Lilith (1964)

18 07 2008

It’s almost mind-blowing that Robert Rossen was able to make this within the 1960s Hollywood system. The only other Hollywood film I can think of that is as audacious is John Frankenheimer’s Seconds and even that was masked under the whole “sci-fi thriller” surface. Lilith, however, is, for the most part, free of any genre classification. At its worst moments, Rossen tries to disguise it under some genre conventions, but his attempts pretty much fail. On a similar note, there’s also plenty of typical Hollywood manipulation techniques, but even then, the very Antonioni-esque sensibility shines through. It is perplexing to think that Rossen somehow convinced a studio to give him money for such a gracefully nuanced work, not to mention, that he was actually capable of such a drama.

Vincent Bruce has returned home from his military service and life is not how he left it. His former lover, Laura, has moved into a comfortable suburban marriage. In other words, he has been completely abandoned but he looks to cure his loneliness by applying for a job at the local insane asylum. It is there that meets Lilith, a patient who has been in the asylum since she was a teenager. The asylum’s other workers have rather unpleasant stories about Lilith to share with Vincent, but his experiences with her have been almost completely positive. It turns out that she is desperately in love with Vincent.

The first fifteen minutes or so are particularly note-worthy as it perfectly and almost silently, builds enough alienation to be within the same ballpark as any Tsai Ming-liang film. Unsurprisingly, Lilith falls far short of such standards, but that is perfectly understandable when one takes into the consideration when the film was made. Not all is lost after the opening, though, as there is still a very nice and quiet manner in which the story, of what little there is, unfolds. The sparseness of both the story and the technique really go a long way to make the film as great as it is.

Eventually, things start to pick up, and not necessarily in a positive way. Once Jean Seberg’s character is introduced, the film becomes a bit more lively and a lot less impressive, too. That isn’t to say it is her fault entirely, but her introduction also marks the start of more conventional musical manipulation. She actually is responsible for the best scene in the film, where, at a fair, she talks to two little boys about blood. These are the odd sequences that, if anything, the film needed a lot more of, especially considering that the faux-psychological thriller crap begins to sneak its way into the film’s sub-conscious. Still, it is pretty remarkable to think that general audiences could go to any major theater and see this. The experience of watching Lilith is bizarre due to how many “big stars” participated in such a Antonioni-esque drama. It’s almost surreal to see Warren Beatty successfully pull off the whole “alienation” vibe. Equally odd is the small cameo made by Ben Carruthers from John Cassavetes’ Shadows.

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