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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 reverse course.
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.
Producer: Robert Rossen
Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Robert Rossen; (novel by J.R. Salamanca)
Cinematography: Eugen Schufftan
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert (production design)
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Film Editing: Aram Avakian
Cast: Warren Beatty (Vincent Bruce), Jean Seberg (Lilith Arthur), Peter Fonda (Stephen Evshevsky), Kim Hunter (Dr. Bea Brice), Jessica Walter (Laura), Gene Hackman (Norma).
by Jay Carr
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