30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

“The story functions, of course, on several levels, political, sociological, philosophical and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level.”–Stanley Kubrick

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DIRECTED BY: Stanley Kubrick

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee

PLOT:  Alex is the leader of a small gang of violent, thrill-seeking youths in England sometime in the indefinite near future.  After a home invasion goes bad, his “droogs” betray him and his victim dies, and he is sent to prison.  The government selects him to undergo experimental Pavlovian conditioning that makes him violently ill when he becomes aggressive, then releases him onto the streets as a “reformed” criminal, only to find he is helpless to defend himself when he encounters his vengeful former victims.

Still from A Clockwork Orange (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Clockwork Orange is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess.  Burgess was ultimately unhappy with this treatment of his novel, because in his intended ending for the story, Alex voluntarily reformed.  This final chapter of redemption had been excluded from American prints of the novel—the version Kubrick worked worked from—at the request of the American publisher.  Kubrick’s version ends with evil triumphant.  Although Kubrick had not read the final chapter of the novel before beginning the film, he later stated in interviews that he would not have included the happy ending anyway because he thought it rang false.
  • The title—which is not explained in the movie, only glimpsed briefly as a line of text on a typewritten page—comes from an expression Burgess overheard in a bar, “as queer as a clockwork orange.”
  • Burgess created the elaborate fictional jargon Alex uses by mixing elements of Russian and Slavic languages with Cockney slang.  Much of his original dialogue found its way into the movie.
  • A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s next project after his previous weird masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  It was also young star Malcolm McDowell’s first feature role after starring in a 1968 weird film, Lindsay Anderson’s If…
  • A Clockwork Orange was the first movie to use Dolby sound.
  • The movie was released in the United States with an “X” rating, and was later cut slightly and re-released in 1973 with an “R” rating.
  • The film was blamed for several copycat crimes in Britain and Europe, notably, a gang rape in which the rapists sang “Singin’ in the Rain” during the assualt.  Kubrick, an American who lived in the United Kingdom, was also reportedly stalked by some deranged fans of the film.  For these reasons, Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in Britain, both from live screenings and on video.  The self-imposed ban lasted until Kubrick’s death.

INDELIBLE IMAGEA Clockwork Orange filled with as many iconic images as any film of the last fifty years.  Scenes like the one where Alex and his costumed droogs walk cockily through a deserted city in slow motion have consciously or unconsciously been copied many times (compare the similar slo-mo shot of the uniformed gangsters emerging from their breakfast meeting in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs).  Probably the most instantly recognizable image is the opening closeup of Alex’s sneering face, wearing a huge false eyelash one one eye only.  I selected another memorable Malcolm McDowell closeup, the one of Alex as he’s undergoing the Ludovico technique, with wires and transistors attached to his head and metal clamps forcibly holding his eyes open so he cannot look away from the violent images on the screen, because it works as a perfect ironic metaphor for a film we cannot tear our eyes away from.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although the plot is simple, and realistic in its own speculative

Original trailer for A Clockwork Orange

way, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is so hyper-stylized with its bizarre poetic language, sets, costumes, music, broadly exaggerated performances, and the improbable karmic symmetry of the plot that it seems to take place in a dream world or a subconscious realm.  The action, which takes the form of an ambiguous moral fable, occurs in an urban landscape that’s familiar, but fabulously twisted just beyond our expectations.

COMMENTSA Clockwork Orange did not have to be weird.  The story could have been told in a straightforward way, focusing entirely on the satirical elements and moral conundrums of the novel.  Kubrick deliberately chose to make the film version bizarre, unreal and dreamlike.  The decision was made partly as a way of translating the strangeness and subjectivity of Anthony Burgess’ prose (the book is narrated entirely in “Nadsat,” the slang argot invented by the novelist) into the film medium.  But I believe the decision was also made because Kubrick wanted to put his own misanthropic stamp on the work by introducing a new theme into the already heavily layered story: the idea that the demonic, id-like Alex represents our basic human nature, a bundle of repressed selfish destructive impulses that is barely contained inside a thin veneer of civilization and is always in danger of bursting out of it.

