Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA (1962)

This article is an excerpt from “The Peter Sellers Comedies”, Part 3 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

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The exhausting production experience of 1960’s SPARTACUS left its young director, Stanley Kubrick, in a state of profound disenchantment. He found that he could not peacefully work within the rigid demands and expectations of the American studio system, which understandably poses a fundamental problem to an artist who simultaneously values complete control while aspiring to direct large-scale Hollywood films. After some deep reflection, Kubrick found that the answer to his malaise didn’t lie in his native United States whatsoever—it laid across the Atlantic in Europe, where a new wave of filmmakers were enjoying total artistic autonomy and creative freedom and, as a result, creating radical, groundbreaking films.

In looking for his next project, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris settled on Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel “Lolita”, about a man’s torrid relationship with a barely-teenage girl. They hired Nabokov himself to adapt the novel into a screenplay, and set up their production camp in England, far from the watchful eye of the American studio system. As Kubrick’s first outright stab at the comedy genre, LOLITA (1962) is laced with the kind of cheeky black humor that only a deviously mischievous man such as Kubrick could dream up. After the grandiosity of SPARTACUS’ production, Kubrick used LOLITA to scale down his aesthetic for a back-to-basics approach. In tackling such extremely sensitive subject matter, Kubrick must’ve known that he was making a controversial film, but what he couldn’t have anticipated was just how much he would have to compromise his vision to even get it released. Whereas other directors might falter or back down in the face of controversy, Kubrick doubled down in his adaption of lurid LOLITA, thus establishing his reputation as one of the boldest, most controversial voices in cinema.

Though filmed entirely in England, LOLITA is set in the fictional town of Ramsdale, located somewhere within the state of New Hampshire. A sophisticated, well-read college professor named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) has just moved to town, having taken a teaching position at the local college. He rents a little room in the upstairs of a home owned by one Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters), an eccentric middle-aged widow. Almost immediately, Humbert finds himself intensely attracted to Charlotte’s nubile teenage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). As he settles into his new home, he dances around the line of appropriateness with Lolita, who’s aware enough of her effect on men to use it to her advantage and tease Humbert’s yearnings. To keep Charlotte’s suspicions at bay, Humbert marries her and takes Lolita as his stepdaughter—but it’s only a matter of time until Charlotte discovers Humbert’s true feelings about her daughter and, in her grief, throws herself headlong into the path of an oncoming car. Humbert, who is now perhaps the happiest widower there ever was, sets off with Lolita on a cross-country road trip to find a new town to settle in. However, even a change of scenery isn’t enough to obscure their torrid affair from the prying eyes of neighbors and friends, especially those of one man in particular—Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers), an eccentric playwright and television writer with designs of his own to secure the affections of alluring young Lolita.

LOLITA is, admittedly, stuffed with truly reprehensible characters possessing significant moral shortcomings. It’s a credit to the cast’s talents and Kubrick’s eye for performance that they end up coming across as undeniably charismatic. James Mason confidently takes on the dangerous, potentially career-ending role of Professor Humbert Humbert. His urbane, sophisticated sensibilities appeal to the audience in a reassuring, paternal fashion, making it easier to forgive his monstrous qualities while simultaneously making us complicit in them. Shelly Winters is inspired casting as the widow Charlotte Haze, a vain aging beauty who is so desperate for love and companionship that she flaunts her insecurities in loud, tacky clothing. Sue Lyon imbues the titular role of Lolita with a bored, sultry affection and wisdom beyond her years. With her calculated manipulation of Humbert’s emotions, she’s every bit as deceitful and mischievous as her elders— if not more so. Legendary character actor Peter Sellers, who pioneered the idea of disguising oneself in multiple personas in a single project, plays avant-garde playwright Clare Quilty with a pretentious, anxious affection. An aristocratic hedonist, Quilty reflects the shifting mores and liberal attitudes that shaped the counterculture of the 1960’s. Sellers is easily the most entertaining member of the cast, indulging in his love of disguise by having Quilty orchestrate various personas (most notably the proto-Dr. Strangelove German psychologist, Dr. Zempf) in a bid to steal Lolita out from under Humbert’s nose. Sellers’ irreverent performance extends all the way to his peculiar dialect and manner of speech, which he reportedly modeled after Kubrick’s own.

