After directing the dour anti-war film Paths of Glory (1957) and being a hired gun on the melodramatic Spartacus (1960), Stanley Kubrick probably wanted a more uplifting project, preferably one with comedic sensibilities as dark as his own, and the perfect source material was Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous best selling novel Lolita.
As the original trailer campaign blurted to audiences, ‘They made a movie of Lolita?’
Indeed, they did! In 1962. With the author writing the script to preserve the novel's integrity. Well, sort of. Lolita’s age was bumped up to 14, and Kubrick rewrote Nabokov’s script to the point where the author admitted little of his original adaptation was left in the film (which is ironic, considering Nabokov received an Oscar nomination that year).
Lolita initially comes off as a rather chilly film, but its humour resides in the sheer absurdity of a poet / professor named Humbert Humbert (James Mason, seemingly enjoying every nuance of his character) who rents a room from a widower to get between the legs of her teenage daughter – a brat named Lolita (Sue Lyon, perfectly cast) - while the mother (Shelley Winters, who deserved an Oscar nomination) is falling in love with him, and is oblivious to his improper dreaming.
Humbert is set to leave when his teaching term ends, but due to a series of fortuitously tragic events, he becomes in charge of Lolita as her only surviving family. He then takes her on a ridiculous road trip, and seduces & sleeps with her, unaware the rest of humanity seems to think he’s not only odd, but potentially a filthy, wrong-minded professor.
His undoing comes from playwright Clare Quilty (scene-stealing Peter Sellers), a little weasel who sees Humbert as the pederast he is, and makes him his special project – ruining his chances at libertine bedroom pleasures, and sending Lolita into oblivion. Humbert eventually gets his revenge - the film’s ending is actually placed prior to the main credit sequence – but Kubrick breaks audience expectations by avoiding any graphic titillation and violence, and uses innuendo and cleverly framed shots to create a social satire that still manages to shock using less frankness than Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake.
Kubrick seemed to have reveled in tormenting the character to the point were Nabokov’s tale becomes neo-slapstick. The fact there are humorous sequences could be a turnoff for the novel’s fans, but Kubrick’s approach was unique in taking ugly behaviour and dramatizing its intricacies as utterly ridiculous. Humbert never manages to possess Lolita in spirit, heart, and physicality, and his anger creates a paranoid sociopath who trusts no one, and is too far gone to comprehend what’s moral anymore.
He smiles and delivers impeccably timed polite remarks to avoid a public fracas with Quilty or any other accuser, but he’s not smart enough to make calculated moves. Like his road trip with Lolita, he’s winging it, making things up at every turn: when he picks up Lolita from camp, he can’t figure out how to tell her of her mother’s death, so he focuses on bedding her, until he has no choice but to explain the sudden demise of mumsy.
Humbert is also not bright enough to spot the moment when he’s being put on, and each time Quilty enters his life – either as himself, or impersonating a police officer at a convention, a school psychiatrist named Dr. Senf (mustard, in German), or a crank caller / blackmailer / Lolita’s ‘uncle’) – Humbert only senses Quilty’s aggressiveness; he can’t see through the performance nor the accent that he’s being set up for an elaborate play.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray doesn’t include any extras beyond a trailer – rather odd, considering Lolita marked the beginning of Kubrick’s most sophisticated filmmaking phase – so there’s no background on the film’s conception, writing, and how the actors handled Kubrick’s perfectionism. Pity the disc's producers weren't able to secure access to some of the ephemera recently discovered by Jon Ronson, and excerpted in the Channel 4 doc Stanley Kubrick's Boxes [M] (2008), such as Sue Lyon's original screen test, and newsreel footage from the premiere.
The script sparkles with ridiculous dialogue that’s often delivered in bravura monologues and long takes, and foreshadows the more robust metaphors and diatribes in Dr. Stragelove (1964). It also helps that Sellers appeared in both Lolita and Strangelove, which posits the question as to whether Kubrick’s time with Sellers allowed the director to refine his sense of humour, since that sharp wit reappeared in his final films – the social & sexual violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971), the mannered behaviour within Barry Lyndon [M] (1975), marital discord in The Shining (1980), the surreality of war in Full Metal Jacket (1987), and sexual transgressions among a married couple in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
There’s also the question of whether Kubrick’s dark humour also affected Stangelove’s co-writer, Terry Southern, inspiring him to transpose the persona of Lolita into the central role of Candy – a young woman who makes men behave like groveling, sex-starved juveniles.
There’s also a hint that Kubrick may have woven in a mini-satire of the lengthy desert highway pursuit in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Like Marian Crane, Humbert spends a lengthy time trying to outrun a pursuing dark sedan, and there’s slight Hitchcockian suspense when the two cars stop, and neither driver gets out to further the drama for the audience’s benefit. Instead, Humbert experiences a minor heart attack, which Lolita finds more childish than her own complaining, and the pursuer quietly drives off in the opposite direction – satisfied he’s rattled Humbert’s cage.
Nelson Riddle’s score, based around a treacly theme by Bob Harris, never worked well as an album, but within the film it accents the ridiculousness of an aging professor darting around the central U.S.A. with his teenage lover. Whether it’s Harris’s theme, Riddle’s own teeny-bopper jingle, or brief moments of sincere underscore, the music adds just another layer of dry humour to a subject that’s socially repulsive.
WHV’s transfer upgrades what was already an excellent transfer on DVD, and Oswald Morris’ black & white cinematography is filled with many beautiful scenes featuring high contrast lighting and deep focus cinematography.
The film’s strongest section remains its first third, where Humbert does his damndest to get into Lolita’s pants, but Lolita is a perfect companion piece to Strangelove, and the first overt sign a director known for his perfectionism could present a forum where he and audiences could examine social taboos without delving into melodrama, dourness, or offensive visual… and laugh.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan