From the beginning, British comedy fans loved the work of Peter Sellers, for its wit and sure attack and for its fillip of emotion. But it took a brilliant young American director with a hip, cosmopolitan temperament to exploit his talent fully. For his 1962 movie version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Stanley Kubrick chose Sellers to play what could have been a subordinate role -- not Humbert Humbert (James Mason), the French-lit professor obsessed by the title nymphet (Sue Lyon), but Quilty, the TV playwright and minor celebrity who lures her away. With Kubrick in control, Quilty almost steals the movie. The emphasis on Quilty is prescient: If this were a '90s comedy about Amy Fisher, Quilty would be the guy tying up the TV rights.
Sellers' Quilty is a portrait of the culture idol 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 guises; at one point he impersonates a suspiciously ingratiating state cop -- the kind of weirdo turn Norman Mailer used to do in his underground films. 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. (Mason's performance is perfection, too: He crawls inside of Humbert's passion-soaked vulnerability.) In the film's daring narrative frame, you feel that the ultracivilized 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.
Lolita screens Wednesday, Jan. 1, at 2:40 and 8:40 p.m. (with The Unbearable Lightness of Being at 5:30 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-6267.