A Clockwork Orange at 50: Malcolm McDowell Revisits Kubrick’s Film

The star of A Clockwork Orange recalls being beaten up, nearly drowned and having a blast, 50 years on.

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

“I think I’ve always been my own kind of person, and you know sometimes to my detriment,” says Malcolm McDowell, chatting to Den of Geek via Zoom, 50 years after the release of A Clockwork Orange.

“I’ve never really played the Hollywood card, I’m not really an insider, that’s just not my thing. And I like to be able to say no. And that’s it.That’s not probably a politically correct thing to do. However, too bad. I’m still here 50 years later.”

McDowell is talking to us from LA, his accent a soft mix of Yorkshire, where he grew up, and California where he has resided for much of his professional life. He is funny and charismatic, with a hint of the mischievous, he says people still find him “a little intimidating” – traits which he brought out in spades for his breakout roles, first as rebellious school boy Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson’s If… and then as violent delinquent Alex Delarge in Stanley Kubrick’s bold, blistering and controversial satire A Clockwork Orange.

Watching it today it seems hard to believe the movie is 50 years old – it’s lost none of its power. Set in a futuristic dystopian Britain, McDowell plays gang leader Alex, who with his band of ‘droogs’, gets high on ‘milk plus’ and commits a horrible home invasion and rape, and later a murder. Apprehended by the police, Alex agrees to participate in a new kind of aversion therapy which makes him physically unable to commit crimes, causing pain and nausea at the very thought, in exchange for a reduced sentence.

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Alex is robbed of freewill, becoming the Clockwork Orange – an organic thing with a machine inside – of the title. It’s a movie of big themes, of totalitarian governments controlling citizens and left wing dissidents exploiting individuals, it’s a discussion of goodness and evil, of youth and authority, which is visually striking and often shockingly so. And to many it’s a masterpiece.

Kubrick’s film is an adaptation of the novel by Anthony Burgess, which like the movie uses a language Burgess called Nadsat (from the Russian suffix meaning ‘teen’) – a mix of Russian, English and Cockney rhyming slang. 

McDowell recalls his first meeting with Kubrick which took place at Kubrick’s house in Boreham Wood, during McDowell’s lunch hour filming Bryan Forbes’ Long Ago, Tomorrow. Kubrick said he’d seen If.. four or five times and it had made a big impression on him.

“We had a very nice chat but he didn’t mention anything and at the end I said ‘Well, I’ve got to get back to work. Was there anything you wanted to talk to me about in particular?’ And I could see his discomfort, at having to actually tell me that, yeah, he was thinking of making this book into a movie. And anyway, he begrudgingly gave me the title, gave me a copy of the book and told me to read it and call him,” McDowell smiles.

He describes the book as “a damn difficult read on the first go” but by the third go he was convinced. “I read it and I went, Holy crap, what a part! Oh geez!”

No kidding. Alex is front and centre of the entire film, he’s the narrator and charged with delivering difficult lines about ‘ultraviolence’, ‘weepy young devotchkas’ and how the treatment is affecting his ‘gulliver’.

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Burgess was a linguist and his decision to make a new hybrid youth slang was a practical one. He wanted the youths in this world to feel ‘other’ and separate from the grown ups but felt if he’d chosen to use contemporary slang that the book would date quickly. It was a shrewd move that Kubrick stuck to, helping the film have a sense of timelessness.

Then there were the iconic costumes worn by Alex and his droogs – removed from any particular era of fashion they were simple but immediately intimidating. The look came about via a moment of serendipity between McDowell and Kubrick when Kubrick asked his star what he had in mind for the costume himself. 

“I said ‘Futuristic, I don’t know!’” McDowell laughs. “He goes, ‘What have you got?’  I went ‘What have I got? I mean I’ve got jeans and a T-shirt and I’ve got my cricket gear in the car’. He goes, ‘We’ll put it on. And then ‘What’s this?’ I went, ‘Well, that’s the protector’. He said ‘Wear it on the outside’. And that’s the iconic costume, right there, boom.”

McDowell says he had around six months of prep time where he got to know Kubrick really well, where Kubrick grew to trust him which he describes as being really fun. That trust between the two was important – McDowell had heavy lifting to do physically, including the indelible scenes of the ‘Ludovico technique’ which saw his eyelids pinned back (he scratched a cornea) and the humiliation scene, after his conversion, (he cracked several ribs). McDowell plays this down, “Most of the time it was fun to do. I had a couple of injuries but they weren’t life threatening. They were fairly painful, but it was really a small price to pay.”

On a rewatch these moments still standout, though there are others too – an extended sequence where Alex is being drowned in a trough by his former friends knocks the breath out of you. 

“To be honest with you, it’s a complete cheat,” says McDowell of the scene. “There’s one cut right at the beginning. That water was cold and they coloured it with Bovril. I mean can you imagine beef extract? It stank to high heaven, it was absolutely like shit! And it was cold because we shot it I think in November. So they couldn’t heat the water because it steamed. I could only literally last three to five seconds before I had to come up for air. And so he put a tank of oxygen in there with a mouthpiece, and I spent my time trying to find the mouthpiece, which was bobbing around. It was harrowing.”

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Not to mention he was being beaten with a billy club at the same time. 

“Admittedly, it’s rubber, but it still hurts,” McDowell recalls. “You can still feel it, and you feel like you’re in a nether world, you’re underwater, you’re sort of like drowning, but not quite. It’s a pretty good shot though.”

As well as the language, the soundtrack, the costumes and McDowell’s performance, the movie is also remembered for the controversy surrounding it. Allegations of copycat crimes as well as death threats sent to the director prompted Kubrick to pull the film from UK distribution in 1973, making it difficult to see in Britain until after Kubrick’s death in 1999. McDowell says the withdrawal didn’t especially affect him at the time, since he was in another country filming, and the movie had already been shown for a year. “It wasn’t like he pulled it at the height of its success so people couldn’t see it.”

Though it remains tough to watch in part, McDowell says younger audiences seem more comfortable with the comedy and satire elements of the film, a strand that was always intended.

“It is a black comedy and that’s how it was made. And I would have to say that that element of it has caught up, and kids when they see the movie now just roar with laughter and that makes my heart sing because that’s what I thought when I made it,” he says. “When it first came out, my god! It was total silence in the cinema, nobody moved out of their seats.”

When we ask McDowell what he hopes new viewers coming to the film today might take from it he’s typically candid: “I really have nothing to say about that. You know they can take whatever they want.” Though he says he thinks it’s amazing that the film is still relevant which he attributes to Burgess’s book even more than Kubrick’s adaptation.

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Then after a beat he follows up with an anecdote.

“Well, actually I did go to a screening for the 40th anniversary at the Egyptian, I also gave a bit of a talk. At the end I was walking towards the bathroom and a young kid passed me, and goes ‘Oh my god! Clockwork right?’ I went, ‘Yeah!’ he goes, ‘Which part?’ I went, ‘The old guy’. He goes, ‘The old guy! Oh!’ I went, ‘No! the young guy! It’s 40 years old!’ he went, ‘Oh!’ he didn’t even connect,” McDowell chuckles. “I don’t know what he was smoking.”

To mark its 50th anniversary, A Clockwork Orange Ultimate Collector’s Edition is now available to own here and includes the feature film on a Ultra HD Blu-ray™ disc in 4K with HDR and a Blu-ray™ disc with the feature film and special features. Fans can also own A Clockwork Orange in 4K Ultra HD via purchase from select digital retailers.