LILITH (1964) B/W widescreen 114m dir: Robert Rossen
w/Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda, Kim Hunter, Anne Meacham, Jessica Walter, Gene Hackman, James Patterson, Robert Reilly, Rene Auberjonois
Director Robert Rossen creates one of the most intelligent, sensitive portraits of madness ever put on film. It's the story of a trainee therapist (Beatty) whose growing love for a beautiful schizophrenic under his care (Seberg) ends tragically. Rossen's film captures beautifully the nuances and subtleties of the interior world of the mentally disturbed.
From Have You Seen ...? by David Thomson: "If The Hustler was sharpened by Robert Rossen's illness, did Lilith flower with his dying? Not that the film has too many defenders --- is it still the case that not many have seen it? Warren Beatty is known for disliking it, and even as good a critic as Andrew Sarris reckons it is as pretentious as profound. Alas --- suppose Ingmar Bergman had made it, or Francois Truffaut, by which I mean one of those directors famous for his mad women, and not afraid of the asylum.
"Beatty must have known what he was being lined up for. Although the novel (by J.R. Salamanca) begins with his character, Vincent, coming to a mental hospital as a new nurse, the title of the project made it clear that the number one female patient, Lilith Arthur, was the film's subject, as immediate as Jean Seberg yet as legendary as the name.
"The screenplay was done by Rossen and Robert Alan Aurthur. For the second time, Eugen Schufftan was in charge of the photography, and the design was credited to Richard Sylbert and Gene Callahan. These talents are vital, for the film has to make the asylum into a credible reality as large as the world.
"Beatty's grievance may have come from the bond Rossen had to build with Seberg. How do you take on this subject without making a kind of rapture with your actress? This is Jean Seberg with long hair, never lovelier and never acting better. And there are complex dialogue scenes between Lilith and Vincent in which Seberg takes just about every point, reducing Beatty to his collected gestures of uncertainty and hesitation as a feeble response.
"Seen today [Thomson's book was published in 2008], the film is remarkable for the prescience of its casting: It's not just the excellent, vigilant Kim Hunter as Vincent's wary employer; or Peter Fonda as a disturbed patient; it's also a desperately tense Gene Hackman as one of Vincent's friends; Jessica Walter, James Patterson, Anne Meacham, and Rene Auberjonois in an overall cast that could be an Actors Studio party.
"Of course, Lilith is a femme fatale, woman the devourer, a feminist godhead at a time when many men in film were fiercely addicted to the defense of manhood. I do not rule this out as a reason for the box-office failure of the film and its general critical neglect. So let me end, and urge you to see the film, with this from Jean Seberg:
"'Lilith was for me at first the chance to try, in America, something in which I believed deeply with someone whom I esteemed very much; this film allowed me at last to leave my usual character, to do something other than what people usually proposed to me. That is to say in what degree the financial failure of the film affected us, Robert Rossen, who was already very ill, as well as me. We had truly given the best of ourselves, and that, for an empty theater. So Lilith was for me at once the most exciting of my experiences as an actress, and something rather sad.'"
From the Turner Classic Movies website, tcm.com, this article by Jay Carr: "Lilith (1964) was more than Robert Rossen’s swan song. His final film, shot while he was ill, marked a change of direction, away from the stylized realistic settings of his successes – Body and Soul (1947), All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961) – to a more ambitious psychological reach, rooted in myth. It takes its title from the legendary she-demon of many cultures, who used sexuality to ensnare men. Feminist critics cite the Lilith myth as an example of male projections of fear of female sexuality. Rossen cast the role against type, with Jean Seberg as a temptress more corn-fed and wholesome than gossamer or ethereal. Before he settled on her, Yvette Mimieux, Romy Schneider and – at the insistence of co-star Warren Beatty – Samantha Eggar were in the running. Yet Seberg, who was to call Lilith her favorite among her roles, pulls it off, despite a major credibility problem that has nothing to do with her.
"The opening frames feature a lot of whiteness and butterfly motifs as background for the credits, before the inevitable spider-web motifs are seen. Its lightness of touch, maintained throughout by cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, sets the stage for the film’s way of communicating an increasingly tenuous hold on reality, a delicate blurring of the line between a woman’s interior world and the everyday world into which she occasionally allows herself to be led. At first, Seberg’s Lilith is ushered out of her private reveries by Warren Beatty’s attentive novice occupational therapist. But only, you feel, because she wants to be. This is the Beatty who only three years before made his debut in Splendor in the Grass (1961), still figuring out how to use his good looks, but unable to conceal his awareness of them.
