David and Lisa (1962)

“The dream is always the same; I’ve had it many times — only the victim changes. There’s a huge clock with a huge hand, the edge of which is very sharp, like a razor.”

David and Lisa Poster

Synopsis:
An obsessive teenager (Keir Dullea) who fears being touched goes to stay at a mental institution, where he’s treated by Dr. Swinford (Howard Da Silva). He soon makes friends with a disturbed girl named Lisa (Janet Margolin), who speaks only in rhymes.

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Review:
Based on a novel by psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin, this heartfelt story of two troubled teens who find unexpected friendship and support in one another remains remarkably uncloying, thanks in large part to the convincing performances by the two leads. In her film debut, Janet Margolin brings humanity to a role which could easily have become a caricature; and Keir Dullea, as noted in DVD Savant’s review (see link below), is “understandably mannered” in a performance which eventually grows on you. Equally impressive are Howard Da Silva and Clifton James as caring staff members with saintly patience; they make it easy to forgive the film’s overly idealistic portrait of life in a mental institution (see the more recent Manic for a hyper-realistic glimpse at such settings).

While many have expressed frustration with the story’s dated implication that David’s mother (nicely played by Neva Patterson) and father (Richard McMurray) are at least partially responsible for his illness, I found this fairly easy to forgive, given that even individuals with clinically-diagnosed OCD occasionally come from troubled backgrounds. And the fact that Lisa gradually opens up to David doesn’t imply that his friendship has cured her — it’s simply brought her one step closer along the path to wellness. Ultimately, David and Lisa should be seen as a gentle character study rather than a treatise on mental illness; and, as such, it works.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Keir Dullea in perhaps his best role
    Dullea
  • Janet Margolin as Lisa
    Margolin
  • Howard Da Silva as David’s caring doctor
  • David’s father, in a heartbreaking sequence, trying desperately to communicate with his son
  • Leonard Hirschfield’s b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for its status as a beloved Oscar nominee. It’s listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “David and Lisa (1962)”

  1. A must – rather in agreement with the assessment, and not much to add.

    In many ways, director Perry shared John Huston’s preoccupation with losers, loners, the disenfranchised. Since Huston is my favorite director and his recurring theme is so similar, I can’t claim just a passing interest in Perry.

    Admittedly, there are moments when both Dullea and Margolin (esp. early on for both) seem ‘a bit much’ but, as noted, ‘D&L’ works much better as a character study than a treatise on mental illness. Margolin is esp. radiant in close-up when Dullea makes her realize her real worth for the first time: “I’m a girl! – a pearl of a girl!”

    And Da Silva almost steals the picture from both of them. He was such a dependable character actor (‘1776’, ‘Mommie Dearest’, etc.).

    Mention should also be made of two of the supporting cast members: Jaime Sanchez as Carlos (his story about his mother, the hooker, is perhaps the only genuinely hilarious bit) and Coni Hudak as Kate (almost a ringer for Cherry Jones, in looks and voice; I wanted to know more about her character).

    Though McMurray does have a great ‘dad’ speech, and Patterson gets a good dig into him (“Whoever heard of the college YOU went to?”), the best exchange is between Patterson and Dullea:

    Patterson: “David, you never used to talk to me like that?”
    Dullea: “What makes you think that I ever really talk to you at all? When people talk, it means they say what they really feel. All you ever do is toss words around.”

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