Humbert Humbert (played by James Mason) is a Professor of French literature. He is stiffly British and a divorcee. He arrives in a small American town to take up a teaching post in the local University. He finds lodgings with a very hospital landlady, Charlotte Haze (by Shelley Winters) and he receives a very warm welcome from her. A widow, Charlotte regularly takes in a lodger to help her meet expenses in bringing up her 14 year old daughter, Lolita (by Sue Lyon). In his lodgings, Humbert tries to keep to himself, but the lonely Charlotte sees the potential of a relationship with him and sets up a series social interactions with him so that they can “get to know each other better”. At the same time, Humbert becomes fascinated with Lolita and he develops a deep devotion to her. Some people around town start to question the nature of the relationship between these three – in particular is Clare Quilty (by Peter Sellers), whose curiosity is deeper than most …. .
This movie is a dramatisation of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, published in 1955. It interesting and totally frustrating at the same time. I watched it because I wanted to understand what the controversy about it was based on. That is clear – but I am not sure if I was being dumb, or if the ambiguity of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita is as I saw it. Whether there was intimacy between the pair is not clear – as a 1962 audience, are we to assume they were intimate? Perhaps … but I am not sure. If that is the case, then this movie is very controversial. I found the ambiguity and mystery in their relationship tedious and frustrating, rather than delicious and compelling. The impetuousness of Lolita is very well depicted – but is she aware of the spell she has cast on Humbert? and does she take complete advantage of this? or is she simply being a fickle teenager who has no care or thought for anyone but herself and acts that way? See what I mean … it’s not quite enough for me – perhaps that is the treasure in this movie. Kubrick as done a good job with it – the performances are all very strong – Shelley Winters is in the most dramatic role I’ve ever seen her, James Mason is comfortable as the stiff-upper-lip Englishman who never has a hair out of place, but when he rather implausibly becomes sheer putty in the hands of this 14 year old nymphette, this requires quite a performance from him. Sue Lyon’s performance is very good here also – she portrays a very “Gidget-like” innocent teenager of the time, but of course you suspect there is a good deal more to Lolita than that. This perrformance earned her the “Most Promising Female Newcomer” at the Golden Globe Awards in 1963. To me, the gem (and saviour) of the movie is Peter Sellers, each time he appears it is a surprise – and a very entertaining joy. On reflection, perhaps it is because I viewed this movie through the eyes of a grown woman that I am so frustrated by it … seeing this silly “old enough to know far better” man allow himself to become so weak in the presence of this silly selfish girl. I wonder if the more current 1997 remake with Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain and Jacqueline Bisset is any better?
Made in 1962. Directed by Stanley Kubrick