Shot by cinematographer Oswald Morris, LOLITA marks Kubrick’s return to the black and white 35mm film format. Oswald and Kubrick enrich the image with a high contrast, polished look that belies the film’s independent pedigree. While the visual presentation itself is relatively minimalist and sedate, Kubrick’s impeccable eye for composition graces his composition with compelling depth and meaning. The camerawork is low key and subtle, favoring graceful dolly and crane movements that don’t call attention to their inherent complexity. For instance, Kubrick built the Haze house set in such a way that he could dolly and crane through floors and walls to establish a sense of spatial continuity. This technique can be seen in many modern films, especially in those of Kubrick acolyte David Fincher, who used his 2002 feature PANIC ROOMto build upon Kubrick’s foundations with similar, yet highly stylized and exaggerated, movements. Funnily enough, this is not the only cue that Fincher took from LOLITA—the film’s poster tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” would be repurposed by Fincher for the 21st century in the advertising for THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). Kubrick completes the tone of his acerbic, pitch-black comedy by incorporating the music of Nelson Riddle, who trivializes (in a good way) the characters’ sordid actions with a lighthearted, bouncy jazz score that also incorporates a playful “cha-cha-cha” samba theme for Lolita—an apt musical reflection of Lolita’s dual nature as innocent and seductress.

The film’s winking tone is absolutely a product of its time—a necessity of its making under the oppressively restrictive Hays Code and the stern, watchful eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency. Even if the film were to be made again today, freed from the constraints that Kubrick personally felt neutered his vision, it could be argued that LOLITA wouldn’t be nearly as effective. The playful skirting around of abject indecency with thinly-veiled double entendres and innuendo is directly responsible for LOLITA’s charm, and allows Kubrick to explore complicated sexual ideas from a space of relative social safety. By highlighting sexual deviancy and quirkiness within otherwise well-adjusted people, LOLITA predicts the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s, incorporating barely-disguised references to swingers and pornography (it’s revealed toward the end that Quilty wanted Lolita to shoot an “art film”). At other times, Kubrick doesn’t even bother to hide the innuendo—the name of the summer camp that Lolita attends is Camp Climax, for god’s sake.

LOLITA affords ample opportunity for Kubrick to explore other thematic and aesthetic fascinations. His love for one-point-perspective images results in a recurring shot that follows Humbert’s car as it drives away from us en route to Quilty’s house, full of purposeful malice. The climactic murder of Quilty is staged in an artful manner that stays consistent with Kubrick’s artful depictions of violence. Instead of directly showing Humbert shoot Quilty to death, Kubrick stages their actions so that Quilty first crawls behind the meager cover of a painting depicting Victorian-era woman, with the image bullet tearing a hole in her cheek and presumably continuing along its trajectory into Quilty’s body. LOLITA’s baroque imagery, evident in both the Victorian portrait as well as the opulent mansion that surrounds it, calls to mind similar occurrences throughout Kubrick’s career—notably BARRY LYNDON (1975) and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Additionally, his usual depiction of the bourgeoisie—aristocrats waltzing in ballrooms to classical music—receives a modern American twist in LOLITA in the form of a high school dance.

Kubrick only made two outright comedies in his career—LOLITA and its 1964 follow-up, DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB—and its worth noting that both films are decidedly dark in their comic sensibilities. As an artist, Kubrick valued pitch-black irony, and both LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE are absolutely dripping with them. Made close together, chronologically speaking, and under similar conditions, LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE exist as companion pieces, complementary to each other in surprising ways. Kubrick’s artistic explorations throughout his career can be charted according to the opposing poles of sex and violence. LOLITA is ostensibly a film about sex, the ultimate act of creation, whereas DR. STRANGELOVE is a film about war, the ultimate act of destruction. Their shared comic affections and visual style bind them together, giving us perhaps the most straightforward insight into Kubrick’s artistic profile before he would obscure it with the expressionistic, experimental works of his later career.

LOLITA found commercial and critical success when it was released in 1962, but more importantly it marked the beginning of Kubrick’s reputation as an auteur provocateur and subverter of genre. His expatriation to England gave him an artistic freedom and expanded worldview that he never could have had on American shores. He was free to work as he saw fit, a development that allowed him to create one uncompromising masterpiece after the other.

LOLITA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Produced by: James B. Harris
Written by: Vladimir Nabokov
Director of Photography; Oswald Morris
Production Designer: Bill Andrews
Edited by: Anthony Harvey
Music by: Nelson Riddle