Looking back at A Clockwork Orange

We look back at one of Stanley Kubrick’s most celebrated and infamous films, 1971’s classic, A Clockwork Orange…

There’s something blackly seductive about Anthony Burgess’ 1964 novel, A Clockwork Orange. Its worldview is bleak, the violence abhorrent. And yet, there’s something gutsy and organic about Nadsat, the slang-filled language that Burgess created for his futuristic urban gang, and something indelible about his murderous, carnal anti-hero, Alex DeLarge.

And then in 1971, Stanley Kubrick went and made a film of it. Applying his own distinctive visual style to Burgess’ future dystopia, Kubrick’s movie hit the sensibilities of UK cinema-goers like a sledgehammer. Its design had an immediate impact on contemporary culture, with the central image of a trussed-up Malcolm McDowell, his eyes prised open, one of the most arresting in 20th century cinema.

A simple tale at heart, A Clockwork Orange introduces Alex and his little coterie of droogs, a violently amoral gang that enjoys inflicting violence for its own sake, particularly after a few glasses of intoxicating milk plus. (If Alex’s gang is a futuristic analogue to the football hooligans peculiar to the UK of the 70s, 80s and 90s, then milk plus is surely their lager.)

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Like Burgess’ novel, Kubrick’s movie is related in three distinct parts. In the first, we glimpse an average twenty-four hours in Alex’s life, which comprises rape, violence against rival gangs and innocent people, and a side order of Beethoven.

Alex’s betrayal by his embittered gang members and his subsequent imprisonment ultimately leads to his willing participation in the Ludovico Technique, a kind of aversion therapy that causes him to retch helplessly at the mere thought of violence or sex.

Released back into the wild in the third act, Alex’s inability to defend himself leaves him vulnerable to abuse from all quarters, including his old droogs (who have now been assimilated into society as brutal members of the police), and an eccentric writer who attempts to force him to commit suicide by playing Beethoven at full blast.

For the time, A Clockwork Orange was, of course, a shockingly violent film, and its sadism still has an unsettling power. Kubrick’s camera lingers disconcertingly over scenes of brutal humiliation, and it’s not difficult to see why audiences in the early 70s were appalled by the scene where Alex assaults a woman to the strains of Singin’ In The Rain.

At a Q&A session at a screening of A Clockwork Orange this week, actor Malcolm McDowell described the public response to this scene, in particular.

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“When it first came out, people were stunned,” he said. “We had a midnight screening that I’ll never forget. People were genuinely shocked. I think, if you do a rape and beating to Singing In The Rain, which I thought was funny, because I’m a sick, sick individual. It is shocking when you first see it. Of course, it was the key to the second half of the movie, for us. It was one of those lucky things that was discovered on the set.”

It’s worth noting, however, that Kubrick’s adaptation actually tones down some of the more violent excesses of Burgess’ book, with the underage girls Alex encounters in the original text made considerably older for the film. Nevertheless, there’s an irreverent, blackly comic tone to Kubrick’s film, and it’s this that I suspect audiences were most shocked and surprised by.

The backlash against the film in the UK, spearheaded by tabloid newspapers and moral pressure groups, was immediate and shrill. It was an outcry that led to claims that A Clockwork Orange had inspired copycat acts of violence and even manslaughter.

At the same Q&A this week, Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, described the intense climate of the time.

“Suddenly, Stanley was blamed for every crime ever,” she said. “So, it became frightening, because we had Mary Whitehouse, and all these other religious and moral groups write to us and write in a way that wasn’t so religious or moral. And finally, somebody really threatened us and the police came. I always had my head in the sand about the whole thing, but suddenly it was really scary. There were people in front of the house and asking the children questions.”

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With the threats and recriminations gradually intensifying, Stanley Kubrick eventually had Warner Bros withdraw the film from screens in 1972, and the film remained nigh on impossible to see in the UK for twenty-seven years.

“I think, at the time, there were the first reports about British football hooligans and Mods and Rockers, and England, which was so respected, and still is, was thought by Europe as being less chic than they first thought,” Christiane said.

Like the book, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a meditation on the notion of free will and morality (Kubrick himself described it as “a running lecture on free will”). Interestingly, Christiane Kubrick, Malcolm McDowell and the film’s assistant producer, Jan Harlan, all have their own idea of what the film’s about.

For Christiane Kubrick, “It’s the perfect parable of someone who’s absolutely evil. In a way, you could say poor Alex is neglected, but what can you do with someone like that? Neglect is not good enough. It’s a story about evil.”

Jan Harlan, who assisted Kubrick, meanwhile, sees the film as a political tract about governmental manipulation. “It’s about manipulation from the top, from all levels, especially from the government,” Harlan said. “Everybody tries to manipulate, in a way. In that respect, it’s incredibly modern, because we’re all subject to this.”

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Malcolm McDowell’s views chime with those of Burgess himself, who saw his book as a depiction of free will, the freedom to do will is, the author argued, better than no will at all. “It’s about the freedom of man to choose,” McDowell said. “It’s as simple as that. Either a moral way or an immoral way.”

While all these interpretations of the film are definitely valid, there’s a fourth strand to Kubrick’s vision, too, I feel, that is the director’s alone.

What makes A Clockwork Orange so enduringly fascinating, and troubling to some, is that Alex is the only character whom Kubrick doesn’t judge. The film’s about people all mindlessly following their predefined roles. In a way, A Clockwork Orange is a horror film about not thinking for oneself.

Everyone, from the people in authority (the corrupt cops, the priest who regurgitates the gospel, the prison warden who does his duty like the ex-soldier he is, still stomping his heels and barking orders) to the droogs who dimly do as Alex tells them, they’re all sheep, and Alex is the one wolf among them who has the teeth to step outside his predefined role in society.

Alex is, of course, morally reprehensible, but he at least has some capacity to define himself. He’s virtually the only character in the movie that has a semblance of culture and a sense of individuality. This is why the audience identifies with him, albeit uneasily, through his despicable acts. He exists in a universe of fools.

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Kubrick presents to us a dystopian world so idiotic that it almost deserves to be terrorised by someone like Alex. He’s a creation of their stupidity, like a virus that preys on weaknesses in an immune system.

This cynical, withering attitude best explains the mocking tone that Kubrick adopts, and probably explains why the director dropped the redemptive final chapter of the book’s UK edition in favour of an ending that sees Alex embraced by high-ranking member of the government (played by Anthony Sharp), yet still as murderously deranged as he was at the film’s beginning.

There is much that is dated about A Clockwork Orange. The brutalist architecture of its once modern settings, its leery treatment of women, which is similar to films such as Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left, and its ridiculous fashions (the droogs’ outfits may still look cool, but check out actor Patrick Magee’s hideous skintight ginger suit) are all products of its time.

Nevertheless, there’s something timeless about Alex’s wilful amorality, and his lust for both life and death is a definite precursor for the antagonists in films like The Dark Knight or, most recently, Blitz.

Now forty years old, A Clockwork Orange remains a fascinating, disturbing film. Malcolm McDowell’s sneering central performance is as evilly fizzy as ever, and while the tone Kubrick adopts is quite different from Burgess’ book, it is equally black, and similarly seductive.

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See Also:

A Clockwork Orange is out now on Blu-ray as part of the Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker Collection, and is available from the Den Of Geek Store,

A Clockwork Orange 40th Anniversary Edition is also available On Demand and for download from iTunes, including bonus iTunes extra content.

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