Friday, July 22, 2011

Lolita (1962)

UK/USA, 152 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Vladimir Nabokov, Stanley Kubrick
Photography: Oswald Morris
Music: Nelson Riddle
Editor: Anthony Harvey
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

Vladimir Nabokov, author of the novel on which this is based, gets full credit in the titles for the screenplay of Lolita, but later tales of the production make it clear it's actually much more the work of director Stanley Kubrick. Certainly it's hard for me to believe that Nabokov would have been responsible for the awkward frame here, where James Mason as Humbert Humbert confronts a scenery-chewing Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty in a disorientingly trashed mansion setting. That kind of storytelling device seems more a convention of the early '60s, or perhaps more generally just of movies. But the preamble especially seems to me wasted time in an arguably already too-long picture, and the closing few minutes don't add much either.

Well, they serve as showcase for Peter Sellers, which I suspect was the intent as much as anything. Sellers was a gifted screen comic, a kind of Robin Williams of his time, but I'm not sure Kubrick knew what to do with him as much as he might have thought, here or in Dr. Strangelove either. In what turns out to be more of a concise chamber drama enacted by a small cast set in the middle of a sprawling and almost kinda sorta lurid road movie (it was of course impossible to be as explicit as the material required), Sellers often seems to me the weak link.

I find this in my notes from an earlier viewing: "Sellers is so brilliant you almost don't notice that his role is just quixotic, often baffling, and mostly unbelievable." But I think that's just another way of saying the same thing—and with subsequent views I'm noticing, I'm noticing. Nabokov's conception of this story is so tightly focused on Humbert's interiority juxtaposed against Lolita's exteriority, with Lolita's mother Charlotte playing a crucial supporting role, that intruding a Peter Sellers farce across it seems something of a pitiable mistake.

The other three—Mason, Shelley Winters as Charlotte, and Sue Lyon as the nymphet of the title—are so perfectly cast and directed, the story told with such assurance and rhythm, that anything else seems just unnecessary foofaraw.

Shelley Winters is always the biggest surprise for me; I somehow regularly forget how good she is here. She plays Charlotte as a perfectly charming goose, a bundle of raw insecurities with no conception of how attractive she actually is. Widowed seven years earlier from an insurance man, she has since taken to chasing anything in trousers. In Humbert's presence, she strides around with a cigarette holder, cooing "monsieur" and "voila," sighing for "Par-ee," obviously smitten by Humbert's British accent, Continental manner, and intellectual cachet as a professor of poetry. (Humbert's own shallowness will be exposed when he purrs to Lolita about "the divine Edgar.")

For Mason's part, I don't know that anyone was ever better positioned to play Humbert (I haven't seen the Adrian Lyne version, so can't say about Jeremy Irons). Mason was Kubrick's first choice, but others considered when he was initially unavailable included Laurence Olivier, David Niven (who briefly accepted the part), Noel Coward, Marlon Brando (!), and Errol Flynn. Fortunately, Mason became available after all. He was capable as few others of playing a person absolutely swimming in avuncular slime, and perhaps nowhere does he work that so well as here. It's fun to go through the film simply registering his various reactions to Lolita, particularly when she first enters a frame with him. It's a nuanced, brilliant performance.

Sue Lyon, it turns out, is actually reasonably age-appropriate for the role, a 15-year-old playing a 14-year-old who in the novel is a 12-year-old. You can see the general trend in moral caution going on there. Another way that Kubrick worked to skate around the risky taboos with which he was dealing was to choose someone with large breasts as that makes her seem less girlish. That works to some degree—at various times I thought she could be as old as her early 20s. At the same time, she always acts convincingly young, making faces and sticking out her tongue and being just generally bratty and insolent, and that's when her real age is much more evident. It's a good performance, and she also seems to me well directed. In the end, she's quite convincing, and there are times when she reminds me so much of Jodie Foster's turn in Taxi Driver that I wonder if Foster didn't study Lyon's work here.

This is another picture that, I must say, with its subject matter and particularly considering the time when it was made, surprises me to find in black and white. As with Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, it seems a natural for color. The titles alone, which shows a close-up of toenails being painted against the background of a lush velvety curtain, makes it seem a natural for color. Some of the strongest elements of Lolita play, in many ways, like a Douglas Sirk picture—intentionally so, I suspect—and most of Sirk's '50s pictures were in color. (I doubt that Lolita is a title the colorizers will ever get their hands on at this point, however.)

Taken all around, Lolita is pretty salty stuff, even 50 years later—not nearly as much so as the novel it is based on, perhaps, but it still manages to retain a good deal of the ability of that novel to pass easily back and forth between tragedy and black comedy. It's often very funny, particularly when one character decides to cut another down to size, and yet it can also become very sad, even tragic. The last scene between Humbert and Lolita verges on devastating, aided and abetted by Nelson Riddle's admirably oversweet scoring. And yet the last remark that Lolita makes to Humbert, in the wake of that, called to him even as he is getting into his car and shutting the door, is practically laugh-out-loud funny. It just seems to operate that way right along. As spectacle, it is amazing to witness from beginning to end.

Or, well, from my beginning to my end. I understand it's a fool's game to second-guess Stanley Kubrick himself, but I'm going to go ahead and suggest skipping ahead, after the titles, to the shot of an airplane that immediately follows the "4 years EARLIER" card (that's the fourth scene in on the menu, "Charlotte Haze"). And then let the closing shot before the credits be Humbert's car racing down the highway into fog. Just skip ahead a chapter when you see that start to fade. There—much better.

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