LOLITA remains a controversial picture, but for reasons people really didn't care about when Vladimir Nabokov's novel was riding high in the minds of the general public; namely, its paternity. It is not quite Nabokov's novel and, despite the screen credit, it's not even Nabokov's script, but what it is, is uniquely valuable, memorable, quotable and devilishly funny.
The broadest outlines of the narrative are from the novel, but the structure and tone are quite different. The dialogue tends to be playful in a Peter Sellers way, even when he's not delivering it, though some of Nabokov's language occasionally peeks through, like champagne bubbles through a mist of condensation. What is specifically missing from the film is three-fold: 1) the full force of its erotic transgression, as a fiftysomething college professor finds his ideal in the form of a young teenage girl, 2) a sense of its protagonist's past, to help explain the Poe-like origins and psychology behind his turbulent, corruptive feelings, and 3) the novel's preening tone of romantic longing, which makes of Nabokov's natural perspicacity a kind of peacock display of virtuosic virility. The film doesn't quite give us the light of Humbert's life, nor the fire of his loins.
Nevertheless, James Mason embodies Humbert Humbert in one of his finest performances, which miraculously straddles the comic and the tragic though the surrounding material itself is often disarmingly deadpan. When he hits his peak tragedian notes in his final meeting with the object of his obsession (Dolores "Lolita" Haze, played by Sue Lyon), he's played the game of love with her so cagily and playfully up till then that the real depths of his feeling overwhelm him (and us) from nowhere, but we are no less sympathetic for that. Shelley Winters is a delight as the selfconsciously artsy widow whom Humbert marries to gain chess-like proximity to her teenage nymphet daughter, played by 17 year-old newcomer Lyon with a bit too much sexual sophistication, which makes Humbert seem the corrupted rather than the corruptor. That said, their scenes together are unfailingly delicious, especially Lolita's delivery of Humbert's breakfast tray to his room ("Don't tell Mom but I ate all your bacon"), their impromptu poetry lesson ("Who is 'the divine Edgar'?"), and the "reward" -- when he swears he would never reveal any of her secrets -- she extends to him of a fried egg picked off his plate and dangled precariously over his mouth. Peter Sellers' supporting role as a TV writer named Clare Quilty is the make-or-break facet for many viewers; I sometimes enjoy him, because his man-of-a-dozen-faces recurrence in DR. STRANGELOVE makes him something of a Nabokovian ripple of recurrence (albeit in reverse), but for whatever reason, I had less patience for him this time around.
I love this movie and probably watch it once a year. Why? To describe LOLITA with absolute honesty, I'd have to say it's a film that shouldn't work (awkward structure, caricatures instead of characters, endless vamping in some scenes, the older casting of its key role, its free-handed tampering with of one of the great American novels) but somehow does, by virtue of the curious creative choices it makes. (To read Nabokov's own rejected screenplay is to understand how much more awkward it might have been.) Bob Harris' "Lolita Theme" keeps us sashaying along, lest we not deconstruct things too much along the way, and we're left with a real prize of quirkiness, a kind of paintbox of emotions and sly double entendres, all played with taste, skill and personality.
Adrian Lyne's 1997 version with Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain and Melanie Griffith (in the Shelley Winters role, ouch) is somewhat truer to the novel and has much to commend it, including Frank Langella as Quilty and an unabashedly romantic Ennio Morricone score.
Viewed on Warner Home Video Blu-ray.