel was obviously influenced by Vladimir Nabokov's mellifluous "Lolita" but the Warren Beatty character is no Humbert Humbert. He's a dull bulb, well intentioned but capable of being a vicious at times and dragging along a lot of baggage from his childhood. All the poetry, the philosophical originality and twist, is supplied by Jean Seberg, as the schizophrenic Lillith. When in the book she uses a word like "chatelaine", he must ask her what it means.
The story is this. Warren Beatty is recently returned from the Army and manages to find a job as an Occupational Therapist at an up-scale psychiatric hospital in Maryland. One of the patients is Jean Seberg. Another is Peter Fonda. The latter is in tentative, shy, but serious love with the former. "She's all I have to live for," he tells Beatty and he means it literally.
It doesn't take long for the initially aloof Beatty to be seduced by Jean Seberg. And why should it? She's Hollywood gorgeous, all golden and creamy, and comes on to him when they're alone with a sweetly demonic grin. Beatty's responsibilities involve taking her to picnics and jousts and walks through the woods. In other words, these are paid trysts with Jean Seberg. My kind of job. I've worked in psychiatric hospitals but they must have been the wrong kind.
Seberg's self-proclaimed love for Beatty begins to reveal some curious and unexpected aspects, like the scintillating crystals that absorb her attention. For instance, on a public street, she kneels down to chat with two little boys, kisses their fingers, and whispers something shocking into his ear. Beatty yanks her away, half offended and half jealous. He's even MORE jealous when he catches Seberg in a lesbian encounter with another patient. And when she begins to show an interest in the love-stricken and fragile Fonda, he begins to hum with an inner rage. "If you found that your God loved others as much as you, would you hate him?", she asks Beatty, very sensibly, I thought.
Beatty deceives Fonda into thinking that Seberg has rejected his gift of an intricately hand-carved cedar pencil box. That's enough for Fonda and he falls on his sword. His death drives Seberg irretrievably mad. The last shot has Beatty approaching his kindly supervisors at the hospital and asking, "Can you help me?" It's an adult, dramatic movie. There is no violence or street language or nudity, although I could have wished for some of the last. But it's very well done by everyone involved. There is no clichéd "crazy music" in the score. Fonda doodles on a flute but nobody practices the scales on a maddening piano. The direction is just fine. Some brief scenes consist of nothing more than two people looking at each other. One makes a remark or asks a question. The other looks back quizzically. Dissolve to the next scene. It's not nearly as dull as it sounds.
Warren Beatty does a good job. He ALWAYS does a good job, if never delivering a bravura performance. At the time of release, Pauline Kael's review dismissed Beatty as having the kind of high-school good looks that fade quickly. There are misses -- and then there are MISSES. Forty or so years later Beatty made his last appearance (so far) in a romantic part. Jean Seberg, I don't think we need to go on about. She's hot as hell. And she does fine in suggesting psychosis.
But, at that, it's a romantic model of schizophrenia. It's very genteel. Oh, sometimes I guess the guests at this expensive clinic are swept up in a storm of pointless laughter, but nobody takes a dump in the communal sink as sometimes happens in real life. (That's a real example.) Fonda's character is formal and polite. And Seberg has some lines that are unique and enfilade the normal powers of reason.
A strong story with competent actors and professionals behind the camera.
Lilith was the last film of director Robert Rossen, and some consider it his neglected masterpiece. Best known for realistic films such as All the King's Men(49) and The Hustler (61), Lilith is certainly the most beautiful and provocative film Rossen ever made, and Eugen Shufftan's stunning b&w cinematography, Kenyon Hopkin's seductive score, Aram Avakian's astute editing, and Richard Sylbert's superb production design all contribute to the film's strange allure. Rossen was apparently influenced by the European art house films of the early sixties, and the grounds of the elegant asylum recall the hotel in Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad(61), and like Resnais' film, Lilith is a high-toned, poetic enigma. Released by Columbia Pictures in 1964, Lilith was a critical and box office failure, that is still largely unknown. Beatty plays a therapist who finds Lilith's madness seductive, and his growing love for her ends in death, and results in his own madness. Though Beatty 's performing is hesitant, uncertain, and awkward, Jean Seberg as Lilith, and Peter Fonda as a patient who loves her are excellent. The interesting supporting cast includes Gene Hackman and Jessica Walter. While not a film for everyone, Lilith is an unusual film that stays in one's mind. Lilith's depiction of mental illness is more subdued and realistic than most Hollywood films on the subject. It lacks the feeling of exploitation present in films such as The Snake Pit, Suddenly, Last Summer, The Caretakers, Cuckoo's Nest, and Girl Interrupted. Recommended.
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!
The mental institution in this film, called "Poplar Lodge" I believe, is modeled on Chestnut Lodge, a Bethesda, Maryland institution famed for early attempts to establish interpersonal relationships with (rich) psychotic patients. This fits the institutional style depicted in this film. Hopwever, the main characters do not seem to be mentally ill so much as metaphores for the madness es in our society. The perception that sexual expression represents evil or crazy behavior, not changed all that much from the time this film was made, frequent wars, and the way sensitive people are brushed aside as others hustle toward dubious goals, are all personified as forms of madness. Okay so far.
But the film does not quite work. The character played by Anne Meacham, seething with barely suppressed sexuality, works, but Lilith, played as a golden haired all American, girl next door beauty, doing and saying odd things, making up her own language, seeing herself as an outside observer of our society, is a character which doesn't hit home. She seems more quirky than mad. That she drives men into destructive actions seems somehow unlikely. At the most, she may be a catalyst for their weaknesses to be expressed.
Jean Seberg doesn't personify madness. She seems just bemused. Warren Beatty conveys a lack of inner direction, a developing depression, and strange longings by looking blank, seeming inarticulate, and acting as if he has no idea of the direction his next step will take. All of this slows this film down to a very languid pace, frequently accompanied by a relaxed bop-along jazz score. Thus, the film is too slow, a long windup for a soft pitch. It is hard to feel much tension, even though it is clear that there is supposed to be a lot of tension. Nice try, but no cigar.
This unusual and compelling drama was scripted, produced and directed by Robert Rossen (1908-1966), from a novel by J. R. Salamanca. Rossen was a superb director who had made his name with the famous ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949) and THE HUSTLER (1961) with Paul Newman. Unfortunately, this was the last film which Rossen ever made, as he died aged only 58 two years later. Eight actors directed by him won Oscars for their performances, and in this film he got one of the best performances ever out of Warren Beatty. The film is particularly notable for being the first feature film in which Gene Hackman and Jessica Walter appeared. Both of them give stunning performances as a married couple who are minor characters in the story. Walter's performance was so strong that it probably explains why Sidney Lumet cast her in THE GROUP (1966) two years later, the film that made her reputation. The female star in this film is Jean Seberg, who brilliantly plays the character Lilith who compulsively needs to make everyone fall in love with her, but is mentally disturbed. The film is set at a mental asylum for very rich patients. The main thrust of the film, however, is Warren Beatty's story. He is an ex-solider returned from 'the War' (in this case presumably the Korean War) who lives in a sombre fashion with his grandmother, is single and at a loose end. We slowly come to realize that the real reason why he feels compelled to go to the insane asylum and ask for a job, where he is accepted and trains as an occupational therapist, is because his own mother had been interned there years before, and had died there. He is haunted by this memory and keeps her signed photo by his bed and looks at her all the time. His mother when young resembled Jean Seberg, so he develops an obsessive need to try to help Seberg recover, as a proxy for his mother whom he was unable to help. Beatty's performance is really outstanding and so sensitive and nuanced that it was really worthy of an Oscar. The film is brilliantly directed, lit, scripted, acted, and produced. It is a model example of how to make an excellent film based on difficult material, in an unlikely location, and concerning a subject most people would rather avoid and prefer not to know about. Rossen was very bold in carrying off this risky venture with such complete success, and it was a perfect swan song for his fine career. As for Beatty, it is one of the performances he can be most proud of. And it launched Gene Hackman, though the character he plays here is so unlike the Gene Hackman we are used to, that it will shock and surprise everyone who sees this. In fact, it proves just what a talented and versatile actor Hackman was from the very beginning, before he started to become type-cast as a lead player in roles where he is meant to play the familiar Gene Hackman that everybody pays to see.
Often very haunting and beautiful, 'Lillith' is a hard film to put your finger on. After seeing it five days ago I'm still not entirely sure whether I really liked, but I was indeed fascinated by it. Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg as the title character both turn in interesting performances as the nurse and patient in a mental institution. Beatty slowly gets caught in Seberg's web, with her madness described as a state of 'rapture'. Is she better off existing in her own world? Is she happier? Some gorgeous black-and-white photography in this one, especially the shots of Seberg and Beatty making love for the first time. And the lesbian scene seemed really strong for the time period.
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.