Like a drug that peaks immediately, the opening moments of A Clockwork Orange are the strangest of the film.  They immediately envelop us in an odd, sinister and dreamlike cloud.  It begins with Walter (now Wendy) Carols’ strange, electronic rendition of Henry Purcell’s “March from ‘Funeral Music for Queen Mary,'” with it’s synthetic trumpets and drums and its chords that linger and swirl and transform themselves into new soundforms.  The electrified score still sounds incredibly odd and dangerously off today; in 1971, when synthesizers were in their infancy, it must have sounded like music being beamed in from an alternate dimension.  We then see the famous closeup of Alex in his black bowler with one giant false eyelash stretching its tentacles unnaturally around the lower half of his eyeball.  He toasts the audience with a tall glass of white liquid, and the camera pulls back to reveal the milk bar, the most surreal tableau in the movie.  We now see Alex’s three stoned companions, dressed in identical dingy white shirts and suspenders. Alex’s black jackboots rest casually on white plastic tables molded in the image of obscenely posed naked women.  White lettering spells out nonsense words on the gray walls: “moloro vellocet, moloro drencroi.”  Then, Malcolm McDowell’s mellifluous voice recites the rhythmic opening lines in a lulling tone: “There was me, that is, Alex, and my three droogs, that is, Pete, Georgie Boy and Dim. And we sat in the Korova Milk Bar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.”  In this foreign jargon, Alex relates that he and his companions are drinking milk laced with the futuristic drug drencrome in order to “sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.”  It’s clear from this opening that we are not in Kansas anymore.

We’re almost relieved, after the intensity of the introduction fades, to find ourselves in a society that is recognizable as an exaggerated version of our own.  The Britain of this near future is overrun by criminal gangs who fight each other for sport and policed by a corrupt, ineffectual force directed by politicians who care about nothing except keeping themselves in power by cynically manipulating public opinion.  There is little that is truly futuristic in the future of A Clockwork Orange, no video phones or flying cars; it’s set in a timeless era that seems to be perpetually just around the bend.  To keep us disoriented in time, Kubrick dresses Alex and his droogs in anachronistic fashions: the gang wears codpieces, Alex goes out on the town dressed in a purple satin overcoat with frilly lace lapels, and to disguise themselves for the rape scene they wear a facial disguises that would not have been out of place at a Renaissance masked ball, except for the obscenely phallic Pinocchio nose their humble leader sports.

Although the weirdness subsides a bit after the otherworldly opening, Kubrick continues to add disorienting touches to his world that keep us out of realism’s comfort zone.  Most notable are the frequent use of wide angle lenses that distort the edges of the frame, and the constant nonsense poetry of Alex’s narration: strange words like “malchick,” “wooshy,” and “yarbles” recur, and McDowell gets off ruptured Shakespearean lines like “…georgeousness and georgeosity made flesh… like a bird of rarest spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship gravity all nonsense now as I slooshied…” and “as clear as an unmuddied lake, as clear as an azure sky of deepest summer,” among other marvels.  The costuming and sets are also constantly bizarre.  We expect the droogs to dress to stand out from the crowd, but what we doesn’t expect is to see Alex’s square mom wandering about gormlessly in wigs that range from lime green to shocking pink.  McDowell’s performance is exquisitely stylized, smug and smart and charming and vicious simultaneously, but the minor characters offer some offbeat characterizations as well.  Warren Clark’s Dim mumbles, giggles inappropriately and repeats key phrases to himself (“ready for love!”) with all the obtuseness his name suggests.  When seething Patrick Magee realizes who Alex is and that he has him in his net, he barely controls his lust for vengeance as he politely shouts “try the wine!” with an ominous, perverse inflection that puts both McDowell and the audience ill at ease.  In the most stylized and unnatural performance of all, Aubrey Morris’ Deltoid, the social worker assigned to Alex’s case, constantly whines like a sinister version of Charles Nelson Riley and uses the rhetorical question “Yes?” to punctuate every sentence.

And, when counting up the weirdnesses, we can’t forget Alex’s fantasy sequences, blackly comic peeks into his diseased subconscious.  The music of his beloved Beethoven conjures up “such lovely pictures” as a woman in a white dress being hanged, viewed from an upskirt angle; an image of himself as a vampire with blood trickling down his jaw; and gladiators in a peplum being crushed by falling rocks.  When he becomes the prison chaplain’s assistant and diligently reads the Bible, we see him daydreaming himself into the New Testament—as one of the centurions scourging Jesus.  And there is the final, ambiguous scene, which brings the movie back to unabashed surrealism: Alex envisions himself copulating with a beautiful woman in the snow as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” plays and a crowd of people in Victorian dress applaud.  “As the music came to its climax, I could viddy myself very clear, running and running on like very light and mysterious feet, carving the whole face of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva. I was cured all right,” Alex informs us.

