Welcome to Stanley Kubrick Week on Million Dollar Movie.
Claire Quilty: I get the impression that you want to leave but you don’t like to because you think I think it looks suspicious, me being a policeman and all. You don’t have to think that because I haven’t got a suspicious mind at all. A lot of people think I’m suspicious, especially when I stand on street corners. One of our boys picked me up once. He thought that I was a little too suspicious standing on the street corner. Tell me, I couldn’t help noticing when you checked in tonight–It’s part of my job, I notice human individuals–and I noticed your face. I said to myself when I saw you, there’s a guy with the most normal-looking face I ever saw in my life. It’s great to see a normal face, ’cause I’m a normal guy. Be great for two normal guys to get together and talk about world events, in a normal way.
Peter Sellers is best remembered as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, but his artistic masterpiece is generally considered to be Dr. Strangelove. Sellers plays three characters in Stanley Kubrick’s dark, political satire. His performance is all that and them some and deserves all the praise it gets, but I believe Sellers’ accomplishment in Kubrick’s previous film, the 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious book, Lolita, is just as fine—a comic actor at the height of his powers.
Sellers plays Claire Quilty, a pompous hipster playwright, the alter ego and nemesis to James Mason’s lustful professor, Humbert Humbert. “Are you with someone,” Humbert asks Quilty at one point. “I’m not with someone,” Quilty replies, “I’m with you.”
In the novel, Quilty is a secondary character, but he dominates the film. This is in part because of Sellers’ talent and also because Kubrick needed to detract attention from the central theme of Humbert’s obsession with young girls.
According to a 1969 interview with Joe Gelmis:
JG: At what point did you decide to structure the film so that Humbert is telling the story to the man he’s going to shoot?
SK: I discussed this approach with Nabokov at the very outset, and he liked it. One of the basic problems with the book, and with the film even in its modified form, is that the main narrative interest boils down to the question “Will Humbert get Lolita into bed?” And you find in the book that, despite the brilliant writing, the second half has a drop in narrative interest after he does. We wanted to avoid this problem in the film, and Nabokov and I agreed that if we had Humbert shoot Quilty without explanation at the beginning, then throughout the film the audience would wonder what Quilty was up to. Of course, you obviously sacrifice a great ending by opening with Quilty’s murder, but I felt it served a worthwhile purpose.
The entire enterprise was fraught with challenges.
It was too risqué for Hollywood and filmed in England (Iit was Kubrick’s first movie in England and he never came back).
Again from the Gelmis interview, Kubrick discussed his difficulties, starting with casting of the nymphet in the title role:
She was actually just the right age. Lolita was twelve and a half in the book; Sue Lyon was thirteen. I think some people had a mental picture of a nine-year-old. I would fault myself in one area of the film, however; because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita, and because his sexual obsession was only barely hinted at, many people guessed too quickly that Humbert was in love with Lolita. Whereas in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end, when she is no longer a nymphet but a dowdy, pregnant suburban housewife; and it’s this encounter, and his sudden realization of his love, that is one of the most poignant elements of the story. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did.
Given these restrictions, I think Lolita is one of the slyest and most subversive movies in American cinema. Removed from the expectations of the moment—How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?–it’s an easy movie to appreciate. It may not be a consistently great movie (and it works better if you’ve read the novel), but it’s my favorite Kubrick movie, inspired in the way that the Simpsons can be. It winks at you, inviting you to join in on the droll fun. Lolita comments on itself and movie conventions (it turns self-awareness into pleasure), but it is also be surprisingly tender–the pathetic Charlotte Haze, the tortured Humbert.
“When you get to know me better you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded,” a young mother tells Humpert at Lolita’s school dance. “In fact John and I, we’re both… broad-minded.”
The score by Nelson Riddle is also fun, dominated by a sickly-sweet theme song (which always brings to mind David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). The Ya-Ya school girl chorus is infectious and Kubrick uses music to segue between scenes to great effect.
Kubrick’s visual style has never been more appealing than it is here because it seems so effortless. The camera movements are complicated and intricate but they never call attention to themselves; they are fluid, and the framing is always precise. Yet Kubrick doesn’t crowd the actors. When Sellers and Winters dance together in a long shot we see their entire bodies so the joke really comes through. Many of the scenes are filmed in long takes, and they never seem static or dull. The actors are given room to shine.