A well-composed cast helps build the web of mystery and misery that is the cornerstone of this unusual story. Beatty is a rather aimless young man, a flunky at practically everything he's ever attempted, who is hired at Hunter's mental asylum and begins training as an occupational therapist. Once there, he meets various wealthy, but mentally disturbed, inhabitants such as insecure, fixated Fonda and austere, suspicious Meacham. His primary interest, however, is in Seberg, the title character, who stays locked away in her upstairs room, rarely venturing out, but who not only is very attractive, but often seems completely normal. She isn't though. She has her own world in which "people" speak to her and she has even created a language of her own. She also has a fascination with water and a fondness for pre-teen boys. As Beatty struggles to help her come out of her shell, he finds himself deeply attracted to her, something that isn't helped by her seductive gestures and remarks. Before it's all over, there is some doubt as to who is more in need of mental help, Seberg or Beatty! Beatty, in his physical prime, gives a halting, stifled sort of performance. Sometimes it works, but other times it is frustrating to endure. Fans of his will surely be more tolerant of his work in the film. Seberg is beguiling and captivating despite an awkwardly arranged fall that sometimes looks like a mullet. It's a brave, committed, varied performance, which ought to have garnered her more acclaim than it did. She is, at certain points, mesmerizing to behold. Fonda is bookish and vulnerable; a far cry from the rebel persona he would eventually cultivate as the decade ended. Hunter is a stable, knowing presence. Meacham is intriguing and mysterious. She would later go on to have a memorable run on "Another World" as the quirky maid to The Cory Family. Making her film debut, and turning in a memorably tense and dejected performance, is Walter as one of Beatty's former girlfriends. Her crass, doughy, obtuse husband is played to perfection by Hackman in an early role, which is basically his feature film debut as well save one previous bit as a cop. (It paid off when Beatty later remembered him and used him in "Bonnie and Clyde.") There's plenty of symbolism on hand from the start. Seberg seems encased in a spider web thanks to the chain link fencing on her windows. Notice, also, when Beatty takes her to a jousting tournament (!) in which he has to take a lance and guide it into increasingly smaller rings. The mood of the film is helped immeasurably by the musical score and by the striking black & white photography. Also, filming the story on location in Maryland provided an ambiance and atmosphere that couldn't have been achieved the same way on a studio set. Those familiar with Great Falls (and even those not) will enjoy seeing the footage of them during one of the patient picnics. The film makes a point of not giving the viewer all the information he or she needs in order to follow the story easily, though many baffling questions and situations are soon cleared up. However, there are still many moments left so ambiguous or confusing that one wishes for just a little more exposition here and there to help fill in the gaps. It might not be a wholly satisfying film, but it is nevertheless a captivating one. Busy character actor Auberjonois appears briefly as a horse wrangler who hands over the steed to Beatty.
Handsome Warren Beatty (as Vincent Bruce) returns to his smallish Maryland town, fresh from military service. At home, he watches war movies and drinks beer. His grandmother encourages Mr. Beatty to accept a job at the local mental institution (or "insane asylum"), to give his life purpose and make his mother proud. Beatty faces his first workplace crisis by saving likable, but nutty Peter Fonda (as Stephen Evshevsky) from killing himself over beautiful, but schizophrenic Jean Seberg (as Lilith Arthur).
Soon, Beatty reports, to superiors, of an inappropriate attraction between himself and Ms. Seberg. He feels Seberg is attempting to seduce him; and, he has considered accepting. In a world quite unlike this one, Beatty would be immediately removed from the case - but, herein, he is urged to continue as seductive Seberg's one-on-one companion. You wouldn't suspect Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg of anything untoward while hiking, biking, or horseback riding all alone, would you?
When schizophrenia is described, it's obvious Seberg is the "mad spider" who will catch Beatty in her web. And, so, the therapist and patient fall in love. But, Beatty gets mad when he catches Seberg romping in the hay with her Lesbian lover Anne Meacham (as Yvonne Meaghan). Beatty calls Seberg a "dirty bitch" and makes passionate love to her, while girlfriend Meaghan presumably listens at the barn door. As you can imagine, this scene ends too soon
It all sounds silly well, it IS SILLY, but "Lilith" is shot beautifully, by acclaimed director Robert Rossen (his last film) with accomplished cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan. Beatty and Seberg do well in the often obvious, sometimes complex leading roles. You can enjoy Jessica Walter and Gene Hackman, in early roles, as Beatty's ex-girlfriend and her colon-troubled husband. And, Mr. Fonda's truly fine characterization might have attracted a "Best Supporting Actor" nomination, if "Lilith" had been more critically acclaimed. The film really should have been a more subtle allegory.