It’s that “triumphant,” amoral ending that galvanized the critics who absolutely despised A Clockwork Orange and saw it as a work which slyly glamorized violence while pretending to criticize it.  (A Clockwork Orange isn’t really about violence, anyway; it’s about evil, and violence is simply the most dramatic form of evil). Pauline Kael complained that it was “Alex who is more alive than anybody else in the movie… so at the end, when Alex’s bold, aggressive, punk’s nature is restored to him, it seems not a joke on all of us (as it does in the book) but, rather, a victory in which we share, and Kubrick takes an exultant tone.”  But could Kubrick’s attitude really be as simplistic and morally abhorrent as Kael implies?  It’s true that the director deliberately manipulates us into sympathizing with Alex, by making this devil incarnate the smartest and most charming force in the movie.  We see the world through Alex’s eyes; we are complicit with him when he is the victimizer, and we suffer with him when the tables turn and he becomes the victim.  Alex’s Sadean freedom to never compromise, drink deeply of life and pursue his own pleasures regardless of its effect on others entices us at the same time that it repulses us.  But doesn’t making Alex simultaneously as evil and as seductive as possible underscore the philosophical point about the value of free will: if we never are truly tempted by evil, then are we truly good when we reject it?

I think that what makes A Clockwork Orange reverberate down through the ages is the perfect way Kubrick balances our sympathy and repulsion towards Alex in the film.  The existence of an Alex is unacceptable to our consciences; but the government’s solution to the existence of an Alex, to rob him of his humanity and free will and turn him into an automaton, is equally unacceptable.  By refusing to resolve the question either way, Kubrick’s parable states the dilemma of free will without offering a pat answer to it.

We identify with Alex, because there is an Alex deep inside all of us, and we because secretly fantasize about someday unleashing our inner Alex.  We also loathe Alex: because there is an Alex deep inside all of us, and because we secretly fantasize about someday unleashing our inner Alex.  It’s not the ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange that existentially unnerves us; it’s the way Kubrick holds our eyes open and forces us to confront this uncomfortable truth about ourselves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a brilliant nightmare.”–A.D. Murphy, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…pretentious and nasty rubbish for sick minds who do not mind jazzed-up images and incoherent sound.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

“…a captivating mutant, chockablock with studied compositions, anti-Christian buffoonery, roadshow-Oliver!-on-Percodans performances, Moog-y musical interludes, and ‘artful’ penis objects… Too sui generis to be authentically satiric, Kubrick’s movie, like most of his others, stands alone, a self-encapsulating, freaky spectacle that, because it’s one of a kind, must be gazed upon.”–Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (re-release)

OFFICIAL SITE: Warner Bros. Movies: A Clockwork Orange

IMDB LINK: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Malcolm McDoweell/A Clockwork Orange Tribute: A massive fan site dedicated to McDowell, but overwhelmingly focused on A Clockwork Orange. So expansive that it includes detailed instructions on creating your own Alex DeLarge costume and a plot synopsis of the hardcore pornographic spoof A Clockwork Orgy.  A highly recommended repository for devoted fans.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) at filmsite.org:  An extremely detailed scene by scene analysis by Tim Dirks of the American Film Classics cable channel

A Clockwork Orange (1971) – A Retrospective : Brief essay on the film from Cinefantastique‘s Steve Biodrowski, incorporating reminiscences from Malcolm McDowell

Stanley Kubrick: Cultural Omnivore: 366weirdmovies own Alfred Eaker discusses some of the deep cultural references hidden in A Clockwork Orange‘s rape scene

DVD INFO:  The premier DVD version is Warner Home Video’s two disc special edition (buy).  It features a commentary track with Malcolm McDowell hosted by film historian Nick Redman; “Still Tickin’: the Return of A Clockwork Orange,” a 43 minute documentary on the British censorship battle the film finally won, only to see Kubrick himself withdraw the movie in the UK; a second documentary, “Great Bolshy Yarblockos!:  The Making of A Clockwork Orange;” a career retrospective interview with McDowell, “O Lucky Malcolm!”; and the remarkably edited original trailer.

All of the same features fit onto a single disc in the Blu-ray release (buy).

For the budget minded, a single disc version is still available (buy), although it comes with no extras except the trailer and a few production notes.  Those willing to splurge may want to purchase Warner Brother’s 9-disc box set “The Stanley Kubrick Collection,” containing remastered versions of Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, along with the full-length documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (buy).

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Richard.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

12 thoughts on “30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)”

  1. I’m not really an acolyte of this movie. I think as a film it is fantastic. Kubrick is one of the few directors who I think was somebody who truly understood film. Like his populist brother, Spielberg, his films are alive in a filmic sense. Like a poet he truly understands the language of moving pictures and sound. Kubrick and Spielberg literally created new dialects for film to speak in. In this sense, A Clockwork Orange is right up there with Kubrick’s best.

