by Dilys Powell
See the film twice within the space of five days: the test is severe, especially when the original from which the piece is drawn is already familiar. Lolita: everybody has heard about Vladimir Nabokov’s tragi-comic story of an erotic obsession, most people have even read it: and though I am usually reluctant to pursue comparisons between films and literature, this time comparison is inevitable; you can’t ignore the relation between description and image, prose and cinema. This time it isn’t irrelevant; for a great deal of the quality of the film is owed to the delicate correspondences with which the director Stanley Kubrick and the producer James B. Harris have translated Nabokov’s book, via Nabokov’s screenplay, to the screen.
Correspondences with the book: but first, perhaps, the divagations. The nymphet with whom poor Humbert falls so agonisingly in love is no longer a twelve-year-old child. She has grown into an insolently knowing teenage schoolgirl, precociously mature in the American manner. His desire, then – yielding no doubt to the insistence of the censors – is the less a perversity. But it is still a forbidden desire, a mania apt to bring the police about a man’s ears: and the absurd, painful flight – the literary gent, the twice-married professor, rushing his little step-daughter, bubble-gum and all, from motel to motel – is still the inevitable outcome of the erotic situation.
As for the decoration – the baroque extravagance of the language, the consciously vulgar endearments of a secret obsessive love: most of that has necessarily been lost. But while the style, Nabokov’s style, has been filtered and sterilised, the flavour, Nabokov’s flavour, is preserved: sulphuric ice-cream, cyanide in the honey. Extraordinary in the book was the precise delineation of the farcical element which can live within tragedy; few writers have had the audacity to admit the ridiculous into the precincts of pain. I doubted before I saw the film, not whether the love-story of Lolita could be told, but whether the matching of the anguished and the hilarious could be repeated. It is here on the screen: both Humbert’s tortured jealousy and the incongruities into which it leads him, both the desperation and the belly-laugh: direction has caught it, acting has caught it.
Not that all the players need to be party to the dualism. Lolita herself, for instance, has to be a little horror through and through: and Sue Lyon, acting with a command and a timing far beyond her experience, gives us a dazzle of young deceit, egoism and callousness. Lolita’s widowed mother, the affecter of culture whom Humbert marries in order to be near his dear monster, is a victim from the realms of black comedy: and Shelley Winters brilliantly excises from the role any quality which could tinge laughter with pity. The character of Clare Quilty, the mysterious pursuer on the motel-tour who finally abducts Lolita, has been expanded to accommodate Peter Sellers’s chameleon gifts: no longer unseen, the tormenter offers in the tones of a Jerry Lewis a vaguely menacing friendship, pays a call in the guise of a nosy psychiatrist, rings up with sly anonymous threats. It is a firework performance, funny, malicious, only once for a few seconds overreaching itself, and in the murder scene which is both prologue and epilogue achieving the macabre in comedy.
But Lolita is James Mason’s acting triumph. James Mason who as Humbert presents the well-mannered exterior and the boiling heart. There is a passage about two-thirds of the way through the story when the pace and the interest flag: for a while in the journey from high farce to despair the action takes over from the characters, extraneous figures are allowed to divert attention. But in the ironic approach of the early scenes Mr Mason is supreme: the throwaway look, the gesture of acquiescence which conceals the roving eye, the minuscule variations of tone which are enough to contradict the words spoken. And the rage at the end: the violence and the bleak face and the desolate tears: this is a truth I had scarcely hoped for. Twice within five days – the test, as I say, is severe. But Lolita survives it.
The Sunday Times, September 1962
Republished in Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen: Fifty Years at the Films