by Richard Combs

Driving to Pavor Manor, fabulous home of the renowned playwright Clare Quilty, European man of letters Humbert Humbert confronts the bemused Quilty with a poem detailing his misdeeds, then shoots him as he attempts to escape upstairs . . . Four years earlier, arriving in America with an engagement to teach in the fall at Beardsley College in Idaho, Humbert takes lodgings for the summer in the Eastern town of Ramsdale. His widowed landlady, Charlotte Haze, immediately sets her cap for her sophisticated lodger, but Humbert’s attention is rivetted by Charlotte’s schoolgirl daughter Lolita. Taking every opportunity to be near Lolita (including at the school prom, visited by celebrity Quilty and his enigmatic companion Vivian Darkbloom), Humbert is dismayed when Charlotte, with romantic plans of her own, packs her daughter off to summer camp. Finally, seeing it as a way of furthering his designs on Lolita, Humbert agrees to marry Charlotte – then begins to revolve plans of murder when she announces her intention of sending Lolita to boarding-school. But Charlotte saves him the trouble when she discovers the diary in which he has freely confessed his feelings, rushes out in the rain, and is killed by a car. Humbert then collects Lolita from Camp Climax for a cross-country drive that will take them to Beardsley College. His efforts to seduce Lolita en route are plagued by misadventure (a collapsing cot, an enigmatic encounter with Quilty at a police-men’s convention), and in Beardsley their relationship becomes more fractious when Humbert forbids her to appear in a school production of Quilty’s play, The Enchanted Hunters. A visit from the school psychologist, Dr. Zemph (actually Quilty), changes Humbert’s mind, but after a blazing row, Lolita agrees to leave school and travel further West with him. While Humbert nurses suspicions that they are being followed, Lolita falls ill; Humbert takes her to hospital, from where she is mysteriously discharged in the company of her ‘uncle’. Some time later, after fruitlessly trying to find Lolita, Humbert receives a letter from her begging for money. Visiting her, now pregnant and having become Mrs. Richard Schiller, Humbert learns that the man she ran off with, who dogged their journey all the way, and the only man she ever really loved, was Clare Quilty. Denied any hope that Lolita will return to him, Humbert sets off with Quilty’s address to exact revenge.. . A closing title reveals that he died in prison of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for Quilty’s murder.

“I’m no cineaste” Vladimir Nabokov once declared to his student-become-annotator (and Kinbote-like exegete) Alfred Appel Jnr., in explanation of his imperfect recall of and generally indifferent attitude towards the movies he had seen. Appel, however, unearths a good deal of evidence to the contrary in his entertaining, exhaustive study of Nabokov as cinematic parodist, plagiarist and occasional special effects technician (Nabokov’s Dark Cinema). This includes, in Lolita, the noir double-billing of Brute Force and Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed. When comparing Kubrick’s Lolita, in fact, Appel is in no doubt where the cinematic virtues lie: “. . .most of the film is poorly served by high-key lighting, the stylistic signature of MGM, which helped finance the venture. It is no small irony that the novel should turn out to have employed the chiaroscuro and iconography of film noir more expressively than the film version”. Added to which is the film’s failure to realise the particular literary quality of the original, its self-consciousness, something again which is not alien to the ambience of film noir (Appel cites Touch of Evil) or to the work of other directors. Kubrick “is a self-effacing technician who keeps his camera invisible. Four or five allusions in the course of his two-and-a-half hour Lolita are nothing compared to the widely allusive artifices of Godard…”.

Whatever truth there may or may not be in this, Kubrick’s Lolita is certainly not rife in allusions to his own or other people’s films (a couple of jokes about Spartacus aside). It doesn’t pass by any theatre marquees displaying tantalising double bills like Nabokov’s, and directly invokes only one other film in the shock cut from Humbert’s introduction to Lolita in Charlotte Haze’s garden to the drive-in horror movie they all go to see (Terence Fisher’s 1959 The Mummy, not The Curse of Frankenstein as identified by Appel). This may be emotionally effective, and the cue for a joke (Lolita grabs a gratified Humbert’s hand, a moment before Charlotte does likewise, ending in the embarrassed retreat of all) which also cues a connection between Kubrick’s black slapstick and Nabokov’s devotion to the silent-cinema comedians. But it is not suggestive in terms of the overall theme-unless Humbert’s ‘coming out’ as a nympholept could be compared to emerging from four-thousand-year-old wraps-nor in terms of the way Nabokov principally uses his movie references, or a myriad of similar details from the life and times of 50s America: as botanical (or lepidopteral) evidence, a way of describing Lolita through her cultural landscape.