    As for the movie, and the book, I think they both say a lot less than has been said in their defense.

    However, I do like the fact that Kubrick made this film after his seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whereas 2001 was an almost clinically cold, but hopeful, treatise on whether or not mankind can escape the boundaries of its newfound tools of technology (be it a club or artificial intelligence), Clockwork is a film that revels in being mired in the muck. I tend to think of A Clockwork Orange as taking place in an alternate reality rather than the future, but is a startling contrast to 2001’s slick futurism.

    It is interesting to note that both films take violence as one of humanity’s defining characteristics. The “divine spark” that the Monolith represents in 2001 is the discovery of using tools to increase the levels of violence mankind can inflict (admittedly very useful). The joy of violence of the ape discovering the club is reflected in our young man, Alex, who is the epitome of the violent side of ourselves. Both films ties this love of violence to the rapturousness of music that exemplifies mankind’s creative imagination.

    As for the book’s final chapter, good riddance. It may have been Burgess’s original intent, but it’s a cop out pure and true. In that chapter, the older Alex grows tired of the extremities of his youth and longs for something more, better and lasting. We are expected to believe that his youthful hijinks were just a phase of destructive youth that needs to be moved beyond. I see what Burgess was saying, but Alex thieved, raped, and murdered his way across a lawless landscape. That’s a bit more than “youthful hijinks” that can be easily forgiven.

  2. To be honest, I’m in two minds about this film. On the one hand, Stanley Kubrick was a genius – deeply flawed, yes, but most geniuses are – who could give almost anything that extra something. And the source novel is, despite Anthony Burgess’s more or less disinheriting it later, by far the best thing he ever wrote, probably because he wrote it at a time when he honestly believed, thanks to a hideously incompetent doctor, that he would die within months – something you need to know if you can’t figure out why none of his much more polished, and much, much more long-winded, but hideously pretentious later work is anything like this (and, despite sporadic critical acclaim, they haven’t been filmed by anyone). By the way, Kubrick was right, whatever Burgess thought – that last chapter really does seem like a tacked-on happy ending of “Blade Runner” proportions,

    Where the film falls down, I think, is that it comes across as a rather pat anti-fable. Alex and his droogs get off to a cracking start – yes, the film really does grab you by the yarbles right at the get-go. And by the way, nadsat is one of the very few examples of made-up slang that sounds so natural that in both the book and the film, you very quickly understand exactly what Alex is talking about without a glossary, though American readers got one anyway.

    The trouble is, almost all the gleefully amoral fun that enthralls us despite ourselves is in the first half. And then the whole thing gets a bit mechanical – after suffering the ghastly Ludovico Treatment, Alex just happens to bump into almost everyone from the first half of the film and gets his just desserts, turning it into a sort of anti-morality play in which an evil man is coerced in the worst possible way to become good, but ultimately stays true to his nature. Sympathy for the Devil indeed!

    It’s true that this is more or less faithful to the book, and yet, in a very profound way, it isn’t. The major – indeed, probably the only – point that the novel makes is that Alex, an amoral product of a disintegrating society, has a vein of good in him somewhere, symbolized by his “pure” (well, as pure as he knows how) appreciation of classical music. When this element of choice is taken from him, along with, coincidentally, his ability to listen to the only non-corrupt art-form he enjoys, it’s genuinely tragic, because a man with no freedom of moral choice is no longer a living being – just a “clockwork orange”. This is why Burgess was so annoyed that his epilogue, in which Alex matures into a not necessarily saintly but at any rate non-sociopathic human being once he has regained the freedom of choice, was omitted, though it was mostly his fault for writing it so clumsily.

    In Kubrick’s version, the utterly evil Alex makes no progress at all, merely suffering a temporary setback in his life’s work of presumed recreational rape and casual murder. Which ultimately makes him as one-dimensional as every other character in the film. Even the simplification of his love of classical music works against the theme. Anyone who obsesses almost exclusively over one particular piece of music is simply a lunatic. Alex in the book had a very wide knowledge and appreciation of this kind of music, and furthermore, he would have regarded the synthesized score present from the outset as an obscenity almost as great as the Ludovico Technique, and would have done hideous things to Stanley Kubrick for messing with “lovely, lovely Ludvig Van”.

    I’m not saying it’s a bad film. I am merely saying that it’s massively overrated. Any film whose opening sections promise something better than what happens towards the end gets points off as far as I’m concerned, because no movie at all, however weird, can succeed if it starts off good and gets worse. “A Clockwork Orange” ends good, but unfortunately it started of brilliant. And that’s bad plotting.

