Lolita (1962) was Stanley Kubrick's sixth film - a brilliant, sly adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's celebrated yet controversially-infamous 1955 novel of a middle-aged man's unusual, doomed sexual passion/obsession for a precocious, seductive "nymphet" girl. [The scandalous book was banned in Paris in 1956-1958, and not published in its full form in the US or UK until 1958.] The age of Lolita in the novel was raised from 12 years old to that of a typical high-schooler - probably 14 or 15. [The well-known scandal at the start of the century of actor Charlie Chaplin's second marriage and subsequent divorce to under-age actress Lolita McMurry may have been the original reference point for Nabokov's novel.]
The black humor and dramatic story of juvenile temptation and perverse, late-flowering lust was centered on a pubescent nymphet and a mature literature professor in an aura of incest. Rather than a film of overt sexuality and prurient subject matter, its content was mostly suggestive, with numerous double entendres and metaphoric sexual situations. Actors who were offered or considered for the role of the middle-aged, obsessed European intellectual included Kubrick's first choice - Noel Coward, then Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Rex Harrison, and David Niven.
The film's production, the first of Kubrick's films produced independently in England, was marked by a long casting search for the proper 'Lolita' [Kubrick decided upon blue-eyed blonde Sue Lyon, a fourteen-year-old television actress in her screen debut, and almost 16 by the time the film was released], the appointment of Nabokov to write the screenplay for his own lengthy novel, Kubrick's rewriting (with co-producer James B. Harris) of Nabokov's unacceptable versions of the script, and the threat of censorship and denial of a Seal of Approval from the film industry's production code.
The film received only one Oscar nomination, Best Adapted Screenplay (credited to Vladimir Nabokov), that lost to Horton Foote's screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). It received five Golden Globe nominations for Best Director (Kubrick), Best Dramatic Actor (Mason), Best Dramatic Actress (Winters), Best Supporting Actor (Sellers) and a win for Most Promising New Female Star of the Year (Lyon). Nabokov's novel was again adapted for the screen (by Stephen Schiff) and directed by Adrian Lyne - an R-rated Lolita (1997), that starred Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Dominique Swain, and Frank Langella.
The film's publicity posters asked the tagline: "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" with a picture of Lolita in a seductive lollipop pose. She wears heart-shaped sunglasses and licks a red lollipop. Indeed, at the time of the film's making, sexual freedom and content had not advanced to the point of acceptance that is commonly seen today. Lolita's opening credits, however, contain some of the most overtly-erotic, idealizing images of the entire film - designed to set the tone of the film.
The plot of the filmed version of Lolita transposes the events in the epilogue of the novel (a bizarre murder scene) to the prologue. After the opening prologue (the first ten minutes of the film), the film then returns to events that began four years earlier - recalling what led up to the killing of another man who had uncaringly seduced Lolita. The tale unfolds therefore, in a flashback told like a black comedy and murder mystery that both embellish the unusual 'love' story with occasional reappearances throughout the narrative of the protagonist's alter-ego. The victim - the scheming, degenerate and ill-fated 'genius' whom Lolita loved and eventually ran off with, bedevils, induces paranoia and baits the avenging tragic figure - the nymphet pervert.The Story
After a fade-in on satiny drapes, a young girl's bare left foot and leg are ceremoniously offered up. In a timely identification, the word 'Lolita' appears superimposed along the top of the foot. The cushioning left hand (wearing a wedding ring) of a subservient, enslaved male cradles her foot and his right hand lovingly and devotedly paints her toenails with bright enamel - at intervals, he wedges cotton tufts between her toes.
A light-colored station wagon drives through the fog up to an old, dusty baroque mansion. The inside of the enormous luxurious chateau is disheveled and messy, showing evidence of the previous night's party/orgy. Empty liquor bottles and glasses are strewn around and dust covers are placed over various articles of furniture in the cluttered rooms. Marble statues, a harp, and a piano fill other areas of the rooms. [The half-abandoned, cluttered mansion suggests Quilty's own dissipated character.]
Humbert Humbert (James Mason) enters, picks his way around, strokes the harp, and circles to the large inner room. He appears to be stalking his prey, calling out for "Quilty, Quilty" (played by Peter Sellers). A bottle placed on a drape-covered easy chair falls to the floor. Hidden under the sheet-covered armchair like a shrouded, corpse-like figure, the mansion's owner suddenly stirs:
Quilty: Wha? Wha? What's that?
Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: (spoken with a lisp) No, I'm Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin'? [An inside joke, a clear reference to Spartacus (1960), Kubrick's most recent film.]
Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: Yeah, I am Quilty. Yes, sure.
Quilty is dressed in pajamas and slippers - as he rises, he wraps the sheet over his shoulder like a toga. Bleary-eyed, hung-over and in a stupor, the dissolute and drunken Quilty shuffles over toward the menacing Humbert and calls him "Captain." Humbert, seeking revenge on his arch-nemesis (and fellow rival pedophile), is seen putting on fingerprint-concealing leather gloves: "Shall we have a little chat before we start?"
Following the theme of Roman times even further, Quilty challenges Humbert "to a little lovely game of Roman ping-pong like two civilized Senators." Humbert stares back in disbelief and watches the fuzzy-thinking, silly drunk talking and babbling aimlessly about nothing. Quilty serves the first ping-pong ball, but Humbert lets it bounce across his side of the table without picking up the paddle: "Roman ping...You're supposed to say Roman pong! OK, you serve. I don't mind. I don't - I just don't mind. Come on...(When there is no response, Quilty serves again.) Roman ping-pong. Kinda tricky serve to handle, eh Captain? Kind of tricky. One of the champs taught me that." When Humbert actually starts playing the game and begins hitting the ball, Quilty wonders if Humbert is "Jack Brewster," and mentions:
I'm not accusing you, Captain, but it's sort of absurd the way people invade this house without even knocking...They use the telephone..
Humbert wants Quilty to recognize him, asking slowly: "You really don't remember me, do you?" Besides inhospitable guests, Quilty also speaks about the serve and volley styles of ping-pong champions: "Have you ever noticed how the ...different champs use their bats? You know, some of 'em hold it like this and everything." Then, Humbert, almost sobbing, grills him with a single-minded determination about his seduction of Lolita:
Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn't have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He's...
Humbert: (He bangs on the table loudly with the paddle to get Quilty's attention) Lolita!?
Confused in his thoughts, Quilty frivolously answers with a grin on his face: "Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares?"
Humbert is hurt and outraged by Quilty's vapid, erratic, uncaring answer and he pulls out a gun. After seeing the gun, Quilty cleverly but nervously counter-points the weapon with a non-sequitur comment about Humbert's poor ping-pong playing - [and in retrospect, Humbert's inability to hold onto Lolita]:
Hey, you're a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn't anyone ever tell ya? It's not really who wins, it's how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don't think I want to play anymore.
Knowing that he is being condemned, the nervous Quilty turns, stumbles away and shuffles to get a drink: "Gee, I'm just dyin' for a drink. I'm just dyin' to have a drinkie." Humbert follows him into the next room, pitilessly warning him: "You're dying anyway, Quilty." The pistol of the gun barrel is pointed directly at him. Quilty must realize that he is being sentenced to death, as he mockingly reads aloud a "smutty" note about transgressing with the young girl Lolita ("...because you took her at an age"):
Humbert: Quilty, I want you to concentrate - you're going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.
Quilty: You are either Australian or a German refugee. This is a gentile's house - you'd better run along.
Humbert: Think of what you did, Quilty, and think of what is happening to you now.
Quilty (in the voice of an old western sagebrush cowboy or redneck): Hee-hee-hee...gee, that's a - that's a durl-in' little gun you got there. That's a durlin' little thing. How much a guy like you want for a-a durlin' little gun like that?
Humbert: (thrusts out a note for him) Read this.
Quilty: What's this, the deed to the ranch?
Humbert: It's your death sentence. Read it.
Quilty: I can't read, ah, mister. I never did none of that there book learnin', ya know.
Humbert: Read it, Quilty!
Quilty: (He ridicules his own death sentence by play-acting and reading the confession note, written in verse, with a Gabby Hayes accent. He stumbles haltingly and adds cackling commentary.) Mmm? 'Because you took advantage of a sinner. Because you took advantage...Because you took...Because you took advantage of my disadvantage.' Gee, that's a dad-blasted durn good poem you done there. 'When I stood Adam-Naked...' Oh! Adam-Naked, you should be ashamed of yourself, Captain. '...before a Federal Law and all its stinging stars.' Tarnation, you old horned toad, that's a mighty pretty...that's a pretty poem. 'Because you took advantage' - Gee, it's getting a bit repetitious, isn't it - 'Because' - there's another one - 'Because you cheated me. Because you took her at an age, when young lads...'
Humbert: (furious, he snatches the note back) That's enough!
