LOLITA (1962) B/W widescreen 153m dir: Stanley Kubrick
w/James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Gary Cockrell, Jerry Stovin, Diana Decker, Lois Maxwell, Cec Linder, Bill Greene, Shirley Douglas, Marianne Stone, Marion Mathie, James Dyrenforth, Maxine Holden, John Harrison, Colin Maitland, Terry Kilburn, C. Denier Warren, Roland Brand, Peter Sellers, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Suzanne Gibbs, Roberta Shore
From The Movie Guide: "A fascinating if problematic early film from Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the most obsessive of the great auteurs of the 1960s, made just on the cusp of a run of cinematic masterpieces [DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE]. Here Vladimir Nabokov adapts his own controversial satirical novel about the obsessive love a British middle aged professor develops for a 12-year-old girl. While the novel outraged many bluenoses, the film advances the age of the 'nymphet' to about 15 thereby neutralizing much of the controversy. It's quite long --- too long --- possibly as a result of having Nabokov do his own screen adaptation. Nabokov's novels are so intensely concerned with language that one would expect that they would be particularly difficult to translate to the screen. LOLITA, a great grey comedy of the 1950s, succeeds in carefully setting up and knocking down the shibboleths of the silent generation.
"James Mason is the smitten professor, Humbert Humbert, in love with the American girl, Lolita (Sue Lyon). Shelley Winters is the vulgar mother with misguided intellectual aspirations who is attracted to Humbert. The ever-resourceful Peter Sellers, with a great American accent and a succession of disguises, is a standout as Quilty. The scene in which he explains himself to Mason is a small masterpiece of the acting art. Mason and Winters are less showy but equally impressive while the young Lyons, sadly, is only barely adequate.
"The film is not particularly shocking or titillating; the most erotic scene in the film is a pedicure. Kubrick exhibited great subtlety (he had to, or they'd have given this one a hard time in the theaters) --- perhaps too much subtlety."
From the Alternate Ending website (www.alternateending.com), this 2014 review of the film by Tim Brayton:
"'How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?' screamed the breathless, wink-wink ad campaign in 1962. And this question was obviously meant to ask: how did they ever make a movie, under the moral auspices of the American film industry at that time, based on the 1952 novel about a middle-aged literary scholar and his systematic rape of a 12-year-old girl? For while that kind of story would at all points in film history have been tricky to present on its own terms, it would take an especially elliptical form of storytelling to present such material in the days when, nominally, the Production Code still existed.
"But I would like to add another layer to the question: how did they ever make a movie from such a bookish book as Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's complicated tribute to the English language and the unreliability of first-person narrative, an ephebophilic fantasy told from the point of view of a man who has only his words to concoct a vividly self-serving story out of details that might not have ever happened to him, buried under layers of metafiction. It is a book that has already announced its commitment to the woozy intoxication of language usage by the end of its glorious opening paragraph:
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
"That kind of prose never really lets up anywhere in the book, and the story itself is such a patent hallucination of broken and awkwardly re-assembled memories that even calling it a 'narrative' is begging the question: a narrative of the act of recollection, yes, but a narrative about the events that happened to people at a certain period in time, probably not. So, how did they ever make a movie of Lolita? As best they could, but it wasn't really enough.
"That being said, movies are not books, books are not movies, and a half of a century later, hopefully we can do better than to say, 'Stanley Kubrick's Lolita is problematic as an adaptation of Nabokov's literary triumph'; we might, for example, say 'Stanley Kubrick's Lolita is a different thing that needs to be considered on a different level.' Though I am not so mature about this that I will fail to observe that Nabokov's Lolita is a much better novel than Kubrick's Lolita is a movie (full disclosure: the book is very possibly my favorite work of fiction of the post-WWII era).
