Thursday, 26 July 2012

Lolita (1962)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

After two films involving rape (one of which also had traces of incest and another where general promiscuity formed a backdrop) it was refreshing to sit down and watch a comedy about paedophilia 

The film, of course, is Lolita. Here director Stanley Kubrick (of The Shining) bases his version upon the original novel of Vladimir Nabokov, but somehow manages to turn a tale of a predatory professor infatuated with underaged “nymphets” into a knockabout romp. Much as he did with his next picture, Dr. Strangelove, he turns an unsettling premise into something amusing and well-executed. In fact Peter Sellers pretty much does the same German accent in both. 

Humbert Humbert (James Mason, best known to me as the suave villain in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) comes to the New Hampshire resort of Ramsdale for a break prior to taking up a position at an Ohio college. Blowsy landlady Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) persuades him to stay at her house. He says he was persuaded by the promise of her “famous cherry pie”; in reality the cherry pie that made his mind up was the sight of her young daughter Dolores (Sue Lyon) – also known as ‘Lolita’ – sunning herself on the lawn. Over the course of a summer the frustrated and lovelorn Charlotte increasingly throws herself at Humbert. He, however, has eyes only for the precocious Lolita. She, he thinks, hs a “mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity”. She struts around confidently, seemingly aware of the appeal she holds for Humbert. Faced with the prospect of never seeing the object of his infatuation again he marries Charlotte. Charlotte discovers his true feelings for the two women in the Haze household. Luckily for Humbert her death removes an impediment. It is now just him and his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter. 

And that’s the way he wants it. He wants Lolita all to himself. But he is just one of her admirers. In a panic he takes her off on a road trip around America, fearful that someone is following them. And then she vanishes. It takes him four years to find her again and to track down the man who took her from him. We know this from the very first scene, which shows Humbert shooting Peter Sellers’ sozzled playwright Clare Quilty. The rest of the film is told in flashback, Humbert explaining how he came to be in Quilty’s mansion brandishing a revolver across the ping-pong table. 

A grown man’s fascination with a fourteen-year-old might strike the viewer as distasteful. However, this is the cleaned-up version: in the original novel Lolita is twelve-and-a-half. It is never made explicit that they have commenced a sexual relationship – though her whispered comments about a “game” suggest that they do. Humbert comes across as much more sympathetic, even though he is a monster in many ways. He thinks about murdering his wife, and does not mourn her when she does die. He lies repeatedly and exhibits a fierce jealousy where Lolita is concerned. He is an intellectual snob and is incredibly cruel in his judgements upon other people. However the viewer sympathises with him against the social-climbing Charlotte who fills her bedroom with reproduction prints, drops French phrases into conversation and is at pains to stress that she lives in West Ramsdale. He is also played for a fool by Quilty.

Quilty barely appears in the novel, but here he allows Peter Sellers to revel in his comedic talents. In one scene he is a barely-dancing hipster, in another a fake German psychiatrist, in another a baffled drunk. They are hardly the same person. But he too is clearly just as unpleasantly infatuated with Lolita as Humbert Humbert. One can only wonder at the nature of the “art films” he wanted the young girl to star in… Thinking back to the first scene Quilty seems to think of the pursuit of Lolita as a game – a game which Humbert lost. “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.” Ostensibly he is talking about ping-pong; the undertone is that he is referring to Lolita. But he, the voracious Mrs Haze, the awful Farlows (who talk about swapping partners at the dance while hinting that they are “extremely broad-minded. In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded…”), all provide comic relief – albeit a very black comedy. There are sexual double entendres – when Charlotte tells Humbert that she goes “as limp as a noodle” when he touches her he drolly comments “yes, I know the feeling.” In bed with Charlotte he stares over her shoulder at a picture of Lolita. She talks blithely about sending her daughter to boarding school and then comments, presumably about his waning ardour, “You’ve gone away again.” In comparison the scene where Humbert tries to unfold the cot is very low slapstick. In the background the music warrants an entry all of its own, changing from swooping orchestrations that would seem to belong in a more conventional love-story to the hip-swinging cha-cha-cha of the Lolita Ya Ya. But I suppose one’s willingness to laugh at Lolita depends on how easily you can see Humbert’s pursuit of Dolores as pathetic rather than creepy.  

Child Pawn

What have I learnt about New Hampshire?
Desirable places like Ramsdale make a lot out of their “good Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-Scotch stock”. Obviously history and culture is important to the townsfolk. The snobbishness of insisting that they live in West Ramsdale is lovely. To an outsider I doubt anyone would think that Ramsdale was large enough to have a western side (which, of course, is where the better  class of people live). But it's notable that the state contains restful and peaceful resort towns so good that they would be recommended to visiting professors as a pleasant place to spend the summer.

One might think that towns there would be “provincial” – especially if one has seen Peyton Place – but the Farlows are keen to point out that there are some “extremely broad-minded” people about. Sex seems to be on everybody’s brains.  

Can we go there?
Although the film was set throughout America, mainly in Ohio and New Hampshire, filming was completed much closer to ‘old’ Hampshire. Stanley Kubrick, as was his custom, shot the film in England. Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, just north of London, was used for the bulk of the shooting, though other locations did creep in. These include the nearby Hilfield Castle, which provided Clare Quilty’s decrepit ‘Pavor Manor’ and a house on Packhorse Road in Gerrard’s Cross which doubled for the Haze residence in West Ramsdale. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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