    It’s perhaps worth noting that Kubrick’s rarely-screened folly “Barry Lyndon” had almost exactly the same plot, only set in the 18th century, and nowhere near as good. That’s the film best known for being shot, at the director’s perverse insistence, entirely by natural light or candles. Which, ironically, necessitated him buying special hideously expensive lenses from NASA so that his “natural” interior lighting would actually look natural on film. All the same, just look at how many candles even the poorest peasant in this movie can apparently afford!

    See also “Salem’s Lot”, a much inferior novel to “A Clockwork Orange”, yet one whose author reacted in almost exactly the same way as Anthony Burgess. Stephen KIng was trying to say that an intrinsically evil location will bring out the worst in people with a seed of evil within them. In Kubrick’s version, a man who is obviously teetering on the bring of insanity from the start happens to go mad in an inconveniently isolated location which also just happens to have visually interesting very weird things occurring almost as an afterthought – all moral complexity, and any suggestion that Jack Nicholson could ever have been playing a character who will not kill a bunch of people the moment he’s under a bit of stress is utterly lost. It should also be noted that the most notorious scene in this film, in which a secondary character is psychic enough to pick up a telepathic distress call from hundreds of miles away, but insufficiently psychic to detect a demented axe-murderer lurking around the next corner, is Kubrick, not King. In the novel, the character survives. But Kubrick felt that an axe in somebody’s chest had the requisite shock value, and given the paucity of characters available to be axed, it had to be somebody whose death made no logical sense in narrative terms.

    I am not saying “A Clockwork Orange” is a bad movie at all – merely a badly overrated one, partly perhaps because in this country at least, for a very long time it was absolutely impossible to see, certainly in a way that did it justice. Want to know what could have been? Watch Malcolm McDowell’s star-making turn in “If…” as Michael Travers, a teenager pushed to the edge and beyond by a totally artificial and insanely corrupt system. Vy the way, I went to a vastly watered-down version of that school, and I can assure you having military weapons on campus was perfectly normal. We even had a school armored car, Seriously! Fortunately we never needed it.

    Now watch “Get Carter”. Note that both films have a satisfactory story arc. I don’t mean that it has to linear, I mean that it has to build. And let’s suppose that Michael Travers had grown up to be Jack Carter, an evil man who is nevertheless not by any means absolutely evil, whose saving grace is not love of classical music but a strange frustrated love for the daughter he doesn’t really have anything to do with who doesn’t know he’s her dad. And then set it in a fake-near-future dystopian Newcastle where they speak nadsat and milk spiked with class-A drugs is the legal tipple of choice.

    Oh my brothers, what kind of a movie might that have been?

    Comments, please – there’s nothing like a healthy debate!

    1. I consider you, Sir, an uncultured barbarian for failing to appreciate the Baroque beauty that is the photography of “Barry Lyndon”! Almost every shot looks like a Baroque painting, and also their sequencing certainly helps creating the mood and tone of the era, or at least a highly aesthetic moving painting.

      Also, remember that the true star in “The Shining” (*NOT* “Salem’s lot”!) is the carveneous, labyrinthine Overlook Hotel and its impossible architecture. For a long time, Kubrick lulls us into thinking that it’s simply cabin fever, until unleashing the ghosts totally out of left field with Jack’s freeing from the locked room that would be impossible without them, and his appearance in the old photograph.

      But I give you that overall, while still one of the better films from the era when it came out, “The Shining” falls flat in comparison especially to “2001” and “Clockwork Orange” (and I feel also to “Barry Lyndon”).

  3. Hi,
    I appreciated you article.Just a little correction.In the Korova Milk bar’s walls the word are “Moloko Synthemesc, Moloko Vellocet, Moloko Drencrom”.Obviously the word “moloko” means “milk”.
    Drencrom, Vellocet and Synthemesc are fictitious ingredients the Korova customer can choose to “sharpen” his milk.
    You can find here the explications.
    Great site!

  4. A bit of trivia… When Alex returns to Patrick Magee’s home late in the film, he has a tall, muscular, male “assistant” in place of his wife. He is portrayed by David Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader (body, not voice) in the original Star Wars trilogy.

  5. It would appear malcolmmcdowell.net has changed URLs and now links to an entirely unrelated website in what looks to be Chinese. You might want to update it to the current location, malcolmtribute.freeiz.com

  6. The book is written entirely in Nadsat slang. Not every edition has a glossary, forcing readers to put a lot of faith in context and intuition.

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