Lilith was directed by Robert Rossen, an odd mid-60s movie that falls between the old Hollywood that was then ending and the New Hollywood scene that was about to happen. It stars three major actors who would become famous during that period: Warren Beatty, Peter Fonda and Gene Hackman. These stars had begun their careers in the studio system, but by this time they were moving in an independent direction as actors who were also just as creative behind the scenes.
The “Lilith” of the title was played by Jean Seberg, who sadly did not make that transition due to her experience of mental ill health and government surveillance. You probably won’t initially recognise Seberg, as she has long, flowing blonde hair instead of her trademark pixie cut. It’s one of Beatty’s better early performances. He plays war veteran Vincent Bruce, who takes a job as a trainee occupational therapist in a mental institution in Rockville, Maryland, where he falls under the spell of a seductive patient, Lilith. Bruce falls in love with her, and they start a forbidden relationship, but Fonda’s character, a fellow patient, is also interested. Of course it doesn’t end well for anyone.
Rossen was an interesting director for a few reasons. He was a member of the Communist Party, and so was blacklisted during the HUAC era. He did name names during his second appearance before the committee. However, his career was in tatters by then, and it took him the rest of the ’50s to recover. His most famous film previous to this was All the King’s Men, which won three Oscars in 1949 (including best picture), but ended his career with two films that would show the way forward for American cinema in the 60s: The Hustler with Paul Newman, also an Oscar winner, and Lilith. By all accounts it was a really hard shoot, and Rossum’s heart wasn’t in it at that point. He died just two years later. Lilith was shot by Eugen Schüfftan, who had been the cinematographer on Metropolis, the 1927 Napoleon, and many of Max Ophüls’ films, working almost exclusively in Germany and France, with a hiatus in the US during the war. He invented the Schüfftan Process for special effects using miniatures and live actors. His past included Head Against the Wall with George Franju, also set in a mental hospital.
So here you have an excellent cinematographer, a good director, and a group of very good young actors. The film goes into some very dark territory for a film made before 1966. The result is a superb movie, featuring Seberg’s best American role: strange, interesting and well worth rediscovering. You can take issue with how mental health problems are shown, but it’s 1964 after all.
There area few extras on the disc, including a 1990 career-spanning NFT audio interview with Beatty, which obviously would have tied in with the release of Dick Tracy. Beatty doesn’t do many interviews, so it’s a nice find. There’s a visual essay by journalist Amy Simmons on the representation of female madness in cinema , and Pamela Hutchinson contributes an eight-minute talk on the life and career of Jean Seberg. The last features are new and old writing on the film, an image gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. The trailer had been believed lost for years. Joe Dante expressed an interest on his podcast, and I was happy to let him know that it has been found and included on the new Blu-Ray. With any luck we can expect a “Trailers From Hell” segment on Lilith, which is one of Dante’s favourites.