Movie Review: Lolita (1962)
“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon
Synopsis: A college professor becomes infatuated with the fourteen-year-old daughter of his landlady.
‘How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?’ asked the posters for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel about a middle-aged French professor’s infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. The answer, inevitably, was to dilute its content in order to conform to the censorship demands of the day, and yet, somehow, Stanley Kubrick still managed to fashion something special from a script by Nabokov which he substantially reworked. Humbert Humbert, a confirmed paedophile in Nabokov’s novel, is transformed into a victim of both his desires and the object of those desires by Kubrick and Nabokov’s coolly incisive script. His infatuation with Lolita – whose age was increased from 12 to 14 for the movie – is portrayed as a one-off aberration instead of the symptom of a permanent condition. His desire for her becomes almost palatable, and somehow we begin to sympathise with this poor lost wretch of a man.
James Mason (North By Northwest, A Touch of Larceny), always a cultured and dignified actor, makes Humbert an urbane but slightly pompous sophisticate whose poorly concealed sense of superiority over potential landlady Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters – A Double Life, Alfie) is lost on her but not the audience. It’s only when he spies Charlotte’s bikini-clad daughter, the precocious Lolita (Sue Lyon), regarding him from over her cats-eye sunglasses as she sucks on a lollipop in her mother’s sun-drenched garden, that Humbert’s superciliousness evaporates. His obsession is immediate, and absolute and unquestioned. So completely is he in Lolita’s thrall that he marries the mother to be near to the daughter. It’s a bizarre mismatch that should be apparent to all but perhaps the bride, and cracks soon appear, particularly when Charlotte packs her daughter off to summer camp then talks about sending her to boarding school. Humbert considers murder, but is unable to go through with it. Then fate steps in to crush the hapless Charlotte beneath the wheels of a car. The driver later offers to pay for her funeral, and Humbert accepts. Now he has Lolita all to himself…
The audacity of Kubrick’s film, arriving at a time when it was still forbidden to show two adults engaged in sexual congress, is quite staggering, and had Lolita been written as a straightforward drama the likelihood of it even reaching screens was slim. However, Kubrick deftly sidestepped many censorship issues by transforming Humbert into a weak, non-threatening character who is never in control of a relationship which offers him nothing but fear and uncertainty. Sex between man and child is addressed only once before the screen coyly fades to black, and even then Lolita is the seductress who, after Humbert has slept at the foot of her bed like a pet too heavy to share her mattress, softens the implications by equating the act to a child’s game.
Mason tackles a difficult role with aplomb as his character at first hides the depth of his feelings from Charlotte – the way in which he conveys dismay or alarm while maintaining an expression of careful neutrality upon hearing unwelcome news that might keep him and Lolita apart is surely something to behold – and then struggles to hold on to what remains of his tattered dignity as he succumbs to doubts, jealousy and failing health once he and Lolita are together. But his performance would be nowhere near as effective without an equally composed performance from 16-year-old Sue Lyon, who makes one of cinema’s most memorable debuts as Lolita and finds exactly the right balance between juvenile temperament and ripening womanhood without relying on extremes of childish expressions or overt sexuality. Seasoned pro Winters also impresses as Lolita’s middle-aged mother, behind whose tactless pursuit of Humbert lies a quietly tragic fear of loneliness in old age.
One other way in which Kubrick’s film differs from the novel is that the part of Humbert’s nemesis, the vain and self-absorbed TV screenwriter Clare Quilty, has been expanded. Quilty is the dark side of Humbert in many ways, who, in his attempts to seduce Lolita away from Humbert inadvertently acts as the voice of his conscience. He’s an important and necessary component of the story, but is ill-served by a typically indulgent performance from Peter Sellers (A Shot in the Dark, Dr. Strangelove), an over-rated comic actor whose overblown efforts to stamp his personality on a film too often proved to be a film’s undoing. Thankfully, he doesn’t quite manage to derail Lolita entirely – although his conversation with Humbert in the guise of a school psychiatrist (a clear forerunner of Dr. Strangelove) comes close to doing so – but only because the role is relatively small one, despite its expansion. Sellers’ intrusive presence, an overlong running time which serves only to make Humbert’s mounting insecurities increasingly tiresome, and a strangely abrupt ending prevent Lolita from being a classic, but Kubrick’s version of Nabokov’s novel undoubtedly remains the best to date.
(Reviewed 27th May 2016)