****** Lilith (9/20/64) Robert Rossen ~ Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda
This is a film I have never seen and I enjoyed the great acting by Warren Beatty, (Vincent Bruce) and Jean Seberg, (Lilth Arthur). Vincent Bruce is a Korean War Veteran and has returned to his home town and is trying to find a job and eventually he finds work in a mental institution. Vincent is assigned to a help a very attractive blonde girl named Lilth who never goes outside and once she set her eyes on Vincent things change and there becomes a great improvement with her mental state of mind. Lilth really spins a web all around Vincent and even teases him with a lesbian relationship with another female inmate. This is a very different and interesting film with young stars just starting out like, Gene Hackman and Peter Fonda.
Coming on the heels of Splendor in the Grass and All Fall Down, one can surmise the reasons behind Warren Beatty's decision to play the male lead in Lilith. In those two earlier films, he had played brooding and laconic young men, a group to which Vincent Bruce belongs. Beatty had also previously played a callous gigolo (to great effect) opposite Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Lilith would provide him with the opportunity to reprise his earlier portrayals, with the added shades of a seemingly compassionate, diligent young man.
Had Lilith required Beatty to exude only these facets of Vincent Bruce, his performance would have been more than adequate; but the character has additional complexities which Beatty never registers well. For that reason, I believe he is miscast in this film. On the other hand, Jean Seberg truly shines as Lilith Arthur, the disturbed young woman. Her expressions in the close-ups disclose her unhinged state of mind. Seberg's performance could profitably be used in acting classes everywhere. Anne Meacham, Peter Fonda, Kim Hunter, and Jessica Walter are also very good, but Gene Hackman deserves a special mention for a brief but indelible appearance.
Beyond the performances, the film is a languorous, plodding vehicle, sometimes too painful to watch, as is the scene between Peter Fonda and Warren Beatty in the garden, toward the end. Beatty's disengaging comportment invalidates any sympathy the spectator might feel for him in the end, unlike, say, Shutter Island, for which this film might have served as inspiration.
Dreadful neurotic film dealing with wealthy people in a sanitarium. Perhaps, I'm being too nice. It's really the nut house.
Hollywood just seemed to exploit these films. "The Snake Pit," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" were far better because they dealt with why people ended up in the way they did as well as an answer to what was going on. This mess of a film did not.
Gene Hackman's brief role was impressive and probably got Warren Beatty to think several years later that he would be perfect for the part of Buck Barrow in "Bonnie and Clyde."
Jean Seberg and Peter Fonda play residents of this house of loony tunes. The group therapy sessions are memorable with accusations being made while people scream out. This is pure insanity and hell at the same time.
As Dr. Brice, Kim Hunter makes a huge error in hiring Warren Beatty to work at this place. Where were his references? Are they trying to show that nobody really wants to work in these kind of places? We eventually get to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as it becomes increasingly obvious that Beatty belongs there as one of the residents. Seberg does quite a wonderful job as the sexually oppressed, neurotic woman unable to deal with reality about her. Ditto for Fonda, who gives a gem of a performance as an intellectually repressed individual. When Vincent Bruce (Beatty) falls for Seberg, he sees Fonda as a rival so tragedy results.
The black and white texture serves as a reminder of the dreariness and hopelessness of life in these mental institutions.
The writing has a lot to be desired. We hear references such as: "Is insanity sadness?" or "My mother cried all the time." Response: "Was she sad?" She might have been had she gone to see this frustrating, tedious film.
There are lots of reasons this is an excellent film. Jean Seberg is number 1. This is by far a great performance by the actress. She seems to be happy in this mental institution as a patient who is an extreme danger to grown men and a predator on young boys. Her past includes a brother's death which she says was because he would not pay attention to her which is means she might have killed him because of that. Mentally Ill indeed.
Warren Beatty's Vincent character almost did not happen. Peter Fonda was supposed to have the inside track for this role, but wanted to be Stephen in support instead. Kim Hunter's Dr. Bea Brice seems to at times have eyes for Vincent and so does Jessica Walter (Laura). Gene Hackman (Norman) is a mystery for much of the film until one night when Vincent actually meets him.
Vincent returns from the service to get a job in a private mental hospital. He meets and becomes too involved with Lilith, a patient there. She works on destroying him and at the same time has a fling with a female patient and tries to seduce a young boy. Her appetite seems to be insatiable. While there is lots of physical stuff between Vincent and Lilith, she is always longing for something more normal. She is happy but not satisfied. Vincent develops a horrible tangle with her, and Stephen (Peter Fonda) is trying to get her attention too.
