Once he has swallowed the disappointment of discovering that Lolita in the movie is pushing hard on the age of consent, the libidinous critic must decide what if anything he can salvage from the sorry tale of the lovesick professor and the juvenile delinquent. There turns out to be a good deal. In the first place, Peter Sellers plays Clare Quilty, the Hollywood hack-genius and nemesis to Humbert Humbert. Mr. Sellers’s repertory of accents has never been more pyrotechnic, but beyond that he is given enough space to create a chilling sketch of the American operator crazed by his own know-how. Shelley Winters as Lolita’s mother is also fine, though she is given rather too much space. One of the most eloquent of actresses, she establishes her Book-of-the-Month-Club matron with nymphomaniac leanings in about thirty seconds and is then obliged to repeat for the required footage. One begins to suspect that Lolita was not a very inventive book–that is, beyond the initial audacity. The picture runs two and a half hours, which is long by at least forty-five minutes; it should, and probably will, be cut, and most of the savings can be made in the very leisurely build-up to the death of Charlotte and Lolita’s seduction of her step-father.
I also admired the bubble-gum cynicism and knowing ignorance of Sue Lyon; she makes Lolita a mirror of the popular culture and as alarming a harbinger of Western civilization’s imminent collapse as I can remember. I very much fear that she is type cast, and that Stanley Kubrick, the director, had a wide choice of candidates. The picture, finally, offers occasional flashes of incidental satire, though nothing approaching the motel, carhop, drive-in phantasmagoria that was the best part of the novel.
James Mason has the unenviable task of making something interesting out of Humbert Humbert with almost no help from Vladimir Nabokov (who wrote his own script). The trouble is that in the book Humbert is the narrator and his character is supposed to emerge from the creamy prose of Mr. Nabokov. But a movie can’t spout pseudo-elegance by the gallon and Mr. Mason’s lines are cut down to the point where they sound disdainfully dim. He never was a very resourceful actor and the best he can come up with in the emergency is a perspiring sheepishness punctuated by tantrums and tears. It is impossible to describe how wearing this becomes in two hours and a half; Lolita begins to take on the shine of Joan of Arc for having endured it week after week.
I’d have given the Humbert role to Peter Sellers, with perhaps Rod Steiger playing the unspeakable Quilty. That way, the central machinery of the picture might have looked less like the motel adventures of a second-hand car salesman and a quick-lunch cashier. The sex in Lolita is no longer perverse; it is now merely sordid.