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Columbia TriStar
1964 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 114 min. / Street Date August 24, 2004 /
Starring Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda, Kim Hunter, Anne Meacham, Jessica Walter, Gene Hackman, James Patterson
Cinematography Eugen Schüfftan
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Film Editor Aram Avakian
Original Music Kenyon Hopkins
From a novel by J.R. Salamanca
Written, Produced and Directed by Robert Rossen

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 as well.

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, Lilith rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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