"Even that early in his career, he comes on like the young king of hesitations, softly, seemingly tentatively, presumably oblivious to the fact that the windows of Lilith’s room are covered with a thick steel wire grill for a reason. Like her fellow inmates, she’s a schizophrenic whose family has money to pay for her cushy country-club confinement. His character – a World War II vet who lives with his grandmother in town, is the one with the credibility problem. Even in a film clearly not realistic, we have difficulty believing that he could literally wander in off the street, not be subjected to a background check, be hired on the spot, and in no time be spending a lot of unsupervised time with patients. Lilith is very astute in its portrayals of the quickness of the other inmates to pick up on any ripples in the communal vibe much more rapidly than the staff. There are more than a few things to pick up on, despite the relative pleasantness of an institution that’s positively pastoral, as asylums go.
"Lilith, confined since the violent death of her brother, eyes the new staffer and allows herself to be drawn out of her solitariness. Seberg convinces us that she’s an innocent, entirely true to her nature, uncalculating in that sense, but disturbing, partly because she so naturally uses her considerable personal appeal to satisfy destructive drives. In fact, the arrival of the new staffer protracts the agonies of another inmate, Peter Fonda’s lanky, slavish admirer of Lilith, making sheep’s eyes at her from behind the thick black frames of his glasses. He’s devastated when her attentions turn to Beatty’s rookie therapist. In no time, the would-be doc is going on long walks alone with Lilith. This gives Rossen and Schufftan the chance to unfurl visuals that not only match Lilith’s seductiveness (it soon becomes clear who’s seducing who in the mating dance between Seberg and Beatty), but open doors to lyricism – sunlight glinting off water, shots of rushing water suggesting accelerating appetites, superimpositions of Seberg’s face, eyes closed, over the settings of the natural world. They soon include physical interludes. Danger, too, in points of view shot from the top of a cliff. The credibility gap widens, though, when Beatty’s new hire begins sleeping with her. Her dreaminess and combination of abandon and instinctive agenda bear out a senior staffer’s description of Lilith as being capable of rapture. But isn’t anybody riding herd on the new employee?
"It’s a strength that Beatty’s minder, far from a Casanova
(although his physicality is urgent and a little rough), seems to be in a bit
of daze, not quite aware of what’s happening to him. As we watch him fall
under Lilith’s spell, and have a foreboding that the story will end in
tears, bits of his undersupplied background emerge, most notably the fact that
his mother died young. Far from getting a handle on the developing situation
between him and Lilith, he seems more and more confused and discombobulated,
as if he knows he’s getting in too deep, but doesn’t know how to
As Seberg’s Lilith continues, almost serenely inscrutable, she begins to push his buttons ever more boldly, dissolving his will, replacing it with hers. She makes him jealous by switching her attentions to Anne Meacham’s worldly fellow inmate. Fonda’s love-struck fragility moves ever closer to an abyss. As if in a desperate lunge toward solidity and sanity, Beatty’s staffer, who by now has moved onto a small room on the grounds of the asylum from his grandmother’s house in town, visits the home of his prewar girlfriend, who married another man while he was away and out of touch. The scene in which Jessica Walter (in her film debut) communicates deep unhappiness and a young Gene Hackman radiates vibrant crassness and crudity as her husband is brief, but indelible, a reminder that not all is well in the world of the so-called sane, either.
"Tension mounts as credibility plummets. Kim Hunter, as Beatty’s immediate boss, projects kindness, but could her experienced character be so blind? You get the idea that the entire staff is deliberately averting its eyes from what is obviously developing between Beatty and Seberg simply because the plot needs her to keep spinning her scary web until she’s got him where she wants him. All that saves the film from collapse is its feathery touch in evoking the realms of madness and withdrawal into which Lilith intermittently disappears. You can’t help wondering whether Rossen’s failing health contributed to the film’s sense of life and sanity slipping the moorings. That, the strong performances, and Kenyon Hopkins’s wonderful, moody, evocative jazz-flavored score save Lilith from its shortfall in trying to shoehorn an ancient myth into a contemporary setting.
"Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story, by David Richards, Random House, 1981
"Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Susan Finstead, Random House, 2005
"From the Journals of Jean Seberg, documentary by Mark Rappaport, 1995