"Anyway, let's not spend the whole review in that singularly unproductive space. Kubrick's Lolita --- the screenplay credited to Nabokov himself, though it was significantly re-worked by the director and producer James B. Harris to bring it down to a filmable shape and length --- is a generally cleaner and more straightforward piece than its predecessor, smartly opening with a scene in which a haggard European, Humbert Humbert (James Mason), enters the disastrously cluttered manor home of playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), finds the resident drunk and incoherent and prone to delirious fantastic rants, and shoots him, citing a someone named 'Lolita' as the reason for his act of vengeance.
"This thriller-style opening giving the film more dramatic focus and momentum than the novel, we are free to jump back four years, to find a much more polished and debonair Humbert arriving in Ramsdale, New Hampshire, for a summer's rest to do some writing before traveling to Ohio to teach French literature. Here he rooms with a widow named Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), an insufferable intellectual poseur whom Humbert tolerates solely to be near her gorgeous daughter Dolores (Sue Lyon, an older-looking 14-year-old; the character is at any rate certainly no longer 12), nicknamed Lolita. The Haze women have a fairly acrimonious relationship, both of them responding rather warmly to the European gentleman in their midst; eventually, Humbert marries Charlotte to ensure that he can continue being close to Lolita. Things get more fucked up before ... they never actually do get better. We already know, after all, that Humbert will kill a man before all is said and done. And knowing that Quilty is that figure, we're in a good position to observe how frequently Quilty seems to inveigle himself with Humbert and the Hazes, giving the film Lolita the aspect of a fatalistic tragedy whereas the book is an erratic backwards mystery.
"Prevailing standards made it not just impossible for Kubrick to state outright that Humbert is habitually raping his stepdaughter, it was almost impossible for him to imply it at all. Certainly, it required just about totally throwing out the book's pubescent-obsessed lech with a life's history of bent sexuality, and replacing him with a figure so pathetic as to be almost pitiable. And this, perhaps, explains the film Lolita's most important characteristic, as it distinguishes it from the book, charts the development of Kubrick's style, and simply as it fits into the expanding modernism of 1960s cinema: its utterly deadpan sense of black humor, and its bitterly ironic treatment of sincere topics. The film is a travesty of romantic stories, melodramas, the relatively new form of the TV sitcom, of Father Knowing Best, all done with a flat, nastily absurd tone in which the put-upon sad-sack whose tribulations are treated with such warped amusement is guilty of arguably the two worst crimes an individual can commit: murder and the sexual abuse of a minor.
"This is especially true in the first half of the long (over two and a half hours) movie, when Charlotte is still alive and Lolita's purity untouched, at least by Humbert. To a fascinating and virtually indescribable degree, Lolita is a movie told almost entirely through double entendres and puns both verbal and visual; unable to state directly 'Humbert wants to fuck Lolita,' Kubrick instead makes jokes out of the moments when Humbert is most directly aware of his lusts and the horrible universe that makes it so easy for him to act on them: the only way to get the punchline is to understand what the film can't say, and the only way to puzzle that out is to have the information smuggled to us inside a joke. It's impossible to imagine any of this working on any level without Mason's impeccable expressions of befuddlement and discomfort, a quintessential straight man in a mad world; and of course the mere fact that the straight man is also, objectively, a villain is what gives Lolita the same kick of morally hopeless comedy that Kubrick would develop to more sophisticated lengths in his very next film, the majestic Dr. Strangelove.
"That being said, Lolita pulls back quite a bit from committing to the pitch-black nihilism that Dr. Strangelove would exploit so ruthlessly; it understands, in an intellectual way, that Humbert is Bad News, but does quite a lot to obviate his worst traits. Part of this was censorship-related: he can't be as obsessed with sex, can't be as active in his pursuit of Lolita, and can't be as loathsome in his possession of her, and so for most of the film, he feels less like a predator than a regular middle-aged man who, through sheer accident, has happened to be involved in a long-term sexual relationship that he doesn't apparently enjoy with his underage stepdaughter. Another factor is the opening scene's depiction of Quilty, who in Sellers's energetic performance is so dissolute and reptilian that it's hard not to prefer Humbert just for being a relatively stable and sane human being.
