by Pauline Kael
The ads asked “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita for persons over 18 years of age?” but did not attempt an answer; the suggestion is planted that the movie had “licked” the book, and that Lolita has been turned into the usual kind of sexy movie. The advertising has been slanted to the mass audience, so the art-house audience isn’t going. A sizable part of the mass audience doesn’t like the movie (their rejection is being interpreted as a vote for “wholesomeness,” which according to Variety is about to stage a comeback) and the art-house audience is missing out on one of the few American films it might enjoy.
Recommend the film to friends and they reply, “Oh I’ve had it with Lolita.” It turns out (now that Lolita can be purchased for 50¢ and so is in the category of ordinary popular books) that they never thought much of it; but even though they didn’t really like the book, they don’t want to see the movie because of all the changes that have been made in the book. Others had heard so much about the book, they thought reading it superfluous (they had as good as read it—they were tired of it); and if the book was too much talked about to necessitate a reading, surely going to the film was really de trop?
Besides, wasn’t the girl who played Lolita, practically a matron? The New York Times said, “She looks to be a good seventeen,” and the rest of the press seemed to concur in this peculiarly inexpert judgment. Time opened its review with “Wind up the Lolita doll and it goes to Hollywood and commits nymphanticide” and closed with “Lolita is the saddest and most important victim of the current reckless adaptation fad . . .” In The Observer the premiere of the film was described under the heading “Lolita fiasco” and the writer concluded that the novel had been “turned into a film about this poor English guy who is being given the runaround by this sly young broad.” In The New Republic Stanley Kauffmann wrote. “It is clear that Nabokov respects the novel. It is equally clear that he does not respect the film—at least as it is used in America . . . He has given to films the Lolita that, presumably, he thinks the medium deserves…” After all this, who would expect anything from the film?
The surprise of Lolita is how enjoyable it is: it’s the first new American comedy since those great days in the 1940’s when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick. Lolita is black slapstick and at times it’s so far out that you gasp as you laugh. At its best (which is about half the time) it makes most of the “New American Cinema” look square. An inspired Peter Sellers creates a new comic pattern—a crazy quilt of psychological, sociological commentary so “hip” it’s surrealist. It doesn’t cover everything: there are structural weaknesses, the film falls apart, and there’s even a forced and humiliating attempt to “explain” the plot. But when the wit is galloping who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth? Critics, who feel decay in their bones.
The reviews are a comedy of grey matter. Doubts may have remained after Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s ex cathedra judgment that Lolita is “willful, cynical and repellent … It is not only inhuman; it is anti-human, I am reluctantly glad that it was made, but I trust it will have no imitators.” Then, “for a learned and independent point of view, Show invited Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned theologian, to a screening in New York and asked him for an appraisal.” The higher primate discovered that “ … the theme of this triangular relationship exposes the unwholesome attitudes of mother, daughter, and lover to a mature observer,” This mature observer does however find some “few saving moral insights”—though he thinks the film “obscures” them—such as “the lesson of Lolita’s essential redemption in a happy marriage.” (Had any peripheral redemptions lately?)
Bosley Crowther, who can always be counted on to miss the point, writes that “Mr. Kubrick inclines to dwell too long over scenes that have slight purpose, such as scenes in which Mr. Sellers does various comical impersonations as the sneaky villain who dogs Mr. Mason’s trail.” These scenes “that have slight purpose” are, of course, just what make Lolita new, these are the scenes that make it, for all its slackness of pace and clumsy editing, a more exciting comedy than the last American comedy, Some Like it Hot. Quilty the success, the writer of scenarios and school plays, the policeman, the psychologist; Quilty the genius, the man whom Lolita loves. Humbert’s brother and tormentor and parodist; Quilty the man of the world is a conception to talk about alongside Melville’s The Confidence Man. “Are you with someone?” Humbert asks the policeman. And Quilty the policeman replies “I’m not with someone. I’m with you.”
The Quilty monologues are worked out almost like the routines of silent comedy—they not only carry the action forward, they comment on it, and this comment is the new action of the film. There has been much critical condescension toward Sellers, who’s alleged to be an impersonator rather than an actor, a man with many masks but no character. Now Sellers does a turn with the critics’ terms: his Quilty is a character employing masks, an actor with a merciless talent for impersonation. He is indeed “the sneaky villain who dogs Mr. Mason’s trail”—and he digs up every bone that “Mr. Mason” ineptly tries to bury, and presents it to him. Humbert can conceal nothing. But our horror is split by laughter: Humbert has it coming—not because he’s having “relations” with a minor, but because, in order to conceal his sexual predilections, he has put on the roost obsequious and mealy- minded of masks. Humbert is a worm and Quilty knows it.
