Lolita (1962) Review

Steve Wilkinson has reviewed the remastered Region 1 release of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1961), starring Peter Sellers and James Mason. How well did they make the DVD of Lolita…?


At the point prior to the production of Lolita, Stanley Kubrick had established himself both as a critical favourite and commercially savvy director. The former had been achieved mainly via his searing indictment of (First World) War politics “Paths Of Glory” (1957) starring Kirk Douglas (although his earlier noir thrillers “Killer’s Kiss” (1955) and “The Killing” (1956) deserve a mention) and the latter via his sure-footed stewardship of the troubled 1960 epic “Spartacus”, also starring Kirk Douglas.

Kubrick’s earliest films in fact created more fuss in the circles of film critics and professionals than audiences, putting him in the somewhat bizarre position of being one of the more highly respected directors unable to get a film off the ground! His initial refusal to be a “director for hire” no doubt hindered him (he even aborted a Marlon Brando-sponsored western, eventually called “One Eyed Jacks” (1961) on the grounds that he “didn’t know what the film was about”, incomprehensible language to mainstream Hollywood) but when offered the director’s chair of the mighty “Spartacus” project by producer Kirk Douglas upon the acrimonious departure of Anthony Mann, Kubrick could not say no.

Douglas had worked with Kubrick on “Paths Of Glory” and although driven to distraction by Kubrick’s stubborn refusal to counter any argument or imperfection on set (one of his more memorable comments was to dub Kubrick “a talented shit”) he must have been pleased with the eventual results as he took a chance on Kubrick for “Spartacus” when surely nobody else would have, given Kubrick’s relative inexperience. Despite the inevitable disagreements with Douglas, Kubrick handled the logistically huge project (and its stellar cast including Douglas, Olivier, Laughton and Tony Curtis) with preternatural ease and delivered a huge critical and commercial smash.

Just about the only person in the world unhappy with the results was Kubrick himself, who thought he was blocked from making improvements to the script which, while intelligent by comparison to most “epics”, is not as good as the typical Kubrick blueprint. Typically, Kubrick was singularly ungrateful to Douglas and the movie itself (consistently disparaging the film in print and making sly references to it in “Lolita” and “A Clockwork Orange”) despite the fact that it truly put him on the map as a filmmaker. Finally Kubrick finally had the clout to take on a film that would truly show his talents as an auteur, a story that he “had a crush on”.

Kubrick showed his newly discovered commercial savvy by seizing upon a project that had built in controversy, guaranteeing column inches and box office dollars. “Lolita”, as written by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, had caused a scandal in its frank depiction of paedophilia and was originally printed in France by a publisher of pornographic literature. Eventually gaining support from the artistic establishment for its moving account of a singularly unusual love affair, the most pressing problem (and one that Kubrick must have relished, even using it as the basis for the film poster tagline) was: How could they make a film out of Lolita in 1962?

The answer is of course that they couldn’t. The Lolita of the film (played by Sue Lyon) looks closer to 15 than 12 (a legal age for marriage in a number of American States at that time) and the censorship restrictions meant that the film ended up resembling more a farce based around the bizarre love triangle between the aging Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason), Lolita and her mother Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) than an exploration of under-age sex and “nymphets”. Kubrick even commented later that he probably wouldn’t have made the film had he known how severe the restrictions would have been, but this rings rather hollow if one assumes that as an experienced director Kubrick knew exactly how severe the restrictions were, and how much mileage he could get out of “pushing the boundaries”. Eventually getting the film past the ratings board (the Catholic “Legion Of Decency” were not so accommodating) it went on to be a huge success.

Had Kubrick not made the film, we would have been deprived of a highly enjoyable black comedy, which is essentially what remains of Lolita after the “sting” is taken out. Peter Sellers excels as the mercurial playwright Clare Quilty, rival for the affections of Lolita and Humbert’s nemesis. He turns up again and again in various disguises to torment the poor straight-laced Professor, and his merciless goading of Humbert (nursing his awful secret of his affair with Lolita, actually now his daughter-in-law after marrying the awful Charlotte Haze!) provides some of the sharpest humour in the film. The acting (and Kubrick’s handling of the actors) is exemplary throughout, especially Mason who articulates the lust, awkwardness and final tragedy of the doomed Humbert. The film might have been better had it been made a few years later (in tone and subject matter it foretold the more liberal films of the later sixties) but it still stands as the definitive Lolita, despite a much-hyped “explicit” remake by Adrian Lyne in 1997.


Presented in black and white and the original mixture of aspect ratios used by Kubrick (1.33:1 and 1.66:1), this is as good as Lolita has looked. Given the ratios used, anamorphic enhancement is probably out of the question, although for 16:9 TV owners (who will probably want to zoom the picture to avoid a “window-boxed” effect) it would have been nice. Everybody else though will enjoy a picture quality which is generally detailed, well-balanced and free of edge-enhancement and other digital artifacts. The picture is slightly soft, although no doubt this is due to the original elements rather than any digital jiggery-pokery. Films just don’t look like this any more, and this is a chance to enjoy some classical black-and-white photography in pretty fine condition.


Recorded in mono, this is a generally undynamic although clean track, which works perfectly well given the subject matter. Nelson Riddle’s witty score comes through loud and clear, as does the spendidly dark script. Dolby Digital owners should go elsewhere for surround sound trickery, this is a no-frills score and Warners decision not to remix it into 5.1 sound (as has been done with other mono Kubrick films) is probably justified.


The solitary extra here is the original theatrical trailer. Pretty hip for 1961 and (like the main feature) anticipating some of the later trends of the decade, this is pretty enticing piece on the theme of “How did they make a film out of Lolita?”. Although fun, it’s a pity the disc producers did not see fit to add any more background material to this fascinating film.


This film is marvellously enjoyable on its own terms, and not just for a glimpse into Kubrick’s pysche before he got involved with the heavier mixture of black-as-pitch satire and technical wizardry that become prominent in his later films. On the surface it may look like any number of 50s and 60s Hollywood comedies, but look closer and the biting wit and bravura of the performances (and their framing by the director) marks it out as a film well worth a viewing in 2001. The disc is a basic but fine presentation; fans will have to go elsewhere for background material. Recommended.

Steve Wilkinson

Updated: Jul 09, 2001

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