As Stephen King discovered to his sorrow when seeing the final cut of The Shining, a Stanley Kubrick film is a Stanley Kubrick film. No real room for anyone else. Valdimir Nabokov, the author of the book was hired to write the screenplay, but it was almost entirely junked. I’ve never read the book but I know that many things were changed. It was re-made in 1997, much more faithfully, but this version is much, much superior to that one. Just as Kubrick’s vision of The Shining, for all its faults, is superior to the more faithful but completely pedestrian television re-make that King wanted. As always, the black and white photography is striking. Kubrick would make one more film in B&W before going to color for all the rest. I get the feeling he really loved B&W.
The cast is very, very good. The character of Humbert Humbert is one of the most pathetic figures I can think of, and James Mason really brings him to life. Shelly Winters … oh, lord, what can you say about Shelly Winters? She was so amazingly good at playing these overblown, whiny characters, as here and in A Place in the Sun. Peter Sellers really outdid himself—which takes some doing—as the insanely insidious Clare Quilty. The opening scene, which is the end of the story, is sheer genius on his part.
No, wait, the real opening scene is yet another example of Kubrick’s ability to innovate and shock. A woman’s foot comes into the scene, then a man’s hands. He tenderly, erotically tucks bits of cotton between her toes, and starts painting her nails as the credits roll. This is before the movie even really begins, and already I am fascinated. He would pull the same stunt again in Dr. Strangelove, i.e., a very funny scene under the credits that has nothing to do with the plot.
But I guess it all succeeds or fails with the character of Delores Haze: Lolita. And Sue Lyons is stunning. The first time we see her, lying on her side on the back yard on a towel in her bikini and big hat and sunglasses, is one of the single most erotic images in the cinema, in my opinion. I can see how poor Humbert never had a chance. She remains wonderful in scene after scene. I hadn’t realized, when this was new, that in the book Lolita was only twelve. Holy cow! Sue Lyon was thirteen, and the character had been written as being fourteen. Can anybody say pedophile? Would this book have been such a success—though of course very controversial—today? I wonder.