Warner Home Video
Cast: James Mason, Shelly Winters, Sue Lyons
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Awards Summary
"Do you want to die standing up or sitting down?" When one thinks of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the great Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita, " that’s probably not the first line to pop in one’s mind. In fact, the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t a line at all, but naturally…Amy Fischer. But seriously, you probably think of the cover image of young Lolita herself, peering out from behind her sunglasses with lollipop in hand and daring illicit thoughts from even the most puritanical souls. Yet this film is so much more than an older man lusting after his much younger stepdaughter. Peppered with terrific lines and some of the best performances in any of Kubrick’s movies, "Lolita" shines as a study of dangerous obsessions and the way life tends to punish those who think they can get away with something.
"Lolita" tells the story of Humbert Humbert (James Mason), an expatriate writer looking for a quiet room to rent in a small New Hampshire town. As he is shown around a decent house by the owner Charlotte Hayes (Shelly Winters), a woman who makes it quickly known that she could get on the nerves of just about anyone, there is little about the place that makes it stand out. And then he sees the garden. And in the garden sits Lolita (Sue Lyons). A quick glimpse into the eyes of youthful perfection and Humbert’s mind is made up and he is moving in before night falls. During the course of his stay, Humbert becomes the subject of affection for lonely widow Charlotte, while Humbert’s own eyes are clearly tuned on Lolita. While he only wishes to spend a few moments alone with the youngster, Charlotte does all she can to corner Humbert herself. When Lolita gets in the way and is disobedient, the mother quickly ships her out to camp. Faced with the prospect of never seeing the girl again (due to the length of time he was originally supposed to stay in America ending before she would return), Humbert finds his only option is marriage. That is, he marries Charlotte. When we cut to some time later, the typically mild-mannered perfect British gentleman that was Humbert, has begun to show signs of breaking from this mold. He becomes angry at Charlotte and expresses what was bottled within. Charlotte, being unstable from the start, does not know how to cope with this sudden new side of the man she thought she loved and loved her. Her revenge leads her to read Humbert’s diary. It is here where she learns that Humbert has never loved her and only used her as a means to be near Lolita the rest of her life. This is too much for her to take and her actions are tragic, leaving Humbert with the exact situation he longed for – being alone with Lolita. Only Humbert makes one dumb mistake. He is impatient and puts his own desires ahead of Lolita’s, choosing to not tell her about her mother’s death at first. This will be the standard from here on out. Humbert is unable to see past what he thinks he has all figured out. He doesn’t count on Lolita ever disagreeing with his wishes. And he doesn’t count on Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers).
I like "Lolita" more each time I see it. It’s long and slow paced, uses too many fade outs that feel as if the film is going to break to commercial, and ends with an epilogue that could’ve simply been shot and maybe been more meaningful. Yet, the performances, script, and direction make this film nearly impossible not to watch. The opening scene (which is actually the end of the story) is awesome. Peter Sellers revels in playing the drunken Quilty and shifts from accent to accent, without every coming across as showy or silly or an improved performance that should’ve stuck to the script. On the other side, he is anchored by James Mason who is quiet and disturbed, obviously at the end of the rope he has fashioned into the perfect fitting noose. These two men don’t share a whole lot of screen time outside of this opening scene, but it is enough to completely catapult you into this story and leave you wanting more. Shelly Winters also is pitch perfect as Lolita’s lonely mother, who so desperately wants to appeal to someone significant. She is truly annoying and tiresome, yet there is an underlying sadness to her character that makes it difficult not to sympathize. Finally, we have Sue Lyons in her breakout and career-defining role as the title character. She does a fine job with her character, a girl with many sides. A delicate balance is created with Lolita. Just when you think she’s being an unselfish brat or an exaggerated and unlikely tease, she’ll say or do something that reminds us that she is merely a child. As much as Humbert would like to believe that she is long gone from the notion of innocence, Lolita challenges this idea when she tells the truth. She’s a very unique character, and I feel Lyons’ performance is authentic and true to that character.
Presented in non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> (1.66:1), this is a very clean looking film. Outside of an occasional moment of grain here and there, the print is virtually immaculate with little to no blemishes and signs of wear. Edge enhancement is minimal and detail is quite sharp. While this may not be as stylistic as some of his later films, Kubrick’s fingerprints are still to be found. In particular, notice the lighting in the scene where Lolita stars in her school play. As in so many of his films, here we find a number of bright white practical lights in the shot with little glare or hot spots on the surround elements. Also, watch for those fluid tracking shots moving in and out of rooms with the actors, particularly in Charlotte’s house. Though certainly not a film noir, Kubrick does make good use of the spectrum of black and grays at his disposal. Black level is deep, and for good examples of this you can cue up about any scene with Quilty, particularly the one where he impersonates a German psychiatrist. Overall, this is an excellent transfer of a film approaching the ripe age of 40.
The soundtrack is presented in mono, just as it was recorded in for the original release. Dialogue is strong and distortion free. The music is mixed well, not overpowering in the least bit. While, most of the other re-released DVD’s in this Kubrick collection feature new <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 tracks, this is probably the one film in the group that would have benefited the least from the deluxe treatment, as there’s really nothing in the film that screams to be heard in surround. If you like the film, then you’ll find no reason not to be satisfied with the sound here. That’s all that really matters, right?
Unfortunately, if special features matter then you do have reason to be disappointed here. Just like the previous release, this new "Lolita" has the added bonus of a theatrical trailer and a summary of awards and nominations the film received. Not a whole lot to spend some time with. This is no doubt a good film and may be the best acted film Kubrick ever made. If you own the previous version, you may want to rent this one to see if you can notice enough of a difference in the video transfers to warrant another purchase. Otherwise, this is a great addition to any collection and deserves to be seen in this great presentation, extras or no extras.