The fact that Kubrick quotes an English horror film points to his inhibition in this respect. It is one that grows greater as the central duo travel further, and the impossibility of combining English locations (chosen, apparently, for both financial and censorship reasons) with Nabokov’s particular descriptions of American motel civilisation culminates in the tidy suburban street where Humbert finally tracks Lolita down, and which is defiantly and incongruously ‘dressed’ with a U.S. mail box. Through this one move, in fact, Kubrick may not just have compromised Nabokov’s novel but precisely reversed the way it works. The ‘realistic’ basis of Nabokov’s fiction is his thousand-and-one gleanings of teen and movie culture, from which he works outwards to the unreality, the fictional legerdemain, of plot and characters. The base of Kubrick’s fiction is pure abstraction, back-projection or studio mock-up, and the only reality is invested in the comedy-drama of the characters. His Lolita is a film of ‘solid’ performances – high-key lighting and unstressed direction indeed – particularly in the first half, chez Charlotte Haze, where in long, placid takes the camera observes Humbert’s efforts to avoid Charlotte’s mating dance while guiltily courting Lolita. At one point this includes a disquisition on a poem by Poe (“the divine Edgar”) which helps to characterise Humbert as a European litterateur under the spell of the New World, and even to characterise Lolita a little (she objects to one rhyme as “corny”), but misses the literary matrix which cross-references Poe to “Annabel Lee” and the “kingdom by the sea” where boyish Humbert was infatuated with a little girl and thus sowed the seeds of his nympholepsy.

The irony is that, in taking Lolita out of America, and in refusing to compromise too far the realistic basis of his fiction (retaining the part of Vivian Darkbloom, Nabokov’s anagrammatic alter ego, but not the cameo role Nabokov wrote for himself, as Vladimir Nabokov, butterfly hunter), Kubrick may have reversed but has not been unfaithful to his source. Not unfaithful, that is, to the author’s original, if perhaps to his subsequent script. One of Appel’s complaints about the film is that Kubrick largely ignored Nabokov’s determined efforts to translate his literary effects into visual comedy (the published version of Nabokov’s script at times reads as if it were written for Dick Lester). But Kubrick (or other, uncredited adaptors: Calder Willingham’s name has been mentioned) has either invented scenes with a Nabokovian ring – playing chess, Humbert dismays Charlotte by taking her ‘queen’: “It had to happen some time” – or has gone back to the novel for the kind of detail that lends such weight to the performances. A case in point is the driver of the car which accidentally puts paid to Charlotte. He doesn’t appear in Nabokov’s script, but Kubrick resurrects the scene from the novel in which he (or, in the film, his father) offers to make amends to Humbert by paying for the funeral expenses. In the novel, the scene has a literary lightness – the man produces a diagram to illustrate his blamelessness in the accident – but it has a peculiar weight in the film, mainly because it is so irrelevant in the narrative context, a superfluity.

Such superfluity, however, comes to dominate the narrative – it is this which gives the film its ‘epic’ length, rather than the demands of the cross-country odyssey – and to reshape the subject. It has been remarked (by Kubrick among others) that Humbert’s story no longer has much erotic impetus. The censorship (or self-censorship) of the time diluted his nympholept’s passion, suggesting instead that he must be in love with Lolita all along, instead of discovering this as the pathetic conclusion to their affair. But this lack is hardly noticeable on the screen, given the preoccupation with Humbert’s broader predicament: his need to establish a kind of normalcy to his exotic passion, and hence the way he is both tortured by and driven to merge with a multiplicity of mundane situations. Mundaneness and domesticity (very much the context of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita once they arrive at Beardsley) fascinate Kubrick, perhaps because their repetitiveness is so easily translated into cosmic terms, into the deterministic trap of the repetitive narrative. (Compare the pairing of banal domestic lives with ferociously plotted destinies in The Killing; or man driven mad by ever-expanding permutations of the domestic in The Shining, like Lolita, perhaps, a non-Gothic horror story.) Humbert completes the circumnavigation of his galaxy, and arrives at his destiny, when he finds Lolita at the end a frumpy suburban housewife – a repetition of the mother, in fact, whom Humbert married in order to get at the daughter.

