In 1962 the great director Stanley Kubrick (SPARTACUS, DR.
STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and BARRY
LYNDON) made a movie of the controversial best seller LOLITA. Although
this year Adrian Lyne will be releasing his version with Melanie
Griffith as the Charlotte Haze, Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert, Frank
Langella as Clare Quilty and Dominique Swain as Lolita Haze, this
review is of Kubrick's 1962 version.
Censorship was much stronger in 1962. If you wanted to release
pictures into places other than art houses, you had to have the
Industry's seal on it. In order to get it, Kubrick toned down a story
of love between an middle-aged man and a young teen so much that the
movie is more about murder and comedy than any sexual deviation. In
fact the movie as filmed is so tame that it would almost certainly get
a PG-13 rating today. The raunchiest scene is one of Lolita setting on
the lawn by herself in a not particularly revealing bikini.
LOLITA is based on the best selling novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
The book was labeled pornography by many at the time, and most movie
studios did not care to have anything to do with it. Kubrick decided
to make it into a movie, but he wanted the seal so he completely
reworked the story and got the seal. This was made easier by his
throwing away most of the material in the screenplay attempt, more of a
tome actually, by the author.
The plot of the book is reasonably straightforward, but Kubrick's
change to start off at the ending makes it feel more complicated than
it is. Basically the movie is about a 40ish novelist with the strange
double name of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) who comes to live one
summer in a rented room in Charlotte Haze's (Shelley Winters) house.
Living with single Mrs. Haze is her fourteen year old daughter
Lolita (Sue Lyon). For poor Sue Lyon this was the only decent film she
ever made. She would latter appear in such classic roles as Linda in
EVEL KNIEVEL (1971). In LOLITA she is great as a bored teen who lets
her boredom get her into big trouble. Both Mason and Lyon demonstrate
the consequences of a lack of morals. Lyon does it with a who-cares
attitude; Mason with heavy angst. Both are highly effective. Combine
this with Kubrick's black comedy rendition of the story as well as his
Hitchcockian touch of suspense and the movie becomes quite compelling.
Notice too how Kubrick has the adults all drinking so heavily you can
see that alcoholism is one source of their problems.
Also in the film is a strange screenwriter with an equally unusual
name, Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Sellers acting in the role is one
that many critics like, but I found overboard. He goes too much for
the heavy comedy for my taste, and I found scenes with him in it
grating on my nerves. Overall, I wish Kubrick had cast someone else.
Speaking of casting, Tuesday Weld was considered for the role of
Lolita, but she reportedly turned it down. I think she would have been
perfect for it.
The dialog is excellent. Typical is a riposte between Humbert and
Charlotte. She asks him, "Do you believe in God?" His immediate reply
is, "The question is does God believe in me?" Later, in a nice little
line, Mason explains how, "The best men all shave twice a day."
If you judge the movie by today's freer standards and ignore most
of the actions and contrivances that Kubrick had to go through, the
film could seem a bit trite. If you approach it with an open mind, the
movie can seen to be a deserving member in the body of work of a master
director. Other than Sellers's acting and Mason's silly vaudevillian
style routine with a folding bed that had no place in the movie, I
liked it all.
Technically the film is interesting as well. The black and white
footage by Oswald Morris is quite dramatic. Many scenes have Humbert's
car moving down a road with dramatic music (Nelson Riddle) playing to
highlight the importance of the journey.
LOLITA runs a bit long at 2:32. I think the material would have
been more effect with tighter editing. The picture is unrated, but
given there is no sex or nudity and the little violence is not very
graphic, I think it would actually get a PG-13 today. If you did not
know the story, this version of the movie is so ambiguous that one
could easily assume that Lolita's relationship with Humbert is merely
platonic. The film should be fine for any teenager. I recommend the
picture to you. I look forward to the new Lolita by Lyne and hope I
get invited to the press screening. This 1962 version gets *** in my
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes