Lolita (1962) (Blu-ray)(Warner Home Video, 5.31.2011)
The myth about Lolita, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the 1955 Vladimir Nabokov novel, is that it was made too soon, before mainstream films were allowed to be sexually explicit. However, the novel -- which was called pornographic in the uptight Eisenhower era -- isn't really all that explicit either. What matters is Nabokov’s vision of America, embracing its distinctive blend of innocence and vulgarity, Humbert Humbert’s slow realization that he truly loves Dolores Haze and his guilt over stealing her childhood. While Kubrick cannot approximate Nabokov’s style, he has an exhilarating style of his own, which helps capture the writer’s other intentions. The film's only glaring weakness is the casting of Sue Lyon (who at times resembles both Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley) in the title role. Fifteen when the film was made, Lyon adequately captures her character’s coquettishness but reveals nothing beneath Lolita’s surface.
In contrast to Lyon, Shelley Winters (as the ill-fated Charlotte Haze) lets the viewer see the soul beneath the gaudiness. By behaving like an adult, Lyon perpetuates the misreading of the novel as the tale of a dirty old man who likes girls mature before their time. Fortunately, James Mason -- arguably the most underrated Hollywood actor ever -- subtly suggests Humbert’s conflicted nature, as when he gleefully reads Charlotte’s confession of her love. It is a great performance, as is that of Peter Sellers, as Clare Quilty, Humbert’s nemesis.
The major change Kubrick makes in his screenplay -- written with producer James B. Harris, though Nabokov is inaccurately credited as sole author -- is the expansion of Quilty’s role, the better to showcase Sellers’ skill for accents, mimicry and what-seems-to-be improvisation. Kubrick’s skill at directing actors and letting them run with their parts is often undervalued.
Lolita is also the first film to reveal Kubrick’s mature style: lengthy scenes, long takes, camera movement only when necessary. This languid approach is fitting here, keeping the comedy from tipping over into farce. Although best known for his use of color, cinematographer Oswald Morris was equally skilled with black and white. This Blu-ray displays his shimmering blacks perfectly. Morris’ use of shadows -- as when Humbert suffers a breakdown in a hospital corridor -- is masterful.
Perceived as a flawed interpretation of a masterpiece in 1962, Lolita has seen its reputation grow over the last five decades. It is now rightly considered one of Kubrick’s best films and one of the few outstanding adaptations of a literary classic. -- Michael Adams