Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Study in Kindness

Lilith (Dir. Robert Rossen, 1964) is a film that deals with the world of mental illness in a most remarkable manner. Unlike too many works that have focused on "lunatics" screaming and acting in an angular way, this film quietly examines how a young female patient changes the life of a wet-behind-the-ears therapist. It's an intelligent film that hasn't received the attention it deserves; it's one of Rossen's most challenging films and it's one of his finest.

The story begins as a young man named Vincent Bruce (cooly played by Warren Beatty) looks for a position at an East Coast mental institute. This is not a location with dungeons and dark settings, but one located amidst the splendor of a lovely forest; this setting is meant to act as a settling influence for these patients, many of whom are diagnosed as schizophrenics.

Vincent has recently returned from the service and is, as many movie characters are at the beginning of dramas such as this, "trying to find himself." But lest you think this film is going to repeat so many clichés, strong writing (one of Rossen's strengths, he adapted the screenplay from a J.R. Salamnaca novel) presents us with a marvelous story as Vincent meets Lilith (Jean Seberg), a beautiful woman in her mid 20s, who appears very normal and rather quaint on the outside, but is a bit of a devil on the inside.

One of the things I like about the screenplay and the way the story unfolds is that we are not told in specific detail why Vincent wants a job as a therapist, especially as he had had no experience. "They'll train me," he tells his grandmother at dinner, in one of the many quiet, relective scenes of the film. It is at that point we learn that Vincent's mother died. A scene soon after has Vincent meet his old flame Laura (Jessica Walter) who is now married (we assume she married during his time away in the military). So we are going to follow a young man, clearly uncertain of who he is and what he wants to be, try and learn about his identity by studying mental patients. I like this conception and it's well managed throughout the film.

Though he has no experience dealing with mentally ill people, Vincent uses his kindness as a way to their soul and it's this quality - and the ease in which he does his work - that makes him a success at his job. He is able to win over Lillith's trust and soon takes her on adventures outside the institute's grounds, where the two of them become more emotionally attracted and attached.

Lilith is not schizophrenic, but rather a nymphomaniac, something we learn over time. Her initial love scene with Vincent is quite erotic, as they embrace near a stream, just a few yards from other patients. Their encounters become more passionate over the course of the film and Rossen films these scenes in a highly charged emotional, yet quiet, manner. Their final love scene is a stunning moment in the film as it takes place in her highly claustrophobic room at the institute. Rossen films the scenes in extreme closeups and there is no music; the only sounds we hear are breathing and other utterances by the actors. At one moment, Lilith lets out a quiet hiss like that of a cat in heat; she is on the prowl here with Vincent lurking next to her. Their kisses here are deeply passionate with tremendous raw energy, much like that of two animals. This scene in particular is aided by the stark black and white photography of Eugen Schüfftan, whose overall work here is excellent in expressing the gray moods of the characters.

Lilith is also carrying on an affair with Yvonne (Anne Meacham) another female patient at the institute. Lilith is also the object of the affections of Stephen (Peter Fonda), a tender, but confused patient; she leads him on, but is clearly not interested in his passions. In one peculiar scene midway through the film, Lilith kisses a young boy of no more than nine or ten years of age when she cannot pay him for a treat he is selling. The young boy is quite happy to kiss her, but she then whispers something in his ear and he pulls back, clearly embarrassed by what he has just heard (thankfully we don't hear what she says, so we can use our imagination). It's a subtle touch that helps us understand how mischievous - and clearly troubled - Lilith truly is.

Jean Seberg's performance in this film is marvelous. It's quite a surprise to see her on screen here, especially if you are used to her pixie haircut and baby face, as witnessed in previous films such as Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. In this film, she has grown into a marvelously beautiful young woman with her glowing eyes and long, blonde hair (she is especially beautiful in the first scene she has with Beatty, wearing a pretty summer dress with an attractive floral pattern). While she admittedly was frightened by her inital experiences on screen, she developed into a talented actress and she gives a very special performance here. This is the type of role that could easily slip away into parody, but Seberg is always cool and under control here, even in the one scene where she vents her anger at Beatty. Her performance is among the many high points of this film and it's not a stretch to say that the film largely succeeds because of her presence.

(It is a shame that she was not given more challenging roles such as this, as she was a gifted actress, as the French had discovered a few years earlier, when Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his film Breathless (1960). She would never have similar acting challenges again after Lilith; tired of the inconsequential roles she was given, she soured on her career and sadly, committed suicide in 1979, at the age of 40.)

The film ends on a troubling note, as Vincent must face the consequences of his actions. The film's final shot and line are memorable in summing up the subtle path this film takes in its efforts to take us into the minds not only of the mentally ill, but the so-called sane individuals (we, the viewers) as well.

Postscript: Lilith was the final film of Robert Rossen, who had one of the more unusual Hollywood careers. An exceptional screnwriter (The Roaring Twenties, The Sea Wolf), he turned to directing in the 1940s and became a success in both fields, most notably for All the King's Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). Both of those films dealt with the downfall of a man and how that decline came via a woman's charms. While the downfall of Vincent in Lilith - due largely to his interaction with the title character - is not as rapid as that of Willie Stark and Eddie Felson in these other two films, it is nonetheless, just as emotionally shattering.

Final note: Rossen was twice called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1951 and 1953. At his second appearance before the commmittee, he divulged more than 50 names of former or current Communists. Because of that, his name was removed from the blacklist in Hollywood and was able to continue to make films. As mentioned before, Lilith was his last film, He died in 1966.

I've often wondered why Elia Kazan, who gave the same committee names at his appearance in 1952, has been vilified by some in Hollywood for his willingness to name names, yet Rossen who did the same thing, has been spared this criticism.


  1. The site where part of "Lilith" was filmed was Chestnut Lodge, a real-life mental institution in Rockville, Md., about 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. I regularly walked past the place when I resided in Rockville, and was also aware of its place in cinematic lore.

    Chestnut Lodge stopped serving as a mental institution some time back, and plans were made to convert the building into a condominium. Alas, it burned down a few years ago, and new housing units will be built on the site; I don't believe an attempt will be made to replicate the place.

    Incidentally, this is my first visit to your site, and I like your thoughtfulness and writing ability. I cordially invite you to my classic Hollywood site, "Carole & Co.", which as you might guess from its name (and the avatar above) focuses on the life and times of Carole Lombard and people she knew and worked with. It's at http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co. Take care.

  2. Thanks for the information on the lodge - I wasn't aware of that.

    Your site is very nice. That was a wonderful time for the movies, wasn't it?