Walter Mencken 4 p.m., May 3
DVD Rentals: Lilith
Jean Seberg & Warren Beatty star as inmates in director Robert Rossen's stylish insane asylum
I head up to Burbank for a little R&R and wind up with the flu. What better way to pass the time than by sleeping and watching old movies?
Dave Kehr called Lilith a complete contradiction of director/social critic Robert Rossen’s career. Others claim that Rossen was dying when he wrote and directed Lilith and view his final film as compensation for his behavior during the McCarthy witch hunts. Rossen, who originally refused to testify at the HUAC hearings but later admitted to being a member of the Communist Party, eventually named 57 names.
Variety accused Rossen of adapting J.R. Salamanca’s novel “with obvious attempt to shock." The film received such a hostile reaction from US critics that an aggrieved Rossen pulled it out of contention at the Venice Film Festival and delayed its release in the UK by two years.
I’ll argue that every Hollywood film about the mentally ill, particularly those involving insane asylums, is intended to shock its audience. From The Snake Pit forward, no matter how well intentioned, films about the mentally challenged tend to follow three plot paths: Expose the truth, pity the poor simpletons, or there but for the grace of God goes the viewer. The last one is key to ensuring audiences a better feeling walking out than they had going in.
Take away the investigative reporting angle and Lilith shares the same basic premise as Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor: a man has a job to do inside a mental institution and by the time his work is completed he’s crazier than those he came to help in the first place. The main difference is Fuller knew the story was hackneyed going in. Rossen appears to be reinventing the wheel.
Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty) drifts into frame from as if he stopped home after the Korean war just long enough for a shower and change of clothes before once again taking to the woods, this time in search of a job, not the enemy. Vincent emerges from a wooded glade to find his future place of employment, a strictly upper-crust mad house populated by wealthy, more sedate “lunatics” who come from otherwise “good stock.”
This is the type of "Laughing Academy" where the patients are better dressed than the staff. Joe Kennedy would have been proud to banish daughter Rosemary to a swanky nut house like Maryland's Poplar Lodge. A native of Stonemont, growing up Vincent always had a fascination with the place.
Dr. Brice (Kim Hunter) conducts the job interview/site walk through and introduces shy Vincent to a vast and sundry gathering of the regulars. There is a grinning giant, Mrs. Meaghan (Anne Meacham) a beautiful paranoiac who confesses to having “many enemies,” a lefty egghead burnt out on Dostoevsky, ping-pong players, and a middle-aged hausfrau whose use of the headmistresses' name in every sentence is enough to drive any sane-thinking person up the wall. Even though Vincent is hardly qualified for the job, Dr. Brice hires him because she senses in him a willingness to help humanity. As an occupational therapist Vincent will oversee the cleanest, smartest, most physically attractive, and well groomed bunch of mental defectives ever put on film.
None are lovelier than Lilith (Jean Seberg).
In order to further distance the doctor from her prospective employee, Rossen waits to position his players at a refreshment stand where Dr. Brice braces Vincent with news that the job is “dirty, often degrading” and “sometimes dangerous.” These three words just so happen to describe Vincent’s infatuation with our lead lunatic Lilith.
Brice observes, “Somehow insanity seems a lot less sinister to watch in a man than in a woman, doesn’t it?” And in the eyes of Vincent, a whole lot sexier! The interview ends abruptly when a nurse comes to fetch the head doctor much in the same manner she’d remind a patient to take their meds.
While waiting for a bus in a rainstorm, Vincent’s former girlfriend Laura (Jessica Walter) spends more time looking over her shoulder then she does her ex, Norman (Gene Hackman), a doltish Grady Sutton type. Underscored by a perfectly timed cut-in to Vincent, Laura manages to slip in a caustic dig about never mentioning a future between them in one of his letters from the front. In less than a minute, she manages to exculpate herself from blame, prove her choice of Norman over Vincent to be a sound one, and catch her bus!
Outside it pours, but inside Poplar Lodge days are sunny and bright. Compare it to Vincent’s home life with grandma. The ominous low-key lighting transforms a quiet dinner scene into something out of Night of the Hunter.
From the moment Vincent arrived for the job interview, Lilith spied on him from her second-story cage. She’ll occasionally underscore her voyeurism by gently blowing a tune on her recorder. If Vincent is on duty, Lilith is sure to be keeping watch. We never see the first time they meet. By now, it has been made clear that Lilith is well aware of Vincent’s presence so Rossen wisely drops the formality.
Dr. Brice sends Vincent to see if he can’t entice Lilith to join them for a group outing. One look at the young, handsome, and terribly tortured occupational therapist and Lilith does everything short of calling “shotgun” as she flies through the door. With Lilith outside of her lair, it’s a bit of a cheat to return to the POV shot from her grated window as we watch the young couple get into a car.
The only unconventional behavioral twist Lilith displays during the picnic comes when she spits off a bridge to get a laugh out of fellow inmate Stephen Evshevsky (Peter Fonda). Jean Seberg is so hot that any guy in or out of his right mind would overlook a hocker. Some guys might even dig it.
The rest of the time she is content to use nature as her implement to capture images and color in her sketchbook. And speaking of arrested development, whose idea was it to cast Fonda, another perfect human specimen as a mental patient? With his haircut and horn-rimmed spectacles right down to the seersucker threads, Fonda no more looks the part than if Chris Burke were to star in a remake of Easy Rider. Only when Fonda asks, “Would you think I was Jewish?” did I once question his sanity.
The outing ends in rain with Stephen almost falling into the briny deep as Lilith looks on. Back at her padded pad, we cross boundaries and for the first time peek inside her room from outside the grated window. Instead of reprimanding Stephen for venturing too far on the rocks to fetch Lilith’s paintbrush, Vincent wades into the girl for almost leading the foolish preppie to his doom. We never see Lilith instruct Stephen to retrieve her brush. She later tells Vincent that was the reason Stephen was so close to the water. For a brief moment, Vincent believes it was an attempt on the part of Lilith’s to kill Stephen.
It gets a bit sticky when sanitarium head Dr.Lavrier (James Patterson) compares the mentally handicapped to “fine crystal which has been shattered by the shock of some intolerable revelation” and feels “that they have been destroyed by their own excellence.” Regarded in this way, they are the heroes of the universe. Its finest product and its noblest casualty.
So far Lilith is nothing more than your average, run of the mill spoiled hot chick who harbors a deep, unhealthy preoccupation with water and an ability to use her good looks to get what she wants in life. At a Renaissance Fair (normally a magnet for mental patients), Lilith reveals a darker side by flirting with and kissing a pre-teen watermelon vendor. As Vincent looks on, Lilith manages to wriggle her way out of paying for some ice by offering the young boy a kiss in exchange. It’s a scene designed to mix tension and sensuality in order to leave the viewer with an unquestionably uncomfortable feeling.
Sex changes everything and that goes triple when your love is as crazy taboo as the one depicted in this movie. No sooner do Lilith and Vincent finally get it on, he finds his darling out in the barn getting it on with sexy Mrs. Meaghan. Vincent finally reveals his true colors. Out of their arguments and nagging has come a weird kind of love.
Never one to utter a complete thought, Vincent clearly strings together his most important three-word sentence in the movie: "You dirty bitch!" It's a Columbia Picture so naturally the dubbing is nice and clear. (As a kid, the two or three shots of the pretty older ladies buttoning up after acting naughty was a godsend, something to think about before falling asleep.)
One reel later finds Vincent exiting a bar. On his way out he deposits a half consumed drink with an anonymous woman with the assurance, "This one's for you, bitch." His strange, and I do mean strange kind of relationship with Lilith leaves him referring to all beautiful young women as female dogs.
Their argument had nothing to do with mental capacity. Vincent is no more miffed at her because she eats her soup with a knife than Lilith is disappointed that he continually beats her at Scrabble. This is no longer a problem picture about a sane man falling in love with an insane woman. It's suddenly about a guy who pretends to be repulsed after catching his chick getting a little hey-hey in the hayloft with another babe. This could have taken place anywhere there's a barn, who even needs an insane asylum? In reality, he's so turned on that he can't wait to ditch the cougar so he can fantasize about her during make-up sex with Lilith.
After one of their torrid, but oddly empty sessions of crazy love, Vincent, missing the stability Laura would have offered, takes the long way home past his ex's house. Water is also associated with Laura; it pours whenever she's around. She asks him in for a cup of coffee with Norman who lives with his mother-in-law and has colon trouble that's bad enough to keep him out of the military. At one point Norman lets slip that Laura mentioned Vincent's mother used to be a little...you know, funny. It's the only fresh piece of information in a scene otherwise designed to show Vincent's life away from Lilith.
Vincent saves Lilith from another predatory confrontation with a young boy and to further underscore the nature of their relationship, he buys them an aquarium. There's a hint that Lilith killed her brother because he didn't love her. Stephen asks whether insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness. Vincent suggest that the opposite might be closer to the truth. (Sanity could be so complex a thing as happiness?) By now Vincent has slipped into verbal non-sequiturs. ("Scotch, blood on the side.")
After warning that he's not to be trusted, Vincent produces the cherished keepsake that Stephen gave Lilith as a gift. It's another betrayal and a big enough shock to cause Stephen to fall on his sword, or in this case a kitchen knife. Lilith is reduced to a catatonic state and Vincent begs his superiors to "help me."
If you're into beautifully photographed movies about hot sick chicks, they don't come much better than Lilith. It was shot by Eugen Schufftan, the legendary visual effects artist who worked on Metropolis and Napoleon and later photographed the Siodmak Brothers Menschen am Sonntag, G.W. Pabst's L'Atlantide, Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows, Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, and Rossen's The Hustler (in addition to several uncredited turns for Douglas Sirk and Edgar G. Ulmer). There is not one bad frame in all of Lilith and you have Mr. Schufftan to thank for it. His gossamer whites, dampened grays, and forlorn blacks tell us more than the actor's pensive faces. It's best to have Rossen's bumpy vision filtered through Schufftan's shock absorbing lens.
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