Humbert Humbert (James Mason), if that is his name, drives up to a country house in the middle of a foggy nowhere to pay someone a visit, one Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers), well known writer and to some opinions, literary genius. But Humbert has something for him: a revolver loaded with bullets, and on entering the mansion he confronts the man who is recovering in the aftermath of the sort of wild party he is famed for. Quilty is a fast-talking fellow, and tries to engage his unwelcome guest in a game of table tennis, but Humbert is having none of this and tells him in no uncertain terms he plans to kill him for what he did to Dolores Haze (Sue Lyon). But who was she?
Author Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was a must-read in the fifties, and remains his most famous work, so it was natural, as is still the case with many bestsellers, to adapt the text into a movie to cash in on that success. But this particular effort was a weird choice for a start, considering censorship had not eased to the extent that a faithful version would be allowed, and it was only the reputation of director Stanley Kubrick, fast becoming the behemoth of quality if controversial cinema he ended up as, that carried the project through from page to screen, and wasn't the result pleased with itself? He persuaded Nabokov, in spite of his inexperience with movies, to pen the script then promptly rewrote it, the most notorious alteration being the change from Lolita's age to fourteen.
In the book she started off as Humbert's object of lust at twelve, but the censors would not allow that and were even unhappy that Kubrick was making this at all, and they were not the only ones: when the film was finally released the reception was lukewarm in the main, both from the purists disappointed so much was altered from the source, and the moralists who objected to the subject matter. Yet making Lolita a teenager from the outset did put Kubrick's emphasis on something else other than paedophilia, as the previous few years had seen teens become a very marketable proposition for the media of all forms, and here their focus as a desirable commodity for the money men was satirised though not patronised: Lolita (who has her own theme tune!) knows exactly what Humbert and the rest of society want from her.
What perhaps audiences were not expecting was a comedy, as if this was not a fit subject to laugh at (the paedophile jokes that proliferate in the twenty-first century would have horrified them, surely), but with the passage of time we can perceive Mason was offering one of his finest essays in humour. Humbert is an anti-hero inasmuch as he makes our skin crawl but we can enjoy his frequent discomfort since everyone around him is designed to drive him up the wall and this forced tolerance of constant irritation brings out some very funny quirks in his performance (which he considered one of his best). Even Lolita - especially Lolita - sends him to distraction as he moves in to the home of her mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters, perfectly cast and well aware of it) simply because he saw her in the garden.
With this exotic Englishman and his posh accent captivating everyone around Humbert it's only a matter of time before his widowed landlady wishes to make a move on him, but he only accepts her advances to get close to her daughter, a plan which predictably goes awry as the world is not going to play ball with his pathetic needs. But although we see all three of the lead characters cry, it's probably Charlotte we feel the most sorry for, as at least Lolita was well aware of the dupe going on, and when we watch her mother break down after a night of intimacy is thwarted we can sense her loneliness in a society where the teens are now calling the cultural shots. As for Sellers, he indulged his liking for disguise with the conniving Quilty, possibly an even more dangerous predator than Humbert who runs rings around the Professor, who is an insufferable snob which has made his experience limited in his schemes when there are bigger sharks out there than him. If finally this was too affected to be judged anything but a qualified success, Mason was worthwhile. Music by Nelson Riddle.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.