LOLITA - DVD review

...while the newer one is a more sensual vision of the story, Kubrick's account is still more fun in its own eccentric way.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The biggest wonder is that given the subject matter of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 novel, "Lolita," director Stanley Kubrick could even bring it to the screen in 1962. The second wonder is that by the time it was remade by Adrian Lyne in 1997 the country had gone full circle in its conservative ways, and the remake was only marginally more daring than Kubrick's interpretation. Both film versions are now available on DVD, and while the newer one is a more sensual vision of the story, Kubrick's account is still more fun in its own eccentric way.

Controversy always swirled around "Lolita." After Nabokov wrote the novel, it was banned in most countries. It was not published in the United States until 1958. When Kubrick made his movie version of it, the director ran into a multitude of censorship problems, just as Lyne did thirty-five years later. Kubrick got around the censors by rewriting much of Nabokov's screenplay (angering Nabokov no end) and coming out with a rather sanitized but effectively engaging black comedy.

Nabokov's stock in trade was the tragicomedy, combining elements of tragedy and comedy, and "Lolita" is one of the best examples. The movie centers around the character of Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, a man obsessively in love with a very young girl. Humbert's name is our first clue that the story is not to be taken entirely seriously. Outwardly, he is a cultured, sophisticated, mild-mannered professor of languages, a model of decorum, intending to spend summer in a small New Hampshire town awaiting a fall teaching job at Beardsley College in Ohio. Inwardly, Humbert is a hypocritical jellyfish, hopelessly and incurably attracted to a nymphet, Lolita (Sue Lyon), the daughter of his new landlady.

Lolita is all sweetness and innocence masking a manipulative vixen, a flirt, a tease, and, more than that, something of a brat. In the film Ms. Lyon is about fifteen; in the book Lolita is twelve. Nabokov wanted a younger girl than Lyon to play the role, but Kubrick realized it wouldn't get by the censors; hence, more disagreement.

Humbert becomes so infatuated with the girl that he's willing to marry her mother, Charlotte Haze, played by Shelley Winters, in order to be near her, even though he views Charlotte as a foolish, pathetic, pretentious, sex-hungry, middle-aged matron. He makes love to Charlotte while staring at and fantasizing over a portrait of Lolita on the nightstand beside them. Fortunately for Humbert, just as he is entertaining thoughts of killing his new wife, fate steps in and she is conveniently run over by a car! Humbert is overjoyed. His dreams have come true. He inherits Charlotte's house, money, and daughter. He runs away with Lolita, living for a time a life of bliss, father and stepdaughter traveling around the country together, finally settling down in their respective schools in Ohio.

And all of this would have continued to go well if it weren't for the presence of a fourth and final character in the tale, Clare Quilty, Humbert's worst nightmare, played by Peter Sellers. Unlike the later Frank Langella portrayal of Quilty as a sinister, shadowy figure, always on the fringes of the plot, Sellers plays him as a chameleon-like character, truly bizarre in his many guises as he pops in and out of the plot. Turns out, Quilty is not only a successful TV playwright, he's a weirdo to boot, an implied pedophile and child pornographer who turns Humbert's fantasy world upside down.

The film's highlights include the perfect casting of Mason, Lyon, Winters, and Sellers. Mason's Humbert is thoroughly refined, intelligent, soft-spoken, and total putty in Lolita's hands. Cary Grant is said to have turned down the role as beneath his dignity. Lyon's Lolita is a combination of youthful vitality, eager hormones, and petty playfulness. Humbert describes her in his diary as "a mixture of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity." Initially, her part was extended to Haley Mills, but she, like Grant, turned down the film because of its dicey content. All's the better for us. Winters is the very ideal of gauche pomposity, even affecting a French accent to impress her newfound friend; it's Oscar-calibre acting, although none of the actors were nominated for anything.

Ironically, the only person who was put up for an Academy Award was Nabokov for his screenplay (based on material from another medium), a screenplay he later said he wasted his time on because Kubrick made so many changes to it. And then there's Sellers. He dons four different disguises in the film, all of them as the same character, all of them smashingly weird. One wonders what his Quilty would have been like had the censors not been such a factor in the equation.

Unlike Lyne's more graceful, slower paced, wistful, and reflective 1997 rendition, Kubrick's is quirky and laced with black humor. I loved Miss Starch, Mr. Swine, and Camp Climax. As for sexual activity in the film, it is almost entirely suggestive, represented by gestures, facial expressions, whispers, and hints of things unseen. Yet almost every segment with Humbert and Lolita is erotically charged. The movie was thought racy at the time of its premiere, yet it's rather tame by today's standards, its public reaction at the time mostly the result of the film's numerous innuendoes as well as the delicacy of its subject matter, rather than any gross sexual content.

Similar to all of Kubrick's films, his trademark shots are everywhere, each frame balanced like an artist's canvas. The movie is a joy to behold from beginning to end. Unfortunately, to encompass as much as possible from the novel and to give his actors some leeway in improvisation, especially Sellers, Kubrick lets the film go on too long for its own good, becoming wayward at over two-and-a-half hours. By the time we're into the final third of the story, it begins not only to become wearisome from repetition but to bog down in the gloom of its situations. Add to these drawbacks Kubrick's use of curious and often awkward fades to black and the story line's erratic blend of dark comedy, straight drama, satire, and tragedy, and you get something of a flawed masterwork.

The picture is presented by Warners in a new print digitally remastered and restored. The black-and-white contrasts in this 1.66:1 ratio image are excellent; gradations of light and shadow are clearly delineated; definition is reasonably sharp; and grain and other imperfections are largely nonexistent.

The Dolby Digital monaural sound is undistinguished in any special way, but it is more than adequate for the job at hand, which is to convey dialogue clearly. It is limited in range but quiet in background noise.

As with most of these new Kubrick editions, there are few to no extras included. Warners probably hopes buyers will go for the complete Kubrick boxed set that includes an excellent documentary disc about the director. Otherwise, the single disc includes only English and French spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; a healthy forty-two scene selections; and a full-screen theatrical trailer.

Parting Thoughts:
As I've said, Adrian Lyne's newer adaptation of "Lolita" works fine in its more dreamy, pensive, atmospheric way, but I still prefer Kubrick's rendition for its more wicked sense of humor. Never mind that that humor tends to get lost by the film's closing hour. Since the new DVD remastering of Kubrick's film brings out the best of everything in it, I can recommend it without hesitation.

The original 1962 movie version of "Lolita" may be bought separately or found in the big Kubrick boxed set that also includes "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," "Eyes Wide Shut," and the documentary, "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures." Whether you like the director or not, it's good to have his work so well preserved and so readily available.


Film Value