Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Warner, widescreen 1.66:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], French Digital Mono, subtitles: English, French, single side-dual layer, 42 chapters, theatrical trailer, production notes, rated NR, 153 min., $24.98, street date 6/29/99.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Vladimir Nabokov, 1963.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers, Garry Cockrell, Jerry Stovin.
Newly arrived in Ramsdale, New Hampshire, European Émigré Humbert Humbert is smitten. He plans to marry Charlotte Haze. That way he'll always be close to his dear one - Charlotte's precocious daughter!
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick explores the theme of sexual obsession with his darkly comic and deeply moving version of Vladimir Nobokov's novel.
James Mason plays devious, deluded Humbert: wedded to needy Charlotte; rivaled by the ubiquitous Clare Quilty and enraptured to his gelatinous core by the blithe teen with that "lovely, lyrical, lilting name" - Lolita.
As with many folks of my generation, my first acquaintance with Lolita came due to its mention in the Police song "Don't Stand So Close To Me". The tune tells a story of a teacher's infatuation with a female student, and includes the line, "It's no use/He sees her/He starts to shake and cough/Just like the/Old man in/That book by Nabokov." (Yes, readers, that quote did come from memory! Please, hold your applause!)
(Small footnote: Sting was a teacher prior to his musical career. I don't know how much of "DSSCTM" is autobiographical, but I'd sure love to learn.)
And that's where my acquaintance with "that book by Nabokov" remained since 1980. Oh, that's not really true; I knew absolutely nothing of the story back then and had to consult lyric sheets just to decipher "Nabokov." In the ensuing years, I learned the gist of "Lolita" and got to know at least the characters' names, but I never read the book or saw the film.
Step two of my Lolita education - whereupon Colin watches the movie - happened yesterday. I suppose I should note that I viewed the Stanley Kubrick film from 1962 with James Mason, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers and Shelley Winters, not the remake from Adrian Lyne in 1997 with Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Frank Langella and Melanie Griffith.
Anyway, although I knew the basic points of the story, I really was unsure what kind of a movie Kubrick's Lolita would be. Ultimately, I saw it as something of a black comedy that deals - as do most Kubrick offerings - with the negative consequences of inappropriate behavior. Did Kubrick ever make a film with a happy ending? Not that I can recall, and Lolita is no different.
It seems rather odd to make a comedy out of a man's passion for a rather young girl, but Kubrick does, and does so fairly successfully. The man in question, Humbert Humbert (Mason), could be called a pedophile in this case, I suppose, but I think that term doesn't truly explain things. At least as depicted in this film, Humbert doesn't seem sexually attracted to children in general, it's just this child, and Lolita (Lyon) isn't a very young girl. She's 16 in the movie and rather well-developed, so it's not like Humbert pursues a physical child, though Lolita seems rather immature in other ways. Of course, so does her mother Charlotte (Winters), so reaching the age of majority clearly does not automatically make one a full-fledged adult.
At any rate, I find the issue of the scandalous nature of this older man - somewhere around 50, I'd guess - and this fairly young woman to be largely superfluous to the point of the film. Kubrick maintains more of a morality tale about obsessive love. (Man, that's been the theme of the week; from Vertigo to The Loves of Carmen to Lolita, I've seen a lot of films with that subject lately!)
As such, ultimately it's Humbert's possessiveness and obsession that doom him, not his simple attraction to Lolita. (By the way, I know all these statements may seem like spoilers, but since the film starts with Humbert's ultimate ending and then enters "flashback" mode, I'm not really giving away much.) Humbert goes completely over the edge because of his feelings and ends up dooming many others by his actions.
Kubrick doesn't present the film as the overwrought drama my description makes it seem, though. As I mentioned, it's largely a comedy, and a very entertaining one at that. Mason cuts a strong figure as Humbert; he maintains a wide variety of emotions but never lets the character degenerate into cartoonishness. The same goes for Winters, who easily could have made Charlotte into nothing more than a broad caricature. While she often does come across as excessively obnoxious, Winters conveys a veneer of sad humanity that cuts through the blather; you dislike Charlotte - often intensely, for she is a pathetic, selfish woman - but you still feel for her.
Less positive comments will be made about Lyon's rather forced performance as Lolita. While she was an attractive girl with some decent physical charms, to believe that Humbert and others grew so obsessively enamored of her seems a stretch just because the kid's so annoying; I saw little charm and allure in Lyon's work. She's very good when Lolita needs to be a brat but can't pull off the more seductive aspects of the role; she always seems like a brat.
I'm somewhat unsure of my ultimate opinion of Sellers' performance. On one hand, he was tremendously entertaining and funny as hipster writer Claire Quilty, but Sellers may have been too witty in the role. He tended to play the part as mainly a cartoon buffoon and we rarely see why Quilty was so well-regarded in the community. I think part of Quilty's degeneration into a stumbling and stammering wreck occurred because of the seductive influence of Lolita, for we briefly see him as suave gadabout early in the film. Unfortunately, I didn't find this clear, and I'm mainly speculating on it. I enjoyed Sellers' performance - it was the comic highlight of the picture - but I'm not sure it was appropriate for the film.
As an aside, here's a fascinating trivia point: two of the actors in this film also appeared in Bond movies. Cec Linder, who played a doctor, was in Goldfinger as that movie's Felix Leiter, and Lois Maxwell, who performs as a nurse, featured in every Bond movie from Dr. No through A View To A Kill as Miss Moneypenny. Of course, Sellers himself technically starred as Bond himself in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale. This has little to do with anything, but I noticed Maxwell and thought I'd mention it!
Ultimately, Kubrick delivers a compelling sermon on moral weakness in Lolita. If you've read my other reviews of his films, you'll know I've been rather indifferent to much of his work. Lolita, however, seemed very well-done and consistently provocative. I expect it's a film that offers many layers and will open up to additional interpretations upon repeated viewings.
Lolita appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; due to the mildness of this letterboxing, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without flaws, Lolita looks pretty good for a film that's nearly 40 years old.
Sharpness seems fairly decent, with most of the image appearing relatively crisp. Some softness intrudes from time to time, but it's not terrible. The picture appears to lack any moire effects or jagged edges. A fair number of flaws can be found on the print used for the transfer, but again, it's not bad for an old film; there's somewhat frequent speckling, plus occasional scratches or marks, but not much that's terribly intrusive. Grain appears only rarely. Black levels look slightly light but are generally very solid, and shadow detail also seems fine; it appears a little too opaque on occasion but usually is properly dense. Lolita rarely rises above the level of mediocrity, but it still offers a fairly good and watchable image.
Also unspectacular but decent is the film's Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack. Quality seems very nice for such an old movie; although it appears somewhat flat and boomy, it lacks any of the distortion, noise or crackling that often plague older mixes. Dialogue always seems intelligible and clear, and though the music lacks depth, it appears acceptably bright and smooth. Effects are also flat but they aren't a problem. It's an unexceptional soundtrack, to be sure, but it is easily within the boundaries of acceptability as an example of the era's technology.
As with all of the Kubrick DVDs, Lolita offers almost nothing in the way of supplements. We get an unusual theatrical trailer plus a brief listing of awards for which the film was nominated and those that it won. Weak!
Despite that disappointment, I think Lolita is a DVD worth owning. Picture and sound are not great, but they seem very satisfactory for a film of its age, and the movie itself appeared quite compelling and provocative. It's a movie that should endure repeated viewings and remain thought-provoking and fascinating.
Current as of 3/7/2000
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