Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in Lilith (1964)


(director/writer: Robert Rossen; screenwriter: from the novel by J.R. Salamanca; cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan; editor: Aram Avakian; music: Kenyon Hopkins; cast: Warren Beatty (Vincent Bruce), Jean Seberg (Lilith Arthur), Peter Fonda (Stephen Evshevsky), Kim Hunter (Dr. Bea Brice), Jessica Walter (Laura), Gene Hackman (Norman), James Patterson (Dr. Lavrier), Anne Meacham (Mrs.Yvonne Meaghan), Lucy Smith (Vincent’s Grandmother), Rene Auberjonois (Howie); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Rossen; Columbia Tristar Pictures; 1964)
“Brilliant and delicate, but also depressing and enigmatic psychodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brilliant and delicate, but also depressing and enigmatic psychodrama. It turned out to be the final film from director Robert Rossen (“The Hustler”/”They Came to Cordura”/”All the King’s Men”); he died in 1966. Rossen was blacklisted in 1951 as a Communist party member but in 1953 named 19 names before the House Un-American Activities and was once again working in Hollywood. Lilith is based on the controversial novel by J.R. Salamanca. Though it has countless faults, many unexplored implications (from political to social to mythological), a corridor full of implausibilities and is heavy-handed, it nevertheless proves to be a deep-thinking delight when put on the couch and examined as an exotic and a worthwhile failure that is as fragile as the patients depicted. What it gets at by taking chances, is what safe films about the mentally ill can never get to even if their films might have more clarity. It also tries to touch base with madness being a part of the imagination process, and does so in a more novel and romantic way than most films of this ilk do.

Once again living at home in Maryland with his laconic grandmother (Lucy Smith), pensive and nervous ex-Korean War veteran Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty) reluctantly takes a trainee occupational therapist position at the local private mental hospital. Dr. Bea Brice (Kim Hunter), the kindly administrative head and social worker, is impressed with Vincent’s sensitivity to the patients and encourages him to stay on the job despite his self-doubt if he can handle a job he hasn’t been trained for. In this lovely country club-like setting the patients are all from wealthy families, seem to all suffer from schizophrenia and seem more intellectually gifted than the staff.

The loner Vincent has no girlfriend and seems to be searching for something that he’s not sure of. He soon gets seduced by one of his most withdrawn schizoid patients, the artistic Lilith Arthur (Jean Seberg), referred to by the staff as mythological spider-like in the way she operates around people building webs to trap them, who lives in her own dream world and talks mostly to angels but responds warmly to Vincent’s ability to listen to her with empathy. Another schizoid patient, with great verbal skills, the effete Stephen Evshevsky (Peter Fonda), who veers between violent outbursts to extremely courteous behavior, also is smitten with the very bright, charismatic and pretty Lilith. Vincent by breaking his professional code and not detected by all the do-gooders on the staff, reveals his dark side and does great harm to the patients in the guise of helping them. Some critics thought this was Rossen speaking in terms of a political allegory, that suggests all those idealists who think they are going to save the world will sooner or later become (like him) either disillusioned or become part of the problem themselves.

This is an underrated movie that has a lot more going for it than what seems on the surface to be merely a case of an unethical professional usurping his position to take advantage of a more vulnerable person under his charge, that is if you can get by its soporific tempo and the murky nature of its storytelling.

Seberg has stated that this was her favorite film role ever, and I can see why she would prefer this more accomplished performance over her popular but breezy role in the smash hit Breathless. While Beatty gives a jarring Method actor’s performance that has him leading a life of quiet desperation, as no one around him who is in a position to help hears his cries for help–only the sickest nymphomaniac girl in the sanitarium can hear him. Anne Meacham convincingly plays the worldly fellow inmate, who has a lesbian affair with Seberg. Kenyon Hopkins’s offers a moody, evocative jazz-flavored score, while cinematographer Eugen Schufftan effectively evokes the proper delicate mood of the film by shading it in white.