Quilty: Say, what you take it away for, mister? That was getting kind of smutty there! (laughter)
After their bizarre confrontation, Humbert (always the romantic) asks if Quilty has any 'last words' before he dies. The doomed man replies: "Listen, Mac. You're drunk, and I'm a sick man. This pistol-packing farce is becoming a sort of nuisance." Quilty dons boxing gloves to "settle this like two civilized people getting together and settling something." As Quilty begins sparring in front of his opponent, Humbert asks: "Do you want to die standing up or sitting down?" Quilty melodramatically announces with bravado:
I wanna die like a champion.
Humbert fires with the gun - the bullet penetrates through one of the boxing gloves, grazing it and striking a bottle behind Quilty. Nervously, Quilty reasons with Humbert in a mock piano recital - in a frantic attempt to distract him and find a way to escape being hunted:
Gee, right in the boxing glove. You want to be more careful with that thing. Listen Captain, why don't you stop trifling with life and death? (He wipes his brow.) I'm a playwright. You know, I know all about this sort of tragedy and comedy and fantasy and everything. (He stumbles backwards into a piano bench.) I've got fifty-two successful scenarios to my credit, added to which my father's a policeman. (He turns around to the piano, constantly looking back over his shoulder toward Humbert as he pretends to be a composer.) Listen, you look like a music lover to me. Why don't you let, why, why don't you let me play you a little thing I-I wrote last week? (He begins playing Chopin's Grand Polonaise.) Nice sort of opening that, eh? We could dream up some lyrics, maybe. You and I dream them up together, you know, share the profits. (He plays a few notes.) Do you think that'll make the hit parade? (He plays a little more.) (Singing) Uh, the moon was blue, and so are you and I tonight...she's mine...yours...she's...she's yours tonight...and...and...
Quilty picks up a bottle, pretends to drink from it, and tosses it toward Humbert as he makes a cowardly run from the room. Humbert fires again and again as Quilty flees across the room toward the curving stairs. At the top of the grand staircase, Quilty is hit and wounded in the right leg, and he crumples down, but he continues to playfully banter with his assassin, suggesting unsually degenerate forms of entertainment - attendance at executions and voyeurism. Humbert's gun clicks empty.
Gee! Gee, that hurt me, that... You really hurt me. (Humbert reloads his gun) Listen, if you're tryin' to scare me, you did a pretty swell job all right. My leg'll be black and blue tomorrow. (He starts to drag himself further up to the landing at the top of the stairs while grimacing in pain) You know, this house is roomy and cool. You see how cool it is. I intend moving to England or Florence forever. You can move in. I've got some nice friends, you know, who could come and keep you company here. You could use them as pieces of furniture. This one guy looks just like a bookcase. I could fix it up for you to attend executions, how would you like that? Just you there, nobody else, just watching. Watch! You like watching, Captain? No, cause, not many people know that the, ha-ha, that the chair is painted yellow. You'd be the only guy in the know.
Humbert begins stalking Quilty up the stairs while finishing loading his gun. Quilty, dazed and gasping, drags himself away with his wounded leg to find cover behind a Victorian, Gainsborough-type watercolor painting of an 18th century genteel young woman - the portrait is propped up against the wall in the hallway. Humbert empties all six rounds of his gun into the portrait, killing Quilty through the painting. Quilty screams with childlike disbelief: "That hurts!" before slumping over dead. The camera's frame lingers on one of the bullet holes ripped through the face of the demure, innocent young woman - a symbol of abuse.
4 years EARLIER
At the start of the flashback, Professor Humbert Humbert, acting as narrator, speaks (off-screen) in a distinctively-cultured, Continental accent behind images of a Trans World Airlines plane flying over Manhattan and a Hartford/New Haven train pulling into a station in northern New England. He is driven to his summer lodgings in New Hampshire, before moving further west in the fall to a lectureship at an Ohio College:
Having recently arrived in America where so many Europeans have found a haven before, I decided to spend a peaceful summer in the attractive resort town of Ramsdale, New Hampshire. Some English translations I have made of French poetry had enjoyed some success and I had been appointed to a lectureship at Beardsley College (Ohio) in the fall. Friends had given me several addresses in Ramsdale where lodgings were available for the summer.
