Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 1, 2016)
As was the case for many folks of my generation, my first acquaintance with Lolita came through its mention in the 1980 song "Don't Stand So Close To Me" by the Police. The tune told a story of a teacher's infatuation with a female student, and it included the line, "It's no use/He sees her/He starts to shake and cough/Just like the/Old man in/That book by Nabokov”.
Until I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s movie, that's largely where my acquaintance with the tale remained. In the ensuing years, however, I learned the gist of Lolita and got to know at least the characters' names, but that as about it.
Although I knew the basic points of the story, I was unsure what kind of a movie Kubrick's Lolita would be when I finally viewed it in 1999. Ultimately, I see the film as something of a black comedy that deals - as do most Kubrick offerings - with the negative consequences of inappropriate behavior. Did Kubrick ever make a film with a happy ending? Not that I can recall, and Lolita was no different.
Literature professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) comes to New Hampshire to teach and he rents a room in a house owned by lonely widow Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). Humbert finds himself annoyed by the cloying, desperate Charlotte, but he also immediately becomes smitten by Charlotte’s 14-year-old daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon).
Due to his infatuation with the teen, Humbert rents the room and finds himself more and more a part of this little “family”. We follow the developments of Humbert’s crush and the dark path this takes.
It seems odd to make a comedy out of a 40-something man's passion for an underage girl, but Kubrick did, and did so successfully. I suppose Humbert could be called a pedophile in this case but I think that term doesn't accurately explain the situation.
At least as depicted in this film, Humbert doesn't seem sexually attracted to children in general; it's just this one specific child, and Lolita (Sue Lyon) wasn't a very young girl. Lyon was 15 during the shoot and looked rather well-developed, so it’s not like Humbert pursues a physical child, though Lolita seems immature in other ways. Of course, so does her mother Charlotte, so the age of majority clearly doesn’t automatically make one a full-fledged adult.
At any rate, I find the potential scandal of an affair between an older male and a fairly young female to be largely superfluous to the point of the film. Kubrick maintains more of a morality tale about obsessive love.
As such, ultimately it’s Humbert's possessiveness and obsession that doom him, not his simple attraction to Lolita. (By the way, I know all these statements may seem like spoilers, but since the film starts with Humbert's ultimate ending and then enters "flashback" mode, I'm not really giving away much.) Humbert goes completely over the edge because of his feelings, and he ultimately ruins many others through his actions.
Kubrick doesn't present the film as the overwrought drama my description makes it appear, though. As I mentioned earlier, it’s essentially a comedy, and a very entertaining one at that.
Mason cuts a strong figure as Humbert; he maintains a wide variety of emotions but never lets the character degenerate into cartoonishness. The same goes for Winters, who easily could have made Charlotte into nothing more than a broad caricature. While she often does come across as excessively obnoxious, Winters conveys a veneer of sad humanity that breaks through the blather; you may dislike Charlotte - often intensely - but you still feel for her.
Lyon's stiff performance as Lolita engenders fewer positive sentiments. While she was an attractive girl with some decent physical charms, I find it difficult to believe that Humbert and others would grow so obsessively enamored of her simply because the kid seems so annoying.
Lyon’s work displayed little charm and allure. She seems very good when Lolita needs to be a little monster, but she can't pull off the more seductive aspects of the role; she always seems like a brat.
I'm somewhat unsure of my ultimate opinion of Peter Sellers' performance. On one hand, he seems tremendously entertaining and funny as hipster writer Claire Quilty, but Sellers may have been too witty in the role. He tends to play the part as something of a cartoon buffoon, and we rarely see why Quilty is so well-regarded in the community.
I think part of Quilty's degeneration into a stumbling and stammering wreck occurs because of the seductive influence of Lolita, for we briefly observe him as suave gadabout early in the film. Unfortunately, I don't find this clear, and I'm mainly speculating on it. I like Sellers' performance, as it provides the comic highlight of the picture, but I'm not sure it suits the film.
Ultimately, Kubrick delivers a compelling sermon on moral weakness in Lolita. If you've read my other reviews of his films, you'll know I've been somewhat indifferent toward much of his work. Lolita, however, seems well-done and consistently provocative. I expect it's a film that offers many layers and will open up to additional interpretations upon repeated viewings.