This film directed by Robert Rosen is an excellent character study about mental illness which at the time this film is made was still a mystery to most. Very well worth viewing for the acting and the subject matter.
CONTAINS SPOILERS -- While a freshman in college in 1965, I saw the movie "Lilith" and I was awestruck by the characters, the black and white screen with mystic lighting from prisms in windows, and Vincent, played by a new actor (Warren Beatty) whose character was quiet, pensive, observant, sensitive, empathetic, and searching for something meaningful to become after fighting in WWII. Being raised in a small town that had a high class asylum that was never considered an anathema to that community led to his searching for a job there. Here is where our schizophrenic blond beauty, Lilith (Jean Seberg) resided and the story of his improbable success as an on the job occupational therapist. Lilith was an incorrigible patient with whom nobody on the staff could ever make favorable headway. Vincent, a handsome, athletic, and intelligent (but naive unproven "professional") member of the junior staff was drawn to Lilith to the extent that he was foolishly in love with her. Lilith blackmailed him to carry on lesbian relationships and presumptive soft core pedophilia in public while under his attending responsibilities. He anxiously awaited his "turn" during the week for her total attention to him (and of course, sex). I thought is was quite ironic towards the end when the author's prosaic descriptions of Vincent's delusions gave the appearance that Vincent was experiencing psychotic symptoms. As he realized he was snared by Lilith and unable to do anything but whatever she commanded him to do, the only thing that was left to confirm that his thinking was organized was his ability to maintain steady control of his favorable reports regarding Liilith to his supervisors. .......but even this was tainted by the fact that the subterfuge was so implausible for any normal person to carry out. The book, which I read later, ended differently than the movie, by allowing Vincent to leave his employment after Lilith was transferred out by her parents and another patient died from his total abrogation of his professional responsibilities. The book does not allow Vincent to succumb to his progression of delusions and he enjoys living with his grandfather in town no longer associated with the asylum and presumably quite sane. But I loved the movie's ending.....in which Vincent, in his last moments at the asylum as a therapist, walks out of the front door with the mutual understanding of his supervisors and himself that his working there was not a good idea and that he had failed. But then Vincent stops, and turns around, and the camera does a closeup....where his last words of the movie is......"Help me." So, I believe the movie and the book present strong considerations for a serious nearly psychotic breakdown for Vincent. When I rotated med students in my practice 25 to 35 years ago, I often recommended this book as an entertaining way to demonstrate to the students how dangerous it can be to allow any romance in a professional relationship with patients. The descriptions of Vincent's many delusional episodes are evident after he realizes Lilith is in control. When he realized that he was a "loathsome procurer" for Lilith, he described his mindset in this way: " If I try to think about it rationally, my mind becomes a cauldron of hysterical remorse". He had long commentary of nearly autistic insights on the difference between air and water on their interactions with their surroundings, talking about falling in air but the buoyancy of water not allowing such dynamic movements, etc. I found the prose of Salamanca part of the mystical and mesmerizing qualities that made this book different from all the rest. In fact, I was surprised at how much the dialogue in the movie followed the book verbatim. Salamanca was compared to JD Salinger, but Salinger's intellect had to be light years beyond JD's based on the much deeper and highly prosaic descriptions of many truths we all experience in life. A great book that never got the highest critical acclaim it deserved. Chazz46
The last film from director Robert Rossen, who also adapted the screenplay from J.R. Salamanca's book, concerns the new intern at a mental hospital in Maryland who has an affair with one of his patients, a beautiful but deeply disturbed young woman. Handsomely shot by cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, the drama is thoughtfully, carefully mounted by Rossen, whose artistic flourishes--and portentous thunder-in-the-distance affects--are too often heavy-handed. The picture ultimately feels dour and ponderous, and some scenes don't work at all (a gathering of the patients in a circle for a session, for instance, comes off looking like an improv class in a dramatic workshop). The strong cast includes Warren Beatty and a hypnotic Jean Seberg in the leads, Kim Hunter (excellent), Peter Fonda and Gene Hackman in support. Kenyon Hopkins supplies the dreamily dangerous background score. The film isn't a success--it doesn't have the courage to tackle the intricacies of its own subject--however select moments (such as Seberg greeting two little boys at the fair) are quietly bracing and intense. **1/2 from ****