In the host's white-picket fenced home in Ramsdale, Humbert is escorted on a guided tour of the suburban house by a matronly-looking, boorish, wealthy widow Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). Wearing black tights under a jumper held with a leopard-skin belt, the tight, blonde-curled, ample woman pretentiously holds a cigarette holder upright and assures him (in an ironic, naughty-me, bawdy tone) with raucous laughter:
Oh M'sieur, if what you're needing is peace and quiet, I can assure you you couldn't get more peace [piece?] anywhere, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
She leads the middle-aged, well-educated, impeccable professor into his bedroom, while making pseudo-intellectual comments and boasts to her European guest about being a society gadfly, women's club member and culture-worshipper:
Charlotte: Yeah, this would be your room. It's what you might call a studio - well, you know, a semi-studio affair ... it's very male - (sigh) - and, uh, quiet. We're really very fortunate here in West Ramsdale. Culturally, we're a very advanced group with lots of good Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-Scotch stock. And, uh, we're very progressive - intellectually.
Humbert (smoothly): That is immediately apparent!
Charlotte: Oh, I do hope you'll want to address our club. There's a nice view from this window - of the front lawn, and a good place for you to do your writing. (gesturing) Shelves for your books...I am Chairman of the Great Books Committee. As a matter of fact, uh, you know, one of the speakers that I had, um, last season, was, uh, Clare Quilty...The writer, TV, TV play -
Humbert: No, no I wouldn't.
Charlotte: Oh, he's a very stimulating type of man. He gave us a talk on, hmm, uh, Dr. Schweitzer and Doctor Zhivago.
Obviously a rudimentary provincial, she is ignorant that in pairing the names of the doctors, they are both not well-known physicians. A sardonic Humbert is polite to her, but he detests her vacuous, trying-hard-to-impress chatter, cheap intellectualism, and 'artist' name-dropping, and at one point walks out of the frame of view. She attempts to praise her 'quaint plumbing' as proof of old European values, to tempt him to stay:
Charlotte: ...The bathroom's back here, right next door. Well, we still have that good old-fashioned quaint plumbing. It should appeal to a European. (She flushes it to demonstrate) WOOSH! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. (She picks up a stray sock laying over the back of a chair, satirizing her own home-making ability.) Oh, excuse the soiled sock! I see that you're interested in art. In that case, in that case, you really must see, uh, the collection of reproductions I have in my bedroom. Voila!...Du-fee, and there's my little Van Gock (sic), Monet. Is Mme. Humbert, umm...?
Humbert: There's no Madame. We are divorced... A happy divorce.
Charlotte: When did all this happen?
Humbert: About a year ago, in Paris.
Charlotte: Oh, Paris, France...You know, Monsieur, I really believe that it's only in the romance languages that, uh, one is able to really relate in a mature fashion.
During her attentive, fluttering, vapid introductions, Charlotte makes it very clear that she is desperate to sell herself too - she is an available widow (and left "well-provided for" with an inheritance). She strikes a pose as she leans in the doorway, and blocks him from leaving her bedroom:
Charlotte: (casually) In fact, I remember when the late Mr. Haze...yes, he's passed on. But, uh, when we were on our honeymoon abroad, I-I knew that I'd never felt married until I'd had myself addressed as seniora (she clicks her fingers above her head).
Humbert: You're in Spain?
Charlotte: No, Mexico.
She points toward her husband's picture [a serious portrait which looks like a photograph of a young Nabokov, the novel's author] - and her prized materialistic possession: "He was a lovely human being. A man of complete integrity....(Humbert touches a black vase beneath the picture, not realizing that it is Mr. Haze's cremation urn.)...Those are his ashes." Humbert recoils his hand away. A voracious Charlotte has been a widow for seven years, and she laments her alone-ness: "It's very difficult for a woman, an attractive woman alone, you know, ha-ha."
As they go down the stairs to continue the tour, Charlotte mentions the servant help: "The colored girl comes three times a week. We think we're lucky to get her. But she does do shirts very well." And then she points out the kitchen:
Back here, we have the kitchen. That's where we have our informal meals. My pastries win prizes around here!
Presenting a clue to her that he is considering rejecting the room rental and is leaving, he asks for her phone number: "That would give me a chance to think it over." The number is '1776,' "The Declaration of Independence," - so easy to remember! In a final attempt to keep him just a little bit longer, she shows him the garden in the backyard: "My flowers win prizes around here! They're the talk of the neighborhood. Voila!" Juxtaposed with these lines is the first view of Charlotte's nubile, young, sultry twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores 'Lolita' Haze (Sue Lyon) languidly sunbathing on a blanket on the lawn. She looks up and stares cooly at the new prospective boarder with a blank expression - the soundtrack plays a lush nymphet tune.