Lolita (1962)


“You’ve got a big fat nerve dragging me away like that!…Who the heck do you think you are – not letting me go to my cast party?”

“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”. Those nine words as presented on the poster would go on to define the film’s marketing campaign, draws an instant interest to what director Stanley Kubrick would put forth into the world with his 6th directorial effort. Like a secret, these 9 words go on to invoke a sense of curiosity for the viewer watching to see for yourself how impossible (according to the MMPA) or good Lolita could possibly be. From the marketing, Kubrick once again has us in the palm of his hands. Who could say no to watching Lolita with that amount of subtly used? The thought of missing out on all the fuss is unthinkable.

Bringing the heralded unadaptable novel of the same name to life from the page is Vladimir Nabokov, who also wrote said controversial novel. Nabokov made the seemingly impossible, possible as only the author could. Under anyone else’s careful construction and handling of the source material, Lolita may never of had a shot with its touchy subject matter but based on Kubrick’s past works, Nabokov’s work is handled with as much care as possible given the scope of the narrative and characters that appear. Certainly depictions like Lolita must be taken with a grain of salt nor should anyone turn a blind eye to the suggestive material.

Its dramatizations of this particular topic that should outrage some and should be at the center of controversy, opening avenues of discussion if looked toward the prospect of adaptation. I don’t believe a novel of Lolita’s sensitivity would be made in the present day – no director would be brave enough to tackle this adaptation with a 6-foot pole. The fact that It is Kubrick at the helm, makes his status as the most influential and prominent director unquestionable.

That said, Kubrick himself even questioned whether the novel should be adapted given the heavy censorship that would be involved. Maybe it’s due to the desensitization of the modern world but Kubrick stays on the safer side of the line with the Nabokov screenplay – leaving the most provocative and suggestive moments up for the viewers interpretation. I certainly can understand the hesitation of adapting such a problematic story at the time. We as the viewer have a concrete notion of what is being said aloud or from behind closed doors or written in private diaries paired with striking looks and moments of intensity that can’t be left without a level of curiosity.

It’s all as plain as day to the viewer, even toned down, the sexual tension could be cut with a knife.

Lolita follows titular Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon) growing up, on the verge of adulthood, going to school and exploring her interests as an individual – going to camp and being active in a theater club. Instantly, Lolita becomes the object of deep admiration and affection for Humbert Humbert (James Mason), Hum for short, after the professor takes up a room for rent in the home of Lolita and her mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters). Once moved in, Humbert’s obsession with Lolita grows exponentially becoming borderline dangerous as Lolita is underage while Humbert is middle aged.

Right away, Lolita opens with the final moments of the novel. A decision that gets the viewer instantly on board with this film. While the actual ending of the film tapers off, Kubrick uses the switch to his advantage. Full of intrigue for how the story got to this point of a murder being committed right before our eyes, it’s the steadfast camerawork by cinematographer Oswald Morris that enriches the tense atmosphere. Humbert shows up to a destroyed mansion looking for Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers).

Proclaiming he is actually Spartacus; I can only imagine that throwaway line being vehemently added by Kubrick to lighten the tone for whats to follow next. Quilty is quite inebriated from a full night of partying and challenges Hum to a game of table tennis. Quilty’s sharp tongue and Sellers perfectly depicted performance of a man still intoxicated furthers the intrigue for why this confrontation is playing out. Opposite Sellers in this particular scene, James Mason is stoic, in control of his character and on a mission to find the truth for an injustice that has occurred. One opening scene and similar to the provocative tag line and Kubrick has once again sparked an imagination and interest in a topic that is disturbing and taboo to think about let alone watch a dramatization of.

Outside of the opening scene, James Mason proves quite the opposite to where his character is first introduced to his final moments. Mason extends out the obsessive, envious, and controlling aspects of his character while playing coy with an upper-class snob to his many potential suitors. With all the women fighting for Hum’s attention including Charlotte, Hum only has eyes for Lolita, going to the lengths of spying on her at a dance behind flowers. Mason’s cool demeanor begins to unravel the less control he’s in. Humbert wants Lolita to himself; he believes it’s his exclusive right to be the only man in her life, losing the control he is so desperate to hold on to when it comes to Lolita.

As Lolita, Sue Lyon being 14 when the film was in production is the clear standout. Aging the role from 12 in the novel to 14 only helps the case for Kubrick’s adaptation and somewhat acceptance to the age gap – though largely unsettling. Lyon looks comfortable in her role as a newcomer, playing off her veteran co-stars. I can’t help but wonder what more of the erotic aspects were cut out that the imagination couldn’t fill in. The first moment Lyon is shown on screen, sunbathing, she is fully engrossing, it’s her film and Lyon is in the driver’s seat.

Although it shouldn’t work, Lolita is a lightning bolt of passion, imagination, frustration and disgust. It’s characters are problematic, deranged and repulsive, and its themes are overbearing and lack subtly. But within the runtime that lasts 152 minutes, Lolita is a film that grabs hold of its viewer and never lets go. Before you know it, the passion is high with tempers even higher, creating a suffocating atmosphere. Shot and framed as if we’re in on the secret that only two people share and think no one else knows about but the reality is, the transparency is more see through than is originally thought.



Screenplay By: Vladimir Nabokov

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Music By: Nelson Riddle

Cinematography: Oswald Morris

Starring: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon

Edited By: Anthony Harvey

Release Date: June 13, 1962

Running Time: 2 Hours 32 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

Based On: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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