Of course, the real case in point here is Quilty. He is a demon of repetition, an extraordinary replication of the ordinary -and he is, in contradistinction to both Nabokov’s book and script, all over the film. In his haunting of Humbert, he both realises the latter’s fears of discovery by the guardians of decency – playing policeman, psychologist and school counsellor – and mocks his efforts to pass off his liaison with Lolita as a ‘normal’ family matter. Sellers brilliantly turns each of his cameos into a monster of the nondescript, and each comes on to Humbert as if offering him the solace of a brotherhood of nonentity (“I’m not with someone, I’m with you” professes Quilty’s ‘policeman’; “It’s really an obscure, unremarkable name…” he demurs when torturing Humbert over the phone and asked to identify himself). Sellers’ omnipresence, and his evident licence to embroider his roles in inimitable fashion, has been criticised as too much of an indulgent ‘turn’ (he is more neatly tailored in Dr. Strangelove), and Appel compares Quilty’s obtrusiveness here with his function in the novel where, in Nabokov’s words, he had to be “a shadow until almost the end” (though Appel is admiring of the way Kubrick, apparently picking up on Nabokov’s film noir hints, often conjures Quilty out of shadows and darkness, out of Germanic Stimmung). But the point about Quilty is precisely his substantiality – alongside which it is often Humbert who becomes the shadow. Through the exaggerations of performance, Kubrick may have reversed Nabokov, but it is, as it were, a true reversal, a mirror image, through which the film finds a different route to the playfulness of the source novel.

It could even be said that what is often mistaken for noir in earlier Kubrick – the narrative hyperbole of Killer’s Kiss and The Killing – is pre-Nabokovian in the kind of fictional chaos it creates. Specifically pre-Nabokovian, at least, is one detail in Killer’s Kiss: when Davy Gordon catches the villains in their lair, one of them is holding a pack of cards, ace of spades prominent, which he tosses at Davy to turn the tables; Davy is then seen lying on the floor with the jack of spades next to him. Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave, of course, hinges on the comedy (and self-consciousness) of treating characters as playing cards. Or again, one could compare Kubrick’s game of numbers (three days for the action, two for the love affair in Killer’s Kiss; counting the hours, minutes and seconds in The Killing; war by statistics in Paths of Glory) with Nabokov’s: Appel describes Lolita as an ‘anti-pornographic’ novel in which “only the first thirteen chapters of Humbert’s confession, allegedly written in prison, are truly erotic (the trickster’s signal number is a reader’s unlucky omen”). More generally, there are the elements of fairy-tale in Nabokov (Grimm Road leading to Quilty’s Pavor Manor; “The Enchanted Hunters”, hotel and play) which he uses as a kind of shorthand for all storytelling, and also as a way of advertising the author’s hand. Kubrick’s plots often have a similar resonance, though for reasons that Nabokov might deplore: “Kubrick has spoken of his early love of fables and fairy-tales; and his belief in the energising power of myth to work on our unconscious or touch the memory-trace of our race…” (Stanley Kubrick Directs, Alexander Walker).

In this last respect, both Kubrick and Nabokov come into their own in the one major scene where they collaborated in departing from the novel – Humbert’s shooting of Quilty at the very beginning, which casts the rest of the film in flashback. Nabokov’s script directions here seem clearly to combine the mock-Gothic (“The sun is rising above the gnarled old trees”) with what one would assume is a movie reference as explicit as Brute Force (“After a brief still, the camera glides around an ornate turret and dips into an upper-story casement. A prone sleeper [Quilty] is glimpsed in dorsal view”) were it not for Appel’s testimony that Nabokov didn’t see Citizen Kane until 1972 on Swiss television. Kubrick’s own realisation of the scene (Humbert stalking Quilty through the incredible bric-a-brac of Pavor Manor) might also be thought to touch on Kane or other noir or Gothic precedents. What is more striking, however, is what it leads to, those ineffably (or literally) earth-shaking sequences through which Kubrick moves out of narrative altogether into a more epochal scheme.

The clutter of Pavor Manor looks forward to the cultural staging house at the end of 2001 – with a little mystery as the key (the Gainsborough-type painting behind which Quilty crawls, and into which Humbert pumps his last bullets; though Nabokov’s Lolita does contain a reference to Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of a young girl, “The Age of Innocence”). Similarly, the psychological reverberations of the scene seem both Freudianised and mythologised – is there a link to the death by shooting of Barry Lyndon’s father at the outset of that film, or even to the despatch of the father on the cross, while his son disappears over the horizon, at the end of Spartacus? Appel’s supposition is that Kubrick fudged the noir possibilities of Lolita – so suggestively planted by Nabokov – because he was trying to forget his genre beginnings and elevate himself into Art. But it looks more as if the particular qualities of Kubrick’s genre exercises – over-driven plots pushing their co-ordinates into other realms of time and space, character and fate – found their true fictional location in Lolita.

Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1984 – vol. 51 no. 607

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