Lolita sits as a turning point in Stanley Kubrick’s career. It came after Spartacus, a director-for-hire gig, and thus a film in which he didn’t have his usual meticulous creative control or the stamp of authorship. That said, Spartacus is still a fantastic action epic, one of the best Hollywood has ever produced and a huge success. With Lolita, we see Kubrick working with James B. Harris (Paths of Glory, The Killing) again and outside of Hollywood in England, with the dark comedic and salacious subject matter we would see in his later films.
Lolita (1962) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: James Mason, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers
By Alan Bacchus
For most of Lolita Kubrick directs the film with the same invisible style as Spartacus, invisible to the immediately recognizable Kubrick hallmarks. There are few wide-angle tracking shots, no brooding classical music cues and no Kubrick ‘look.’ As such, Kubrick remains, as best he could, faithful to Nabakov’s incendiary material.
And incendiary it is. The relationship of a 14-year-old girl and a grossly perverted middle-aged man is played for serious. Humbert Humbert is never really taken to task for his sick and twisted fascination with Lolita, in what really amounts to statutory rape. That said, Humbert is no innocent man. The trajectory of the narrative leads to his psychological demise, a victim of his own obsessions.
Lolita is not a complete masterpiece, as we usually expect from the great director. It suffers from a fault inherent in the story’s architecture. Lolita has the distinction of featuring the most complex and interesting female character Kubrick has ever directed. Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) is arguably the star of the film, and (spoiler alert) when she dies halfway into the picture the film becomes considerably less funny and less interesting.
Going back to the beginning though. James Mason plays a British professor from New Hampshire who is spending the summer at Beardsley College. While looking for a sublet from a recent widow, Charlotte Haze, he catches a glimpse of her gorgeous and teasing jail-bait daughter Lolita sunbathing in the backyard. What reservations he had about Charlotte are tempered by the intoxicating allure of her young daughter.
And so begins Humbert’s sly and devilish courtship of the young girl. With the male hormones in full control, the dirty old man marries Charlotte in order to get to Lolita. After Charlotte’s suicide, the last hurdle toward full sexual bliss with Lolita is complete. Little does he know another equally devilish pervert, Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a local bohemian playwright, has his eyes on Lolita as well. The battle of the sexes was never more competitive and dangerous.
Shelley Winters is mesmerizing as the elder nymphet who lusts after Humbert. Her courtship of him, which runs counter to Humbert’s tactics toward Lolita, helps anchor the delicious sexual provocativeness that has made this film as controversial as it is. The key to the complexity of this three-way relationship is the Britishness of Humbert, as the old world gentlemanliness he exudes disarms Charlotte, Lolita and the audience to his sick and twisted motives. And of course it was 1962, and with hardcore censorship in place, like all great directors, Kubrick puts all of these complex sexual layers beneath the surface and between the lines.
The opening half of the film is filled with uproarious banter between Charlotte and Humbert. But as mentioned, when Charlotte leaves the film much of this comic energy leaves with her. Even the great Peter Sellers is unmemorable. As Clare Quilty, his performance is mostly elusive and annoying. Ironically, Sellers' best scene is Quilty playing German guidance counsellor Dr. Zempf, who uses an elaborate disguise to convince Humbert to allow Lolita into the school play. With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, the second half of the film also drags, especially during the road trip journey back from Lolita’s summer camp and their extended stay in New Hampshire.
But this is Stanley Kubrick, and even lower tier Stanley is the stuff of great cinema. Despite its faults Lolita is still essential viewing.
Lolita is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.