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Warner Bros. Home Video presents
Humbert: Quilty, I want you to concentrate. You're going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.
DVD ReviewThe tagline for Lolita reads, "How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?" I think the better question is why did they make Lolita...in 1962? Now I know that hindsight is 20/20, and that no one in 1962 could have known how far movies would go in terms of what could be shown on screen, but I still feel that the movie Lolita is a product of its time, whereas Lolita the novel is not.
When Vladimir Nabokov originally wrote Lolita, he could not get it published; every publisher in the U.S. and England thought it was nothing but pornography. Finally a French publisher released it, and the novel started making critics' top 10 lists. Read today, the novel is still powerful. Vanity Fair called the book "The only convincing love story of our century." Most of the power in the book comes from Humbert's in-depth descriptions of his feelings towards Lolita, and a clear understanding of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita. Kubrick's Lolita erases the first road trip that Humbert and Lolita take, which is where their relationship develops. This fatal flaw makes the film feel disconnected in comparison to the novel.
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a European French professor who comes to America to teach. He rents a room in the house of Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), who has a 15-year-old daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). Humbert is stricken by Lolita, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. Meanwhile, Charlotte becomes infatuated with Humbert. Eventually, Charlotte tells Humbert he must marry her or leave. Opting to be in a position to see more of Lolita, Humbert marries Charlotte. Charlotte soon finds out about Humbert's obsession, and in a fit of rage runs out of the house...only to be run over. Not telling Lolita, Humbert pulls her out of camp and they start a new life. Soon Lolita becomes more independent and challenges develop.
There are several problems with Kubrick's Lolita. There is no explanation for Humbert's attraction to the girl. In the book Nabokov details the origins of Humbert's fascination, and his many failed attempts at finding a "nymphet" before Lolita comes along. This back story makes us understand why Humbert loves Lolita with such intensity. Without the back story, Humbert seems like a common pedophile, and it's hard to identify with pedophilia. Also, Nabokov's lyrical descriptions of Lolita through Humbert's eyes are gone. We never really get to see the true depth of Humbert's passion. And I blame this on the time in which the film was made. Of course, it would be impossible in the early 60s to graphically depict a relationship between a grown man and a teenager (even if the teenager is three years older than in the book). Kubrick has to resort to sly insinuations. We know what is going on, but we're not privy to it. And I'm not saying intense sex scenes are necessary (the 1990s remake proved that), but without knowing how strongly Humbert really feels about Lolita, he becomes an absurd child molester who deserves no sympathy or pity.
Luckily Kubrick cast James Mason as Humbert. It's really hard to hate James Mason, try as you might. He is strong throughout the picture, but I feel his best performance is while Charlotte is still alive. He does such an amazing job of showing his feelings to the audience, yet keeping it hidden from Charlotte. Of course, credit has to go to Shelley Winters for making us believe Charlotte can't see Humbert's disdain. Both Mason and Winters are at the top of their games here, and it's just a joy to see the onscreen chemistry between them. But, as always, Peter Sellers steals the show as Claire Quilty. Enigmatic in the way that only Peter Sellers can be, he keeps Quilty cooly disconnected from everything around him, which makes him endlessly interesting.
But Quilty is one of the big blunders of the film. In both the book and movie, Quilty plays a major role. But in the novel, he hardly ever appears. He's kept in the back of the reader's consciousness. In the film, he appears over and over, hammering his presence into the viewer's mind—he even shows up at a high school dance! I can understand that Kubrick would want to give Sellers more screen time, but having Quilty at the dance, and so conspicuously, is absurd. Regardless of how much I love Sellers as an actor, the character of Quilty should not be in the forefront of our minds. He's like Jay Gatsby, a man of mystery and wealth: if you use him too much, he loses his mystique.
At this point in the review, informed Kubrick fans will be shouting, "Nabokov scripted this movie!" Yes, that's true. Now, to those people, I would suggest they go and read Nabokov's screenplay. Go on, it's in print and available at any library or bookstore. Or, you could take my word for it when I tell you that Kubrick used Nabokov's script only as a basis for his movie. Much in the same way that Stephen King fans complained that The Shining was too different from the original story, I would argue that the only thing Lolita and Lolita have in common are a few plot points and some character names.
That being said, I still found Lolita to be very enjoyable. Again, the actors are all wonderful, even first-timer Sue Lyon. Kubrick's direction still has the feel of "old Hollywood" with the fades between scenes, and the glamour shot of Lolita's foot over the opening credits is brilliant. Some of the direction is brilliant as well. For example, the scene where Humbert and Charlotte are in bed, cuddling, and Humbert is looking at a picture of Lolita on Charlotte's nightstand. Charlotte informs Humbert that she is sending Lolita away to a boarding school, and Humbert turns to his side of the bed. Cut to view him head on, and we see a gun on his nightstand. Shots like that remind us what a visual filmmaker Kubrick is; but the overall look of the film shows that Kubrick's style was still developing at that point. I did feel that the reason I enjoyed it so much was because my mind filled in the blanks that Kubrick left out.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Lolita is presented to us in a newly remastered transfer, letterboxed at 1.66:1. Overall, the transfer looks very clear. Blacks are solid, and there is a high level of detail. Some shots, however, look terrible; the first shot after the opening credits is atrocious. It's faded, grainy, and there's a big line right down the middle of the frame. A few other shots look bad, although not as bad as that first shot. These few problems, along with a nonanamorphic transfer, are going to force me to downgrade it.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Considering one of the big selling points of the new Kubrick set is a set of 5.1 mixes for all of the movies, I was surprised to pull out this disc and find out it's in MONO. What the heck is going on here? Since Leon Vitali used the mono stems to create the other 5.1 mixes, it would make sense that he would do the same for Lolita, but apparently not. This is highly disappointing. Despite that the other mixes only use the surrounds for music, they at least have an open sound field so that the action on the front speakers didn't sound so cramped. I can see no reason why Lolita should still be in mono. None whatsoever.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 42 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Layers Switch: Unknown
A poor selection of extras.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsWhile a nice companion to the book, Lolita is not a perfect adaptation of the novel, and I recommend, nay, I insist, that you read the book before seeing the movie. Without having read the book, you won't get the passion, the power—in effect the essence—of Nabokov's masterpiece. I'm sorry, Stanley, you didn't pull it off with this one.
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