"The greatest factor is the physical embodiment of the women in Humbert's life. Shelley Winters, an actress I have very little enthusiasm for in general, has one thing going for her that absolutely nobody could ever deny: she knew no embarrassment. Time after time, she played women who were whingey wet noodles with pathetically obvious sex drives, utterly humiliating shrews and frumps, and never is there a sense that she felt constrained or personally attacked in such roles. And Charlotte Haze is perhaps the greatest of them all: a desperately middle-class nobody trying with all her might to let slightly airy vocal cadences, utterly self-conscious 'poised' gestures, and an insinuating series of conspiratorial leers sell the lie that she is in fact sophisticated, worldly, and sexy. The one thing she's surely not is appealing: more sad than horrifying, but deeply off-putting either way, and it's really impossible, from the way Kubrick shoots her (his bugs-under-glass style shades into revulsion around Charlotte) not to feel sorry for Humbert having to put up with her.
"As for Lolita herself, Sue Lyon gives the first truly great 'Kubrick' performance on film, as I see it: most of her work consists of doing things in a flat way (stare, sit, shout, smile) and letting the editing and camera movement work its way around her to do the effort of creating her character. This is especially prominent in her famous introduction, wearing a bikini, broad hat, and sunglasses, and looking with a perfectly neutral expression off-camera; it's all the cutting to Mason's nervous, hammy look of overheated zeal that sells the lust which drives the rest of the film, after the very best teachings of Lev Kuleshov. This does two things: one is that it strips away any concern that Lolita will play as too invested in sex, in this heavily, deliberately de-sexed Lolita. The other is that it leaves her a pretty but entirely non-descript young woman of no specific personality, only a kind of frustrated, loud teenager-ness. Which, coupled with the film's retreat from foregrounding the sexual relationship between the characters, makes her feel more like the petulant kid that Humbert is stuck with, instead of the book's depiction of her as the petulant kid that he distorts through a lens of self-serving eroticism. And this too makes us feel a little sorry for Humbert.
"All this leaves the film only ever really successful at the level of morally warped sitcom, though in that capacity it is a damn good one. Still, compared to its immediate successor in Kubrick's career, there's a constant sense that it wishes not to be a comedy: it has a very serious aesthetic. There is, for one, the incredibly gorgeous, sleek look of the thing, with the cinematography credited to Oswald Morris (we as always do not look too closely at such matters, with Kubrick) that offers a tiny little sense of painterly elegance to the all-Americana trappings of the houses and streets and landscapes that make up the movie. And of course the opening itself, in Quilty's manor, is straight-up Gothic mystery, with a foggy tracking shot behind a car that starts the whole movie off, directly predicting The Shining, 18 years on. The film also boasts a seemingly limitless supply of graceful, supple tracking shots from first floors to second floors, through walls and doors, around rooms, treating the simple, generic spaces of the film with the grandeur of a ballet or waltz. The style of it is overwhelmingly romantic, in fact, with grand sinewy gestures and deeply suggestive, atmospheric lighting. And this too could be a joke, though an inordinately straight-faced one.
"Still, the sarcasm will out: Mason's constantly deflated looks, Sellers's grab-bag of accents and caricatures, the crude double-entendres, and the shift from the aching 'Lolita's Theme' composed by Bob Harris in the opening credits to the vapid, hellishly catch pop nonsense 'Lolita Ya Ya' by Nelson Riddle, maybe the first time in Kubrick's filmography that he uses straight-up musical irony. It's a caustic film disguising itself as a love story, and an entirely admirable attempt to find any way of dealing with the source material given impossible strictures. That said, as a Kubrick film, I find that virtually everything it does well was done better in his filmography, and it is quite possibly the most visually straightforward movie he made on professional money, tracking shots or no. Still, the lessons he learned from it are quite obvious, particularly the ones he'd apply on his very next film, the first of his fully mature works and the beginning of an uninterrupted run of world-class masterpieces that ended only with the filmmaker's death."
LOLITA was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (Nabokov).