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.
-- Michael Sragow
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.