Peter Sellers works with miserable physical equipment as an actor, yet he has somehow managed to turn his lumbering, wide-hipped body into an advantage by acting to perfection the man without physical assets. The soft slow-moving, paper-pushing middle-class man is his special self-effacing type: and though only in his mid-thirties he all too easily incarnates sly, smug middle-aged man. Even his facial muscles are kept flaccid, so that he always looks weary, too tired and cynical for much of a response. The rather frightening strength of his Quilty (who has enormous—almost sinister—reserves of energy) is peculiarly effective just because of his lumbering, ordinary, “norma!” look. He does something that seems impossible; he makes unattractiveness magnetic.
Quilty—rightly, in terms of the film as distinguished from the novel—dominates Lolita (which could use much more of him) and James Mason’s Humbert, who makes attractiveness tired and exhausted and impotent, is a remarkable counterpart. Quilty who doesn’t care, who wins Lolita and throws her out, Quilty the homewrecker is a winner; Humbert, slavishly, painfully in love, absurdly suffering, the lover of the ages who degrades himself, who cares about nothing but Lolita, is the classic loser Mason is better than (and different from) what almost anyone could have expected; the handsome face gloats in a rotting smile. Mason seems to need someone strong to play against. He’s very good in the scenes with Charlotte and with her friends, but his scenes with Lolita, when he must dominate the action, fall rather flat.
If you can get over the reviewers’ preoccupation with the sacredness of the novel (they don’t complain this much about Hollywood’s changes in biblical stories) you’ll probably find that even the characters that are different (Charlotte Haze, especially, who has become the culture-vulture rampant) are successful in terms of the film. Shelley Winters’ Charlotte is a triumphant caricature so overdone it recalls Blake’s “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
Sue Lyon is perhaps a little less than enough—but not because she looks seventeen. (Have the reviewers looked at the school-girls of America lately? The classmates of my fourteen-year-old daughter are not merely nubile: some of them look badly used.) Rather it is because her role is insufficiently written. Sue Lyon herself is good (at times her face is amusingly suggestive of a miniature Elvis Presley) though physically too young to be convincing in her last scenes. (I don’t mean that to sound paradoxical but merely descriptive.) Kubrick and company have been attacked most for the area in which they have been simply accurate: they could have done up Sue Lyon in childish schoolgirl clothes, but the facts of American life are that adolescents and even pre-adolescents wear nylons and make-up and two-piece strapless bathing suits and have figures.
Lolita isn’t a good movie but that’s almost beside the point: excitement is sustained by a brilliant idea, a new variant on the classic chase theme—Quilty as Humbert’s walking paranoia, the madness that chases Humbert, and is chased by him over what should be the delusionary landscape of the actual United States, This panoramic confusion of normal and mad that can he experienced traveling around the country is, unfortunately, lost: the film badly needs the towns and motels and highways of the U.S. It suffers not only from the genteel English landscapes, but possibly also from the photographic style of Oswald Morris—perhaps justly famous, but subtly wrong (and too tasteful) for Lolita. It may seem like a dreadfully “uncinematic” idea, but I rather wish that Kubrick, when he realized that he couldn’t shoot in the U.S. (the reasons must have been economic) had experimented with stylized sets.
There is a paradox involved in the film Lolita. Stanley Kubrick shows talents in new areas (theme and dialogue and comedy), and is at his worst at what he’s famous for. The Killing was a simple-minded suspense film about a race-track robbery, but he structured it brilliantly with each facet shining in place; Paths of Glory was a simple-minded pacifist film, but he gave it nervous rhythm and a sense of urgency. Lolita is so clumsily structured that you begin to wonder what was shot and then cut out, why other pieces were left in, and whether the beginning was intended to be the end; and it is edited in so dilatory a fashion that after the first hour almost every scene seems to go on too long. It’s as if Kubrick lost his nerve. If he did, it’s no wonder; the wonder is that with all the pressures on American moviemakers—the pressures to evade, to conceal, to compromise, and to explain everything for the literal-minded—he had the nerve to transform this satire on the myths of love into the medium that has become consecrated to the myths. Lolita is a wilder comedy for being, now, family entertainment. Movie theatres belong to the same world as the highways and motels: in first-run theatres, “for persons over 18 years of age” does not mean that children are prohibited but simply that there are no reduced prices for children. In second-run neighborhood theatres, “for persons over 18 years of age” is amended by “unless accompanied by a member of the family.” That befits the story of Humbert Humbert.
Pauline Kael, “Lolita”, in I Lost It at the Movies. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965