Robert Rossen is best known for having written and directed All The King’s Men, Alexander The Great and The Hustler. But little is written of his final feature, the intimate and often tragic Lilith (1964). Lilith concerns itself with a young woman, Lilith (Jean Seberg), who forms a romantic attachment with her therapist Vincent (Warren Beatty). Though Lilith is the one suffering from mental illness, it is Vincent who exhibits signs of obsession and post-traumatic stress disorder as he endeavors to posses Lilith absolutely.
Lilith is a young woman traumatized by her brother’s suicide, believing that it was his desire to return the love she had for him that drove him to his doom. Henceforth, Lilith has become obsessed with giving her love (with her body) to all people and things. The catch is that one must return these signs of love with greater ones. This is the game that allows Vincent’s sanity to unravel. Traumatized himself in Korea, Vincent returned home wounded to find he sweet heart had married a chauvinist bully (Gene Hackman). On top of that, Vincent’s mother had lost her mind when he was young and took her own life. So Vincent’s insanity is closely linked to that of Lilith, though it only reveals itself as Lilith draws him further and further into her game of love and sex.
Rossen realizes that most of the film’s conflicts are confided within the characters themselves. So rather than allowing his actor to grandstand in scenes with melodramatic monologues, Rossen addresses the issue in both the cinematography of the film and it’s editing. It’s important to note that very little music is used in the film. Scenes unfold in long takes with natural sound. This not only roots these scenes heavily in the audience’s own reality, but also emphasizes the behavior of the film’s characters, which is wonderfully acted by the cast. On the flipside, Rossen also employs an equal number of first person perspective shots. What keeps the film from becoming stylistically lopsided is the content of both these kinds of shots remains essentially the same: long takes emphasizing behavior.
In addition to the previous two styles discussed above, Rossen and cinematographer Eugen Schufftan have constructed shots with an air of fantasy reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast. Used sparingly in scenes of trauma (a sex scene, Vincent lost in the reeds and the film’s climax), these shots attain a significance of empowered revelation through which the allegory of image presents the psychology of Vincent clearly to the audience. With the exception of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (released that same year), Lilith is one of the few American films of the early sixties to reinvent the filmic vernacular of Cocteau for mainstream Hollywood movie making.
What Lilith represents more than anything else is the beginning of the return to personal filmmaking in Hollywood. Unlike Rossen’s semi-autobiographical film The Hustler, Lilith deals in raw emotions and the ramifications these emotions and their accompanying histories have upon the characters and the people in their lives. If The Hustler were the embodiment of Rossen the man, Lilith is the embodiment of his heart and soul. That Rossen made Lilith so late in his career speaks to both his reluctance to probe such subject matter as it does to Hollywood’s inability to cede complete control of a production to just one man.