‘David and Lisa’: indie classic celebrates 50th anniversary

Sometimes it is best not to test a fond memory.

A friend recently told me about watching a favorite film of his youth — the 1966 antiwar comedy “King of Hearts” — and being disappointed by it. The movie wasn’t nearly as good as he remembered it.

I had a similar experience the other night when I saw the 1962 Frank Perry drama “David and Lisa” for the first time since a revival house screening in my teens.   

The movie is a landmark in the history of American independent film. Director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife Eleanor raised the $180,000 they needed to shoot this story of two mentally ill young people who meet in a private facility in the Philadelphia suburbs.

New York City theater operator Walter Reade distributed the film on the same U.S. arthouse circuit that usually handled foreign movies and struck gold — “David and Lisa” played for months and proved that a small, non-Hollywood production could earn a huge profit with properly handling.

The sensitive approach to delicate subject matter — and the outstanding performances of the two leads, Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin — turned the film into a major financial success and resulted in both Perrys receiving Oscar nominations in the same year as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

50 years ago, the sympathetic dramatization of the relationship between a disturbed young man and his psychiatrist (well played in the film by Howard DaSilva) was novel. These scenes in the movie now look like a road map for the similar analyst-patient relationship in “Ordinary People” 18 years later.

The jarring element in “David and Lisa” now is the overwrought score by Mark Lawrence that punctuates almost every emotional scene in the movie. The music is especially bad in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film, hyping up scenes that would be much more effective with no music or a more subtle approach.

The power of the performances by Dullea and Margolin is still strong, but I kept wishing I could edit out the crude music. It points up the more melodramatic elements in the story, telling us when to react to something rather than letting the material speak for itself.