You couldn’t make this now. What top-ranked actor would be willing to play a character who takes sexual advantage of a vulnerable young woman? You’d find it even harder to get a marquee name to play a female with paedophiliac tendencies, predatory sexual instincts and thinks it fine to drive a lovelorn young man to suicide.
That it was feasible back in the day was largely due to the restraints imposed by the much-maligned Production Code. Most of the issues are delicately probed, the problematic themes only touched upon, so that the result is quite amazing, the director turning to the lyrical, rendered by its intensity a metaphor for internal conflict.
War veteran Vincent (Warren Beatty) takes a job as an occupational therapist at an upmarket mental institution, the kind that looks more like a country club or grand hotel with extensive manicured grounds. Few of the inmates are of the type found in the normal hospitals for the insane, the worst cases a woman with a maniacal laugh and another who treats a doll like a baby, but he is warned insane women are more “sinister” than crazy men.
One of his charges is the withdrawn Lilith (Jean Seberg) whom he gradually coaxes out of her shell, soon believing that it is his innate skill that brings about the possibility that such a high-risk individual could possibly achieve something akin to cure, or at least a greater degree of normality. You can hardly blame him for missing the obvious – that Lilith is using him – for the young woman is every inch the winsome innocent seeking guidance from the more mature responsible male.
It’s mostly shorn of obvious metaphor but there is one scene, compelling in itself, where Vincent plays the knight on horseback, complete with lance, winning a contest of skills for his lady, that completes his idealisation in her eyes. But he is already halfway there, with unexpected dexterity he frees her hair caught in loom, the kind of scene that in an otherwise more romantically-inclined movie would be the meet-cute.
And this isn’t one of those films about a madwoman in an attic or an apparently sane person turning demented. Instead, considerable time is spent analysing the condition of the schizophrenic, either through clinical lead Dr Lavrier (James Patterson) expounding his theories or through Vincent discussing individual patients with his boss Dr Brice (Kim Hunter). The idea of opening up a new realm to an audience is crystallised in one scene where Lavrier explains that even spiders go mad, resulting in asymmetrical webs rather than the typical formations to which we are more accustomed.
And by using one of the oldest tricks in the book, an inexperienced young man negotiating a new world, disbelief is suspended. But just when we think we are seeing everything from Vincent’s perspective, we are thrown into a heightened intensity linked to the lyrical – a river, a waterfall – the madness of ecstasy, what used to be called rapture, as Lilith stares and stares at nature.
But there are warnings about the personality of both characters. Lilith bears a startling resemblance to Vincent’s dead mother. He has difficulty committing, lack of communication while away at war resulting in girlfriend Yvonne (Anne Meacham) marrying someone else.
And there is plenty that is disconcerting about Lilith that only the besotted would overlook. She leads on lovelorn Stephen (Peter Fonda) to potential disasters he cannot foresee. Angry at Vincent, “I show my love for all of you and you despise me,” she seduces vulnerable older patient Laura (Jessica Walter). But the worst aspect of her character is that she perceives no boundaries to behavior. She exhibits inappropriate attitudes to young boys, inviting one to rub his finger along her lower lip.
However, for most of the film the skilful direction of Robert Rossen (The Hustler, 1961) has you rooting for the young lovers. Even while never falling back on the cliché of the doctor-type saving the ill person, there is enough in Vincent’s earnestness and Lilith’s innocence to make that a distinct possibility, were it not for the other discordant elements of her character. The picture is wrapped in natural sound – the river, waterfall, a flute playing mournful tune, ping-pong ball hitting bat, reeds or branches parting, rain, footsteps, a ticking clock, and the bulk of the music emanates from Stephen’s radio. And then he will twist it slightly, reflections are seen upside-down in the river, or a shot of the waterfall is held for too long, the sound of water increasing, or Lilith standing in the river bends down to kiss the surface, or at a picnic she eats a leaf irrespective of whether it might be poisonous.
Usually, when you get so much detail it’s a surfeit, and ends up drowning the viewer. But that’s not the case here. Either it builds or expands. And there is even a throwaway that mocks the notion of containing madness in an institution. The best, most revealing, line in the picture is not spoken by either of the two principals, but secondary character Yvonne, seen only at the beginning and end. When for unspecified reasons Vincent turns up at her house and her husband (Gene Hackman) leaves them on their own, she says, “I told you I’d never really let you make love to me until I was married,” (pause), “well, I’m married now.”
Jean Seberg (Moment to Moment, 1966) is just superb, coming across as a young woman entering adulthood full of fears and insecurities, only suggesting the darker side of her character, and never giving in to the temptation of overplaying. Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966) can’t quite match her for subtlety or kick those acting mannerisms – lowered head, looking away – but his stupefied expression towards the end as he realizes just what he has taken on is priceless.
There’s an outstanding cast of rising stars. Peter Fonda (Easy Rider) as the preppy insecure victim is excellent while Jessica Walter suggests the qualities that would make her the prime candidate for the femme fatale in Play Misty for Me (1971). Gene Hackman, in his movie debut and still working on his trademark chuckle, provides early evidence of his immense talent.
Robert Rossen, who wrote the screenplay (from the novel by J.R. Salamanca) and also produced, couldn’t have wished for a better epitaph. This was his final film in a relatively short career – he only directed 10 films.
Despite contemporary reservations about the content this is a beautifully observed piece and well worth a look.