The bits of seduction between Shelly Winters and James Mason, both wonderfully cast, are high comedy, especially the Cha-Cha-Cha business.
I’ll put the first half of Lolita up there with any of the great, subversive comedies, from Duck Soup to Some Like it Hot. In fact, Lolita reminds me of The Lady Eve: an amazing first half, followed by a disappointing payoff. The structure falls apart in the second half of the movie, where it remained interesting in the novel because of Nabokov’s rich language (his observations of America are caustic and enjoyable, but don’t translate to the screen).
The director and screenwriter Paul Schrader, writing in American Film Magazine (1989), noted:
We love what we do poorly; we underestimate what we do well. One of my strong points as a screenwriter—structure—is Lolita’s weakness. But when I see the film (as I do repeatedly), I don’t see the weak structure, I only see the wicked innuendo, the sly verbiage, the suppressed punchlines…writers who love words love Lolita. Screenwriters love Lolita for the same reason: The script uses language with a consistent, savage precision. Kubrick’s adaptation is a delight to the eye, ear and brain.
Still, Lolita was largely rejected by art-house audiences and mass audiences when it was released—though it was a modest financial success. Kubrick had two critically acclaimed, low-budget movies under his belt (The Killing and Paths of Glory), and a couple of discouraging experiences, first with Marlon Brando on One Eyed Jacks and then on Spartacus. (“Are you Quilty?” Humbert asks in the opening scene of Lolita; “No, I’m Spartacus,” Quilty answers. “Have you come to free the slaves or something?”) Kubrick didn’t want Lolita to be an art movie, he wanted a mass hit.
Pauline Kael, chided the critics for their dismissive reception of the film and appreciated its many virtues, particularly Sellers’ performance:
The surprise of Lolita is how enjoyable it is; it’s the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick. Lolita is black slapstick and at times it’s so far our that you gasp as you laugh. An inspired Peter Sellers creates a new comic pattern—a crazy quilt of psychological, sociological commentary so “hip” it’s surrealist. It doesn’t cover everything; there are structural weaknesses, the film falls apart, and there’s even a forced and humiliating attempt to “explain” the plot. But when the wit is galloping who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth? Critics, who feel decay in their bones.
…The Quilty monologues are worked out almost like the routines of silent comedy—they not only carry the action forward, they comment on it, and this comment is the new action of the slim. There has been much critical condescension toward Sellers, who’s alleged to be an impersonator rather than an actor, a man with many masks but no character. Now Sellers does a turn with the critics’ term: his Quilty is a character employing masks, an actor with a merciless talent for impersonation.
…Peter Sellers works with miserable physical equipment, yet he has somehow managed to turn his lumbering, wide-hipped body into an advantage by acting to perfection the man without physical assets. The soft, slow-moving, paper-pushing middle-class man in his special self-effacing type; and though only in his mid-thirties he all too easily incarnates sly, smug middle-aged man. Even his facial muscles are kept flaccid, so that he always looks weary, too tired and cynical for much of a response. This rather frightening strength of his Quilty (who has enormous—almost sinister—reserves of energy) is peculiarly effective just because of his ordinary, “normal” look. He does something that seems impossible: he makes unattractiveness magnetic.
Sellers had already delivered several good screen performances when he made Lolita—The Ladykillers, I’m Alright, Jack, The Millionaires—but he had not made his first Inspector Clouseau movie yet and was anything but a star. Kubrick admired what he’d seen and heard from Sellers, particularly the LP, The Best of Sellers, a collection of routines, mostly impersonations (recorded in a studio, not as stand-up in front of an audience). Kubrick heard it and was impressed though he initially promised Sellers only five minutes of screen time.
Sellers first came to fame in England in the mid-fifties as one of the stars of the radio comedy, The Goon Show. The show also featured Harry Secombe, and was the brainchild of Spike Milligan, a comic madman and perhaps genius (and I don’t use that word lightly). Milligan wrote the show (here is an archive of Goon Show scripts) and did half of the voices, split with Sellers (Secombe only played one character). Milligan was a British Jonathan Winters—in-and-out of mental institutions during his creative prime. He also wrote a hilarious multi-volume account of his time in the service during WWII, the first of which was called Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall.
The Goon Show was a whacked-out British riff on the kind of verbal slapstick of S.J. Perelman and the Marx Brothers specialized in, chock full of bad puns, throwaway gags, not to mention an innovative approach to sound effects. It is high silliness and the forerunner to Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe. Part of the fun, like watching the old Carol Burnett Show, is listening to the actors trying not to crack up (they never fully succeed).
Kubrick recognized Seller’s gift and he tapped into it better than any other movie director, Blake Edwards included. Reportedly, Sellers based Quilty’s voice on Norman Granz, the jazz impresario (Kubrick got Granz to record sections of the script on tape, and Sellers studied the tapes), though he also sounds like Kubrick himself, too.
In The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, by Roger Lewis, Kubrick talked about working with Sellers:
“He could certainly play any conventional role, but his real genius lay in embodying over-the-top, larger-than-life characters and pulling moments of pure comedy out of them. It’s true that he could start first from the voice, but he achieved far more than vocal authenticity and dexterity. He was also the only actor I ever knew who could really improvise…Sellers…even if he wasn’t on form, after a time fell into the spirit of a character and just took off—it was miraculous. A good part of Dr. Strangelove came from his inspiration. I filmed him with many cameras, never less than three, so that I lost nothing.”
Kubrick also told the author Alexander Walker:
“When Peter was called to the set he would usually arrive walking very slowly and staring morosely. I cleared the crew from the stage and we would begin rehearsing. As the work progressed, he would begin to respond to something or other in the scene, his mood would visibly brighten and we would begin to have fun. Improvisational ideas began to click and the rehearsal started to feel good. On many of these occasions, I think, Peter reached what can only be described as a state of comic ecstasy.”
In Nabokov’s original script (published in book form in 1973), there is a doctor’s convention at the motel where Humbert takes Lolita to after her mother dies—Kubrick changed it to a state police convention to increase the tension. It is a good example of how Kubrick and Sellers broadened the sketch of Quilty in Nabokov’s script (little of Nabokov’s script, which is occasionally interesting though not especially good, was used in the final film).
Here is the scene from the original script:
Humbert consults his watch again and continues his restless loitering. He strolls out onto the dimly lit pillared porch. To one side in the darkness two or more people are sitting. We distinguish vaguely a very old man, and beyond him another person’s shoulder. It is from these shadows that a voice (Quilty’s) comes. It is preceded by the rasp of a screwing off, then a discrete gurgle, then the final note of a placing screwing on.
QUILTY’S VOICE: Where the devil did you get her?
HUMBERT: I beg your pardon?
QUILTY’S VOICE: I said: the weather is getting better.
HUMBERT: Seems so.
QULITY’S VOICE: Who’s the lassie?
HUMBERT: My daughter.
QUILTY’S VOICE: You lie—she’s not.
HUMBERT: I beg your pardon?
QULITY’S VOICE:I said: July is hot. Where’s her mother?
QUILTY’S VOICE: I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.
HUMBERT: We’ll be gone, too. Good night.
QUILTY’S VOICE: Sorry. I’m pretty drunk. Good night. That child of yours needs a lot of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say. Smoke?
HUMPERT: Not now.
Here is portion of what Kubrick, Sellers and Mason did with it:
Lolita is flawed–and was bound to be, really–but it offers us Sellers and Kubrick at their best, not to mention Winters, Mason and Sue Lyon. And that’s good enough for me.
I noticed a long piece on Kubrick on the Vanity Fair website some time ago and it was the first place I went when we decided to do a Kubrick Week on Million Dollar Movie. Turns out the story is a monster, written in 1999 by Michael Herr, author of Dispatches. Herr was good friends with Kubrick and involved with Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. An essential read if you dig Kubrick. I have reservations about him as a director, though I admire him deeply, but this piece made me like him more than I ever had.
Turns out there is a wealth of information out there on Kubrick. Just check out his Wikipedia Page and have at the links.
Here’s Kubrick talking about Lolita:
Oh, and here is a shot of Kubrick on the set with Sue Lyon: