An Uneasy Friendship: David and Lisa (1962)

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To view David and Lisa click here.

David and Lisa (1962) introduces viewers to two young, attractive and deeply troubled patients living at a private mental health clinic. David (Keir Dullea) suffers from extreme anxiety and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which causes him to become severely agitated when another person touches him. The childlike Lisa (Janet Margolin) has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and insists on speaking only in rhymes. The two also exhibit symptoms of autism. Over the course of the film, this unlikely pair form an uneasy friendship that allows them to confront their psychoses.

This sympathetic portrait of mental illness was directed by Frank Perry and based on a book by Dr. Theodore Issac Rubin, a former president of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. Perry’s wife and creative partner Eleanor, who earned a master’s degree in psychiatric social work from Case Western Reserve University, wrote the screenplay. The film was made with just $185,000 and became one of the most prestigious American independent pictures of the 1960s, netting its creator’s several awards including Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Although David and Lisa was a popular and critical success at the time of its release, it tends to be overshadowed by its 1963 Oscar contenders including  Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962), Lolita (1962) and The Miracle Worker (1962).

Despite their relative obscurity among film buffs, Frank and Eleanor Perry made a series of brilliant movies dealing with troubled young people and adults in crisis. These films include Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), The Swimmer (1968), Last Summer (1969), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Play it As it Lays (1972), which was made after the Perrys divorced. David and Lisa was the couple’s first film project and it’s a remarkable debut that feels fresh and innovative while borrowing from classic films that came before it, particularly Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) with its Dali designed dream sequence featuring melting clocks and The Snake Pit (1948), which also presents a compassionate doctor trying to manage his patients care using psychoanalysis among other treatments.

Frank Perry’s direction is subtle and restrained but contains potent images that expose the character’s inner turmoil. The film was shot in Philadelphia and the city’s bustling streets are used to great effect during a gritty night sequence while the impressive Museum of Art becomes a sort of monument to the character’s transformation by the film’s end. The stark black and white photography establishes a somber atmosphere underscored by the use of stark shadows and startling bursts of light. Despite these artistic flourishes, including a Freudian dream sequences that is surprisingly off-kilter and innovative, Perry’s measured approach to the material allows viewers to focus on the performances at the heart of this delicate character study.

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Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin made their screen debuts in David and Lisa and they deliver extraordinarily nuanced portrayals of young adults dealing with mental illness. Dullea’s David is wound tight like a piano wire on the verge of snapping while Margolin imbues Lisa with the perfect combination of innocence and melancholy. Both characters are extremely temperamental and often lash out at doctors as well as other patients but their frustrations are born from their confusion and fear associated with their disabilities. As they learn to cope with their symptoms, they begin to exhibit more tolerance and understanding towards others as well as themselves.

I also want to single out Howard Da Silva’s depiction of the doctor trying to care for David and Lisa. Da Silva’s character was based on Dr. Theodore Issac Rubin and the Perry’s recreated Rubin’s welcoming office, with its fish tank and fresh flowers, to give the film an authenticity that had been missing from previous dramatizations of psychotherapy. There are no couches to lounge on and the good doctor rarely needs to take notes because it’s plainly evident that he’s giving his patient his full attention and his advice is intuitive as well as constructive. This was Da Silva’s first feature film in nearly 10-years after being blacklisted in Hollywood and it’s an impressive return to the screen. His performance earned him a BAFTA (British Academy Film Award) nomination for Best Foreign Actor and he went on to appear in a number of other films including Frank Perry’s controversial Mommie Dearest (1981).

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Fifty-five years have passed since the film’s release and many will find its approach to therapy constricted and dated but at the time it was groundbreaking. There are no scenes of bone-chilling ice baths or shock therapy perpetuated on the institution’s afflicted inhabitants. Today many prefer pharmaceuticals to psychotherapy (or a combination of the two among many other methods of treatment) but David and Lisa emphasizes the benefits of psychoanalysis while presenting an intelligent and sensitive study of mental illness. There is no simple explanation offered for David and Lisa’s conditions although David’s family dynamic alludes to James Dean’s volatile relationship with his parents in Rebel Without a Cause (1956). And we never meet members of Lisa’s family but her waif-like appearance, which recalls Margaret Keane’s paintings of sad-eyed children, and infantile behavior suggest she may have been orphaned or at the very least, emotionally abandoned by her family.

Childhood trauma, as well as an individual’s unique response to their experiences and environment, are just a few of the factors that can exacerbate mental illness and the film does an impressive job of exploring these avenues. In the end, David and Lisa encourages individuals to take charge of their own lives as well as their mental health concerns and that’s a message that should still resonate with many viewers.

Kimberly Lindbergs

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3 Responses An Uneasy Friendship: David and Lisa (1962)
Posted By Doug : July 6, 2017 5:53 pm

Can’t recall seeing this,but I appreciate thoughtful presentations of mental health issues.
It’s usually ‘fingernails on a chalkboard’ annoying to see mental illness ‘hammed up’ or broadly overplayed.
As for this film, I generally love first efforts of directors/actors as they are trying something new, and don’t follow filmic formulas.
Kimberly, your point about “David and Lisa” being overshadowed by the other films is right on. Those are some potent contenders, especially “To Kill A Mocking Bird”.

Posted By MikeD : July 7, 2017 4:55 pm

Back in the mid-60′s, NYC’s WOR Channel 9 regularly scheduled this on it’s Million Dollar Movie. That meant that for a week this film aired daily Mon-Fri and twice a day on weekends. I can still remember the commercials for it. It also meant my brother and I took a week’s break from Million Dollar Movie and waited for Rodan or Frankenstein to show up the next week.

Posted By kingrat : July 8, 2017 12:23 am

DAVID AND LISA holds up very well. A solid film, well directed by Frank Perry. He’s not the only director who made his best films when working with his first wife.

By the way, since Neva Patterson is the Mother from Hell, the subtext is that Lisa helps David escape from the possibility of homosexuality, which was generally believed at this time to be caused by dominant mothers. Simon, the Jewish boy, develops an interest in David which the doctor discourages.

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