As was the case for many folks of my generation, my first acquaintance with Lolita came through its mention in the 1980 song "Don't Stand So Close To Me" by the Police. The tune told a story of a teacher's infatuation with a female student, and it included 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, that quote came 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" was autobiographical, but I'd sure love to learn.)
And that's where my acquaintance with "that book by Nabokov" remained. Oh, that's not totally true; I knew absolutely nothing of the story back when the song first appeared, and I even needed to consult lyric sheets just to decipher the word "Nabokov." In the ensuing years, however, 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.
Although I knew the basic points of the story, I was unsure what kind of a movie Kubrick's Lolita would be. Ultimately, I saw it as something of a black comedy that dealt - as did 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 was no different.
It seems rather odd to make a comedy out of a man's passion for a rather young girl, but Kubrick did, and did so fairly successfully. I suppose the man in question, Humbert Humbert (James Mason), could be called a pedophile in this case but I think that term doesn't accurately explain the situation. At least as depicted in this film, Humbert doesn't seem sexually attracted to children in general; it's just this one specific child, and Lolita (Sue Lyon) wasn't a very young girl. She was 16 in the movie and looked rather well-developed, so it wasn’t like Humbert pursues a physical child, though Lolita seemed rather immature in other ways. Of course, so did her mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters), so the age of majority clearly did not automatically make one a full-fledged adult.
At any rate, I found the potential scandal of an affair between an older man - somewhere around 50, I'd guess - and a fairly young woman to be largely superfluous to the point of the film. Kubrick maintained more of a morality tale about obsessive love. As such, ultimately it was Humbert's possessiveness and obsession that doomed 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 went completely over the edge because of his feelings, and he ultimately doomed many others through his actions.
Kubrick didn't present the film as the overwrought drama my description makes it appear, though. As I mentioned earlier, it was essentially a comedy, and a very entertaining one at that. Mason cut a strong figure as Humbert; he maintained a wide variety of emotions but never let the character degenerate into cartoonishness. The same went for Winters, who easily could have made Charlotte into nothing more than a broad caricature. While she often did come across as excessively obnoxious, Winters conveyed a veneer of sad humanity that cut through the blather; you may dislike Charlotte - often intensely, for she was a pathetic, selfish woman - but you still feel for her.
Lyon's rather forced performance as Lolita engendered fewer positive sentiments. While she was an attractive girl with some decent physical charms, I found it difficult to believe that Humbert and others grew so obsessively enamored of her simply because the kid was so annoying. I saw little charm and allure in Lyon's work. She was very good when Lolita needed to be a little monster, but she couldn't pull off the more seductive aspects of the role; she always seemed 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 something of a cartoon buffoon, and we rarely saw 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 saw 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, as 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 trivia point: at least 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 performed as a nurse, featured in every Bond movie from 1962’s Dr. No through 1985’s A View To A Kill as Miss Moneypenny. Technically, Sellers 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 delivered 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 toward much of his work. Lolita, however, seemed very well-done and was 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 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. That decision has caused some disappointment among DVD fans, and I’m among them. However, I must say that I’m very pleased with the new transfer of Lolita. Although the original DVD from 1999 was one of the better looking from that year’s much-despised “Kubrick Collection”, the new one improved on it in virtually every way.
Sharpness seemed very good. The vast majority of the film looked nicely crisp and detailed. Any softness that appeared was extremely minor. Note that some of the shots of Lyons appeared to use a mildly soft filter, so they did not seem as crisp as other images. However, since this was intentional, I can’t fault the transfer for it, and the filtering looked quite modest anyway; the effect seemed barely distinguishable.
The picture appeared to lack any moiré effects or jagged edges. While the original DVD looked relatively clean for an older movie, it still offered quite a few examples of scratches, grit and speckles. However, the new disc marked a substantial improvement in this regard. Lolita wasn’t totally free of defects, as I occasionally noticed a few specks plus some grit and nicks, but the film certainly seemed quite fresh for its age. There were still more flaws than I’d like, but I really can’t complain in this regard, as Lolita largely appeared to be spotless.
Additional improvements occurred in regard to the movie’s contrast and dark tones. On the earlier DVD, I thought the black and white image occasionally seemed a little light, and shadows could be too thick at times. Neither of those concerns came across during the new transfer. Blacks looked wonderfully deep and rich, and contrast was similarly excellent as the film exhibited a fine silver tone. Shadows were appropriately dim but never too heavy, as low-light situations seemed clear and visible. Ultimately, Lolita looked extremely good, especially when its age enters the equation.
Although some of the other DVDs from the new Kubrick collection sported Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes, Lolita stuck with its original monaural track. While the audio didn’t show improvements that were as substantial as those executed for the picture, I still thought that the sound appeared a little better than on the old DVD. Quality sounded clearer and more distinct across the board. Dialogue seemed distinct and relatively natural, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were a fairly minor component of this speech-driven mix, but they came across as acceptably realistic and they lacked distortion.
The music showed the best gains, as I thought those elements displayed modest but improved range. Highs remained a little flat, but some low-end appeared during the film, an aspect I hadn’t detected during the old mix. The bass response was quite reserved, but it added a nice dimension to the track. Dynamics remained fairly limited, but I felt that the mix seemed somewhat better defined and broad. In any case, Lolita provided a clear and accurate soundtrack that worked well for a movie of this vintage.
The old Lolita DVD provided almost no extras, and the new one doesn’t improve upon that situation. All we get is an unusual and interesting theatrical trailer plus a text page that lists the film’s Awards. The latter are mistakenly referred to as “production notes” on the DVD’s case.
Despite the lack of significant supplements, I think Lolita is a DVD worth owning. Picture and sound quality seemed very good, and both marked definite improvements from the 1999 DVD release. The movie itself appeared quite compelling and provocative, and it’s a piece that should endure repeated viewings and remain thought-provoking and fascinating. Those new to the film will be pleased with this edition, and folks who own the old one will probably want to upgrade to this disc; while it didn’t show improvements as substantial as those seen for the rest of the “Kubrick Collection”, I thought the changes were big enough to merit a replacement.
Note: this new version of Lolita can be purchased on its own or as part of a nine-DVD set called the Stanley Kubrick Collection. In addition to Lolita, this package includes newly-remastered DVDs of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, plus a repackaged issue of Eyes Wide Shut and a recent documentary called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures. All of the movies are available separately, but the documentary appears only in the boxed set. List price for the package is $199.92, which almost matches the $199.84 the DVDs would cost separately. If you want all of the films, the “Kubrick Collection” is a great deal; fans should be more than happy to pay eight cents for the documentary disc.