[Image: (left to right) Jean Seberg, Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda.]
Most of the cast wasn’t actually famous yet. Far from an ensemble film, “Lilith” is more a character piece with a superb supporting cast. Beatty stars as Vincent Bruce, a shy and semi-aimless ex-army man who decides to intern as an occupational therapist for an expensive local asylum (for reasons that don’t become clear until near the end of the film). His sensitive and non-judgmental attitude make him an effective and popular staff member, but trouble starts when he falls in love with Lilith, a beautiful and beguiling schizophrenia patient.
Director Robert Rossen and his cinematographer Eugene Schufftan (who’d done special effects for “Metropolis” (1927) and won an Oscar on Rossen’s previous film, “The Hustler” (1961)) do an excellent job creating an atmospheric backdrop for the tragic romance. They’re clearly intent (and successful) on giving the sensational B-movie premise an artful treatment. There is an appreciated absence of canted camera angles and shots of people gazing into broken mirrors.
Poplar Lodge, the asylum for members of wealthy families, is something of a paradise where Vincent thinks to find contentment, peace and purpose for the first time in his life. He spends his time talking amiably with the patients, playing games, walking through the beautiful grounds and supervising picnics. Little time is spent on the less dignified and more stressful side of the business, like practicing safety procedures, restraining patients, defusing arguments, cleaning up messes, dealing with setbacks, etc., although they are alluded to early on.
The staff at Poplar Lodge is relatively hands-off and they show a respect and refusal to condescend that’s ahead of its time (and demonstrative of the filmmaker’s maturity as well). In fact, Rossen and his characters often sympathize and even openly admire their wards. Dr. Lavrier, the head of the institute, notes that many of his patients are geniuses, poets and artists in their own right, but unable to cope with an acute awareness not possessed by “sane” men and women. He describes them as persons who have “…seen too much with too fine an instrument.” Much of Rossen’s film is really about the seduction of such madness, with Lilith’s sexuality only an outward facet of its temptation.
Despite Lilith’s undeniable appeal, Vincent has more than enough warnings to keep his distance. If medical ethics weren’t enough, he actually witnesses her toying with a fellow patient (Peter Fonda), almost killing him over his amorous affections. One of the most disturbing scenes has Lilith compulsively seducing a little boy while Vincent stares on. Her affinity for childlike logic only makes it more uncomfortable.
Shortly after their relationship is consummated, Vincent discovers (presumably because Lilith wants him to discover) that she indulges in other affairs, including ones with women (which was probably still rather scandalous in 1964). When Vincent catches her in the act, her cocksure response is priceless: “If you should discover your god loved others as much as he loves you, would you hate him for it?”
Rossen uses wide gulfs in his deep staging to emphasize the gulfs between characters, especially Vincent and Lilith’s two brands of self-imposed alienation. But the over-the-shoulder shots and the fact that both planes are in sharp focus, ensures that the characters are still united in the frame; unable to avoid their connections. It’s as though the camera were joining the screenplay in mocking clinical distance.
As Vincent and Lilith’s draw closer together throughout the film, Rossen shoots them in tighter framings. Even the edits appear to flow together in long, lingering cross-fades. The compositions parallel not only the Vincent’s increasing emotional bondage to his patient, but his psychological one as well. It provides a visual metaphor for his slide inextricably deeper into Lilith’s dangerous mental frontier. It’s left ambiguous whether he will ever escape.
“Lilith” (1964) definitely fits a profile I find amongst several of my favorite films. It’s a deep focus, black-and-white picture (from a time when those were out of fashion) filled with mystery and insanity. It’s such a solid drama likely to find few detractors, but it’s the hint of primal forces outside the realm of straight drama that really draws me in. The description matches some of my other favorites like “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) and “The Innocents” (1961).
Walrus Rating: 9.0