AP Photo/Vintage/Anchor Books
For his audacious adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Stanley Kubrick chose Peter Sellers to play what could have been a subordinate role -- not Humbert Humbert, the French-lit professor obsessed by the title nymphet (Sue Lyon), but Quilty, the television playwright and minor celebrity who lures her away. With Kubrick in control, Quilty also steals the movie, and the emphasis is prescient: if this were a contemporary story, Quilty would be the guy tying up the reality-TV rights. As Quilty, Sellers is quicksilver-changeable -- a portrait of the artist as a phony. He's ostentatiously high style. At a summer dance in a high-school gym, he manages to look good even though he bops only from the chest up. As he haunts Humbert, he takes on diverse flaky disguises; at one point, he impersonates a suspiciously ingratiating state cop -- the kind of weirdo turn Norman Mailer used to specialize in. When Quilty poses as a German psychologist, the dagger-glint in his eyes lets Humbert know that the pseudo shrink has his number. Sellers' Quilty sees through the weakness and hypocrisy in Humbert. In the film's daring narrative frame, you feel that the ultra-civilized Humbert is able to kill Quilty because the victim starts his death scene under a sheet and finishes it hiding behind a painting. In the end, Humbert doesn't have to look at him.
Pictured: Cover art from the 50th anniversary edition of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita."