Lolita (1962) Review

Lolita is the first instance in which Stanley Kubrick demonstrates his deliciously black sense of humour. Straying away from conventional comedy situations or light-hearted entertainment, Kubrick provides for the audience a pitiless protagonist and spends two-and-a-half hours denigrating him. Based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel, which itself sparked controversy over its tale of a twelve-year-old girl having an affair with a middle-aged man, Lolita as a film could easily have been renamed Humbert after our 'hero' of the film.

In the film, lecturer Humbert Humbert (played winningly by James Mason) is sexually drawn to young Lolita after becoming a tenant in her mother Charlotte's (Shelley Winters) house. Lolita is only fifteen, but arouses Humbert like no 'adult' can, and this even applies to her mother Charlotte, who despite being smitten by her new tenant can do nothing to win his attractions. Soon, Humbert is forced into marrying Charlotte in order to maintain his contact with Lolita, and finds himself an opponent in the form of chameleon-like Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), who is very underhand in his efforts to pounce on Lolita all for himself.

Because of the restrictions associated with filming such a novel at the time of the early sixties, Kubrick wisely steers away from depicting the lurid antics of Humbert and Lolita and instead installs Humbert as the sole target of his cinematic pranks. Kubrick isn't interested in what happens to Humbert whilst sexually involved with Lolita; he's more interested in doing anything he can to prevent Humbert from reaching her, from reaching a place in which their love can flourish without altercation from the outside world. Clare Quilty, in what is possibly Peter Sellers' most perfect performance, is almost designed by Nabokov to be a complete device to foil Humbert's seedy schemes. Quilty is the devil incarnate - no bizarre scheme or wacky situation is too abnormal not to be considered, as long as it in some way serves Quilty's quest to outdo Humbert. Because of the overwhelming issue of censorship, and the importance placed on Quilty as a character, Lolita as directed by Kubrick is truly hysterical in every sense.

Yes, Lolita (as played by young Sue Lyon) is young and beautiful, but she represents something more in the metaphorical sense than mere flesh and blood. To Humbert, Lolita embodies many things. Firstly, she is an excuse for isolation; because of their age difference, Humbert wishes to whisk her off to a solitary place in which their hedonistic affair can be fully engaged without bother. This isolation is fuelled by his general disregard for his fellow adults. He doesn't despise Charlotte, nor wishes her any 'real' harm (his rash plan to kill her is merely for the cause of efficiency) yet he clearly needs her swiped aside, so that he can focus solely on his quest. Lolita also represents the art of competitiveness between two adults. It appears that both Humbert and Quilty's obsessive interest in young Lolita is sparked by the intruding presence of each other in the scheme of things. At first, Humbert does not recognise this 'game', but by the film's conclusion he is continuing the dual long after Quilty has given up caring. In Lolita, you sense that Quilty plays games with people just to engage his own exhibitionist personality, whilst Humbert, far from being an over-indulgent mocker, has had desires awoken by Lolita that await fulfilling. It is because of this difference between the two men that Humbert regards the conflict so personally, and sees it through to its conclusion. Finally, Lolita represents the carefree abandonment associated with youth, and is Humbert's last-ditched attempt to abandon his 'real' age and reinvent himself once again as a young teenager.

With so many layers dancing around a morally corrupt core, it's a wonder Lolita works so well. Effectively balancing farce with drama, Kubrick bulks the film out to a lengthy running time, as if the conquest of Lolita by Humbert is a long haul that must also be undertaken by the audience. This highlights one of the film's few flaws - the use of the prologue also serving as an epilogue. We already know Quilty's fate after the first five minutes of the film, and therefore Lolita's conclusion proves to be anticlimactic.

Performances are dazzling throughout the film. James Mason is calm, calculated and crammed with facial expressions as Humbert, and his upper-classed, middle-aged exterior makes proceedings all the funnier when his demise is in full swing. Sue Lyon is convincing as the young nymphet at the centre of all the attention. She handles her dialogue with assured confidence, and actually displays some advanced maturity in her performance. Peter Sellers as mentioned previously is astonishing as Quilty, losing himself completely in a myriad of impersonations and funny voices. The sequence in which Quilty impersonates "Dr. Zemsh" in order to catch Humbert off-guard is hilarious to the audience, because it is so clearly Quilty in disguise, and yet Humbert is still fooled. Shelley Winters is usually ignored in critiques of the film, but her performance is a thankless one. Winters as Charlotte is brash, annoying and temperamental, and yet we pity her more than Humbert, since it is clear from the outset that Charlotte is just a small pawn on a grander scale.

Again, for a film with such a controversial topic, it's refreshing to have such a bouncy, sixties-influenced musical score from Nelson Riddle (and even the main theme by Bob Harris). The musical cues support the narrative of Kubrick's take on Lolita, and help immerse the audience into a considerable amount of intrigue without them actually realising. The black-and-white cinematography by British photographer Oswald Morris gives the film a sharp, deeply focused visual quality that confirms the reality of the on-screen proceedings.

Lolita was followed by a tedious remake thirty years later by Adrian Lyne, that actually did little to update the novel despite the relative abolition of censorship that had occurred by the late nineties. As it stands, Kubrick's Lolita is a fascinating, hilarious masterpiece, that would come to spark a ten-pear period of utmost quality from the great recluse.

Academy Awards 1962

Academy Award Nominations 1962
Best Adapted Screenplay - Vladimir Nabokov

It's an interesting debate - whether to grant films presented in 1.66:1 widescreen anamorphic enhancement or not, and Warner have flirted with both sides of the idea. Their release of The Servant was given anamorphic enhancement for its 1.66:1 ratio and the results were very good indeed, and now Lolita, also presented at that ratio, is presented in a non-anamorphic fashion and looks equally as good. It's very hard to find a winner between the two. Lolita was released initially on Region 1 with inferior picture quality on a print with print scratches and dirt marks. This version never reached Region 2, and now that the Kubrick collection on Warner have been Digitally Restored And Remastered the Region 2 version of Lolita benefits from a stunning transfer that possesses sharp imagery and impressive clarity.

Presented in the film's original mono track, Lolita sounds excellent, with clearly audible dialogue and a vibrant original score that lies over the top. Bass tones are rich for a one-track mix and there is only a trace of hiss throughout the film's lengthy running time.

Menu: A static menu consisting of images from the film, backed with portions of the film's musical score.

Packaging: The usual Warner snapper, with the same traditional cover artwork for Lolita other than a Stanley Kubrick Collection trim at the top. Chapter listings are printed on the reverse of the cover.


Trailer: As is the case with most of the 'great' directors on DVD, extras are limited, and Kubrick is no exception. Only the minute-long original trailer and a brief awards text page are presented in the form of extra features, and it is slightly grainy and presented in fullscreen.

Awards: A brief text page mentioning the Oscar and Golden Globe awards/nominations the film received.


One of the greatest and probably most underrated of Kubrick films is given a fantastic feature presentation if uninspired in terms of extras. As part of the Kubrick box set, or even as a stand-alone purchase, Lolita is quintessential early-sixties cinematic entertainment, and a worthy cornerstone of any collection.

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