Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Writer/director Robert Rossen's The Hustler was a prestige hit in 1962, and 1963 brought
the sleeper success of Frank and Eleanor Perry's asylum drama David and Lisa. Perhaps those two
facts helped Rossen get this very disturbing, very atypical studio drama greenlit. Lilith's
strongest asset is the sight of magical actress Jean Seberg photographed by the legendary cameraman Eugen
Schüfftan. Some of her sequences reach heights of ethereal mystery rare in American films.
Otherwise, Rossen's opaque screenplay is likely to leave many viewers wondering what the heck is going
on. Instead of building on its unusual tension, Lilith meanders to a curiously unsatisfying end.
Once again living at home, troubled ex-soldier Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty) takes a
counseling position at a private mental hospital. Dr. Bea Brice (Kim Hunter) encourages Vincent to stay
on the job despite his self-doubt. He soon becomes emotionally entangled with a patient, the enigmatic Lilith
Arthur (Jean Seberg). Stephen (Peter Fonda) is another patient hopelessly in love with the manipulative,
mysterious woman. Vincent breaks all the rules to be with Lilith, an obsession that is eroding his personality.
The expression of a serious artist, Lilith was made at a time when Hollywood had a
low tolerance for exotic filmmaking. But even critics who championed Rossen's originality were puzzled
by the murky result on screen. Some of the lack of clarity and direction was blamed, rightly or wrongly, on
young actor Warren Beatty. The moody Vincent Bruce is in every scene yet we never understand what
his problem is. His only training is on-the-job experience, and he comes off as entirely too dour and
conflicted to perform his duties. Kindly asylum chief Kim Hunter seems so convinced of his suitability, we
wonder if she has a personal interest in the handsome young man.
Vincent wins praise when he pulls the unresponsive Lilith out of her shell of silence. But he spends so
much time with her, often alone in her room, that warning bells should be ringing all over the hospital. The movie
is supposed to be about the influence one personality can have on another but we are frankly more concerned
about the murky ethics involved, especially when Vincent and Lilith become lovers.
If the Vincent character is a troubling question mark, Jean Seberg's Lilith is a unique character
brilliantly realized. She's an intelligent victim and a predator as well. She embodies the theory of the chief
doctor (James Patterson) that schizophrenics are superior personalities out of sync with the
normal world. The artistic Lilith writes slogans on her wall in her own personal language. She comes to
vibrant life when in contact with nature. In perhaps the film's most beautiful sequence, she hikes up her
dress to walk in the shallows of a pond and leans over to the mirror-like surface to kiss her reflection.
Cameraman Schüfftan makes this scene conjure thoughts of classical Greek mythology, where
fantastic beings seem to represent aspects of the human personality.
Lilith's sexual spell communicates directly to Vincent, who is an easy mark for her forceful personality.
Lilith sometimes seems devious and manipulative,
but her appeal is compellingly direct. Critics were impressed by the film's depiction of her lesbian
association with another patient played by Anne Meachum, a relationship Lilith flaunts to further disturb the
defenseless Vincent. They attend a Renaissance Faire-like jousting tournament where the mousy Vincent suddenly
picks up a lance and becomes a mounted Lochinvar. Lilith plays the role of his garlanded fair maiden, and
the patient-counselor relationship suddenly becomes a love affair.
The film doesn't conclude as much as it unravels. Peter Fonda's pitiful patient Stephen follows Lilith like
a puppy and makes gifts for her in his crafts class. The apparently unhinged Vincent cruelly returns Stephen's
gift, as if jealous of Lilith's attention. The ensuing tragedy wants to be about the mysteries of
the human personality, but we end up thinking about the lack of proper supervision at Kim Hunter's hospital.
Warren Beatty plays Vincent as a mass of unfocused attitudes. In an unresolved subplot he rekindles
the interest of Laura, an old girlfriend now married (Jessica Walter of Grand Prix and Play
Misty for Me). He loiters around Laura's house and spends an
awkward few minutes with her husband, a go-nowhere scene seemingly engineered to provide a showcase
for blooming talent Gene Hackman. Perhaps this is where Beatty got the idea of teaming with Hackman
in Bonnie & Clyde. Peter Fonda's rigid performance is cleverly used to augment his character's
cramped persona. Rene Auberjonois is visible in a smaller part. Ben Carruthers (A High Wind in Jamaica,
The Dirty Dozen) has a standout scene as another patient and Olympia Dukakis is in there somewhere
Something makes me think that the wife of the Frasier of the original Cheers TV show was named
Lilith as an inside joke to this movie.
Columbia TriStar's properly formatted DVD of Lilith is a relief after their recent Pan'n Scan
only release of the Panavision film Castle Keep. The enhanced picture has good detail and reproduces
all the moody grays in the film's B&W cinematography. The tagline from the theatrical release
("Irresistable. Unpredictable. Homicidal") completely misrepresents the movie, as does the synopsis text that
tells us that poor Vincent "can no longer determine which of the two worlds - his or Lilith's - is the sane
one." Neither of the lovers comes to a happy end, and since Vincent already seems mentally disturbed when the
story begins, we're left in a fine confusion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson