Lilith (1964)

Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A young man in a suit and tie walks up a tree-lined path. Passing through a gate marked Poplar Lodge, the man emerges on a green dotted with Adirondack chairs and fountains as a dreamy musical refrain scores his movements. A great house stands before him at the end of a wide plaisance. He descends a short, stone staircase and passes by the benches where the odd person sits reading. A long-haired woman watches him through a grated window in the great house as he approaches.

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The young man is ex-GI Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty), and he tells Bea Brice (Kim Hunter), the administrator with whom he has a job interview, that he has always been curious about Poplar Lodge, an exclusive mental hospital for the rich that has stood in his home town for as long as he can remember. Brice shows him around the facility, starting with the worst patients, so locked inside their own heads that they probably don’t need to be locked in the rooms that contain them. She then brings him to the day room, where the more socialized patients play games, read, and converse. Warning him the work is hard and ill-paid, Brice hires him on the spot to train as an occupational therapist.

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Lilith, Robert Rossen’s final film, represents quite a departure for him. Rossen, known for writing such gritty films as Edge of Darkness (1943) and Body and Soul (1947), and writing and directing the classic films All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), hadn’t made a film in three years. He was seriously ill when he started work on Lilith, and had nothing but trouble with Warren Beatty on the set. This time in film history belonged to a new generation with new, more inward-looking concerns, and Beatty was perhaps the king of the silver screen’s sensitive, troubled young men. Lilith can be seen as a veteran director trying to move with the times, and coming face to face not only with his own obsolescence and pending death, but also perhaps with some deep-seated regrets.

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Vincent (suggesting the mad Vincent Van Gogh) has returned from the Korean War a changed man. Laura (Jessica Walter), his fiancée before he left, gave up on him when he stopped writing to her and married a rough salesman named Norman (Gene Hackman), someone she apparently never stops comparing to the handsome, sweet Vincent. Vincent doesn’t have a reason for why he stopped writing when they run into each other at a bus stop one rainy day. He simply wants to find a place and purpose again.

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He makes a good start at Poplar Lodge, encouraging Yvonne (Anne Meacham), a nervous socialite, to leave her room, and befriending the shy and staid Stephen (Peter Fonda). Stephen is infatuated with Lilith (Jean Seberg), the blonde who watched Vincent from her room in the opening scene, praising her flute playing with admiration that she made the flute herself. Stephen longs to be as creative as Lilith, to win her favor, but the young woman only has eyes for Vincent. Seemingly miraculously to the healthcare workers who have been attending Lilith for some time, she comes out of her barred room and socializes freely, even going on a picnic with the group, with Vincent and Stephen her constant companions. Eventually, Lilith seduces Vincent, and they carry on a passionate affair behind the backs of everyone but Yvonne, Lilith’s other lover. Lilith, the ultimate hippie chick, wants to love everyone. Vincent’s possessiveness, however, is bound to lead to tragedy.

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It is hard to imagine a more intimate film than Lilith, filled as it is with passion and cradling nature redolent of the Garden of Eden where the mythic Lilith stood as an equal with Adam. Sexuality becomes animalistic as Lilith makes love with Yvonne in a barn and then takes an enraged Vincent in her embrace, a further connection with the sexually defiant Lilith of lore. Rossen, a progressive Jew whose membership in the Communist Party in the 1930s would lead to a two-year blacklisting in the 1950s, must have identified with this defiance in a heroine who, like another strong heroine he created, Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), would be destroyed.

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While water is a constant throughout the film, a standard metaphor for the unconscious, it is used with the utmost expression and specificity. The gentle rain through which Vincent and Laura catch up mirrors the too-temperate relationship that no longer interests a sensitive man exposed to the horrors of war. During the picnic, Lilith, Vincent, and Stephen wander near a river with cascading rapids. Intensely white and foaming, beautiful and dangerous, the rapids are the embodiment of Lilith’s allure for both men, contained by tangible borders but churning excitedly within them. Later, wading into a calm part of the river, Lilith dares to look directly at her reflection, an evocation of Narcissus, son of a river god and a nymph whose disdain for the love of others was his ruin.

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Lilith is hardly a calculating seductress, but her disturbed mind fails to look very far outside of herself. She cannot recognize the depth of Stephen’s or Vincent’s feelings, and changes her affections as simple-mindedly as a child drops one toy for a new one. Vincent’s jealousy causes him to lie to Stephen, with deadly results. Perhaps Rossen was feeling pangs over naming names to the HUAC committee, and Vincent’s recognition of his own cankerous psyche forms the final piece of his personal puzzle.

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Rossen is very good at directing his actors to maintain the fragile edge between sanity and madness. Peter Fonda plays Stephen with a childlike simplicity to suggest his delicate condition; this choice seems a little wrong-headed to me, but I felt an irritation with him that tracks with how it might be to spend time with someone who is not all there. Perhaps symptomatic of his conflicts with Rossen, Beatty doesn’t appear to be all that unstable. He does seem to be drifting until he finds purpose in helping the patients, but his growing obsession with Lilith seems more like genuine love, as the pair spends time alone riding horses and bicycles, flirting gently, and loving vigorously. That he is involved with a patient certainly signals a dangerous recklessness, but when the patient is the beautiful Jean Seberg, it doesn’t seem all that mad after all.

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Seberg is luminous in this film, every bit the mythic muse of her character and her own legend. She plays to Rossen’s camera angles and lighting, looking at once angelic and then lunatic. Her sensuality burns the screen with its honesty, and she carries herself with a natural grace that adds to the elemental force of the film. It is possible to see the actual depth of her affections for Vincent, so well does she give and withhold simultaneously. Seberg acknowledged Lilith as her favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why from her complex and satisfying performance.

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A Blu-ray of Lilith is supposed to be available in March, but early reports are that the transfer is a little soft. Because of the visual splendor of the film, something will be lost if you don’t get a chance to see it in a pristine print, as I did. Nonetheless, this film is well worth seeing in almost any condition for the interesting performances and as an excellent representation of 60s style filmmaking.

  • Laura Morrigan spoke:
    18th/02/2013 to 7:06 pm

    It sounds amazing! Just like the kind of thing I would love! I will have to try to get my hands on it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    22nd/02/2013 to 4:02 pm

    “While water is a constant throughout the film, a standard metaphor for the unconscious, it is used with the utmost expression and specificity. The gentle rain through which Vincent and Laura catch up mirrors the too-temperate relationship that no longer interests a sensitive man exposed to the horrors of war. During the picnic, Lilith, Vincent, and Stephen wander near a river with cascading rapids. Intensely white and foaming, beautiful and dangerous, the rapids are the embodiment of Lilith’s allure for both men, contained by tangible borders but churning excitedly within them. Later, wading into a calm part of the river, Lilith dares to look directly at her reflection, an evocation of Narcissus, son of a river god and a nymph whose disdain for the love of others was his ruin.”

    I’m here a bit late Marilyn, but it’s one of those weeks with stomach nausea crashing the party. You trace the metaphorical use of water (above) brilliantly, and you bring a number of other vital issues to the fore when you discuss the fine line between sanity and madness (Vince and Lilith, the former spurred by the death of Stephen) , Seberg’s luminous presence, and the difficulties on the set for the ailing Rossen, whose direction of this formidable drama was indeed a major departure. I’d argue that Seberg was just as great in BONJOUR TRISTESSE, but ironically enough she received atrocious reviews for that Preminger work. That film however was foolishly dismissed, and is now being seen rightly as Preminger’s masterpiece. The lyrical sequence in the amusement park is unforgettable, and Eugene Shuftan’s nuanced black and white cinematography is striking throughout. I had read once where the film was compared to Frank Perry’s DAVID AND LISA in an unflattering context, but much like Preminger’s film LILITH was poorly received and has now been glowingly reassessed. Even with the potential prospect of a “soft” transfer I still look forward to the coming DVD of this exceptional work, one you have given magnificent treatment to here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/02/2013 to 10:28 pm

    Good luck in your search, Laura.

    Thanks, Sam, for enjoying this review. I sometimes have trouble with 60s films and their self-conscious artiness. Lilith does not escape that trap, but it draws one in with its very personal approach and gorgeous imagery. I’m very glad to have seen it.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    26th/02/2013 to 1:52 am

    I was able to see this theatrically in the early 70s. I love the scene when Lilith first steps out of the barn. “Self-conscious artiness”? That’s what got me hooked on movies in the first place.

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