Credit: MGM
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Lolita — Stanley Kubrick

June 14, 2022

Stanley Kubrick seems like an odd filmmaker to claim as having underrated films. I’m not as great a fan as most cinephiles, but given the extraordinarily high levels of continued interest and waves of reappraisal and renewed appreciation for such disparate films throughout his career as Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, not to mention the omnipresent adoration for Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001, it would be easily understandable if one assumed every film aside from his first two and perhaps Spartacus were considered major by this point in his critical reception.

But even so, Lolita (1962), which has always been among my favorites of his, has remained underrated in my eyes, despite its quietly pivotal place in his oeuvre. It was his first of two films with Peter Sellers, whose casting in multiple “roles” led directly to his trio of performances in Dr. Strangelove. Most importantly, it was the first film the American Kubrick made in Britain, where he decamped after conflicts with Hollywood studios. He would make his remaining films there, often resorting to simulacra of American environs that would contribute to the productive, nigh-perfectionist claustrophobia of his film set there.

The first adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is perhaps almost more well-known for its immortal tagline — “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” — than any other aspect. Indeed, the film was heavily censored during (albeit not after) production, and much of the explicitness of the original novel’s frank and graphic dealings with child sexual abuse was toned down, if not totally eliminated. I must confess here that I haven’t read the original novel, but while the basic arc of the film matches Nabokov’s — notably, though he is credited for the adapted screenplay, it was mostly rewritten by Kubrick and producer James B. Harris — the streamlined backstories and heavy reliance on innuendo and ellipsis seem to almost transform the narrative.

Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is never explicitly depicted as or even mentioned as having sexual relations with his stepdaughter; insinuations are made as to their home situation, and Lolita (Sue Lyon) claims that she hasn’t told anyone about the two of them, but it never goes any further than that. The two nearest moments are of close physical contact: a series of hand-clutches while watching The Curse of Frankenstein at a drive-in, with Humbert rejecting her mother Charlotte’s (Shelley Winters) while continuing to grasp Lolita’s; and a morning in a hotel room, where Lolita whispers details into Humbert’s ear about a “game” she played with a boy at a summer camp, before leaning in as if to kiss him.

While Humbert’s lust for Lolita is immediately apparent, his ways of expressing it toward her are kept off-screen, and thus Lolita finds more room amid its leisurely 152 minutes to examine neuroses that might not be considered central to a story so forthrightly concerned with pedophilia. For most of the first half of the film, Kubrick is far more interested in the relationship between Humbert and Charlotte, whose exaggerated flirtatiousness and misguided attempts to match the professor of French literature’s intellect upon their first meeting escalates into mania. During the first flushes of Humbert’s growing attraction, as much emphasis is put on Charlotte’s oblivious attempts to compete for his attention. It’s perhaps an obvious connection to draw between Lolita and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, where Winters also plays a sexually frustrated widow taken advantage of by a predatory intellectual, but her patheticness is equally matched and played off by Mason’s casual, debonair cruelty.

Numerous other undercurrents run through the first half’s setting of Ramsdale, New Hampshire, specified as a resort town that fits the perfect ideal of a mid-century American suburb. A couple close to Charlotte, John and Jean Farlow, are extraordinarily friendly, and the latter says to Humbert that they are “extremely broad-minded,” which seems to insinuate that they are propositioning him for spouse-swapping or something even more shocking to the British Humbert. The United States is first situated as a land of opportunity for Humbert, who puts himself in the lineage of so many other European expatriates. But as he gets further immersed in the New World, eventually embarking on a road trip across the country with Lolita, first to Beardsley, Ohio and then a failed run for the Mexican border, this vestige of the Old World is left adrift and Humbert is unable to find his footing among these people with strange practices: the father of the man who accidentally runs over Charlotte seems to be taken aback by Humbert not holding a grudge against him.

Nowhere is this strangeness more visible than, of course, the enigmatic figure of Clare Quilty (Sellars), whose role is far larger in the film. Expanded from a cipher lurking in the shadows to a seeming embodiment of everything that stands in Humbert’s way once his pesky wife is dead, he pops up at unexpected intervals, putting on various disguises and silly voices that Humbert never quite puts together. The constant is the even greater role of comedy that flows through these scenes, little off-hand remarks that the dynamic Sellars bounces off the magnificently befuddled Mason: remarking that he’s a bad loser at ping-pong after Humbert produces a gun; saying in his German accent that he was sitting in the dark to conserve electricity; his flurry of adjectives in describing Lolita. Even more than providing a dark mirror image of Humbert’s sexual desire, he comes to almost embody the fatalism that drives Lolita. Quilty’s death at the beginning of the film almost plays a similar role to the inclusion of murder in Mildred Pierce’s film adaptation: it transforms Lolita from psychological character study to film noir, one where the black-and-white shadows pierce the faux-Americana of the film and little gestures resound with violence. Kubrick’s characters become trapped by not only their desires — for a kiss, for stardom, for a fried egg proffered by a potential lover — but by the invisible machinations of American society; that the grand overseer of it all did so after he parted ways with this society is the cherry on top of Lolita’s delicious irony.


Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.