(director: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriter: Vladimir Nabokov/from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Anthony Harvey; music: Nelson Riddle; cast: James Mason (Professor Humbert Humbert), Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze), Sue Lyon (Dolores “Lolita” Haze), Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty), Gary Cockrell (Dick Schiller), Jerry Stovin (John Farlow), Diana Decker (Jean Farlow), Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore), Shirley Douglas (Mrs. Starch, piano teacher); Runtime: 154; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: James B. Harris; MGM; 1962-USA/UK)
“Far too subtle in its sexual intentions to reach what the novel was after.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The tag line for the ad campaign behind this film was “How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” Well, they did it by making the sensationalized novel more tame. Stanley Kubrick (“The Shining”/”Full Metal Jacket”/”Eyes Wide Shut”) directs this problematic tale about a middle-aged intellectual obsessed over an attractive but callous teenage bimbo to the point it changes his entire life. Kubrick films Vladimir Nabokov’s racy novel as a black comedy, and Nabokov also does the script—the reason the film runs on for too long is he at first handed in a 400 page script (Nabokov later denounced the screenplay he himself cut). The titled nymphet Lolita was a 12-year-old in the book, here her age is not revealed as we only know she attends high school and is probably 15. The 14-year-old Sue Lyon in her film debut as Lolita, looks quite mature as the deceitful child-woman. That helped somewhat in getting around the censors, which was a main problem in the filming. By the time the film was released Lyon was 16, which was still not old enough to get her into a theater to see the film as anyone under 18 was banned.

The film begins with the epilogue that has a crazed Humbert Humbert (James Mason) murdering the drunken playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) in his house. Then we flash back four years earlier to learn why the staid intellectual Humbert has become so deranged. The middle-aged widowed British lecturer in French poetry takes a teaching job in the fall at Beardsley College in Ohio, but first arrives in the summer to take a holiday in the quiet resort town of Ramsdale, New Hampshire. He rents a room from blowzy widowed man-hungry landlady, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), when he catches her sexy daughter in a bikini sunning herself in the garden. When Lolita is shipped to summer camp so the crude pretentious art loving mom can chase after Humbert, he marries Charlotte despite her crudeness and that he doesn’t care a damn about her because he’s so smitten with Lolita and sees this as the only way he can be together with her. When Charlotte discovers her hubby’s diary tells of his carnal desires for Lolita she rushes out of the house like a crazy woman and is killed by a car. Humbert removes Lolita from summer camp and they hit the road together where he eventually tells her that her mom is dead. In the fall they settle down in Beardsley, where the two develop a strained relationship as Humbert tries to control every move Lolita makes and tries to prevent her from dating. Quilty is also there, as it’s his play that the school puts on that Lolita acts in. When Humbert gets upset that Lolita has not shown up at her piano lessons and instead meets with an unknown male and he’s had it with his nosy neighbors bothering him with questions about her, he takes to the road with Lolita on a cross-country trip. But a mysterious stranger is following them in a car. All the tension has Lolita getting sick enough to be hospitalized, and the sly girl is so fed up with the overbearing Humbert that she checks out of the hospital with the mystery man who was following them. Some time later, Humbert receives a letter from Lolita asking for money, as she reveals that she is married and pregnant. When he visits her, she tells him that she left him for Quilty, who was the mystery man pursuing them. It turns out that sicko Quilty used various disguises (policeman and school psychologist) to torment Humbert wherever he went with Lolita. But she found him too “weird,” and would leave Quilty to marry a younger blue collar man laborer looking for work named Dick. When Humbert breaks down and cries and she refuses to leave her hubby, he still gives her a substantial amount of money and then goes to kill Quilty. The prologue explains that Humbert dies of a heart attack before serving his prison sentence.

The diluted film was not shocking, had very little passion, was clumsily structured and was far too subtle in its sexual intentions to reach what the novel was after; yet even though it was so flawed it did get around the pressure from the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency to come up with a decent enough literary adaptation.

Mason gives an outstanding performance as the repressed intellectual pederast on the make; Winters gives off with just enough vulgarity to make her moments chasing after Mason good physical comedy; Sellers using his gift for mimicry in playing a few characters however severely changes the tone of the film to one that takes away some of the novel’s stings and much of its irreverent satire; while Lyon was just serviceable as the shallow teen temptress with a heart of junk food.

Sue Lyon in Lolita (1962)