A Clockwork Orange. 1971. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Anthony Burgess & Kubrick.
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, Adrienne Corri, Carl Duering, Paul Farrell, Clive Francis, Michael Gover, James Marcus, Aubrey Morris, Godfrey Quigley, & Sheila Raynor. Warner Bros./Hawk Films.
Rated R. 136 minutes.
There’s no doubt certain films stick in one’s mind after first seeing them. Stanley Kubrick is a director to whom I was introduced by my best friend. Before ever seeing The Shining, he showed me A Clockwork Orange. We were about 11. Afterwards, I was never the same. Not that it warped my mind. Not at all. It opened my mind to creativity, to the splendour of artistry in film. No longer was my 11-year-old mind filled with kids movies like Angels in the Outfield or any of the movies that were big while I was a young boy. I’d discovered the grown up world of movies. Kubrick was my way in, and this was the first of his work I’d ever experienced.
A Clockwork Orange is all too often dismissed by those who don’t like it as too violent and cruel, a real dastardly slice of cinema. And no doubt about it, this is one mad work of crime in a dystopian near vision of Britain. However, everything serves its purpose. There is nothing here, even the most infamous of its scenes where Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) prepares to commit an atrocious act of assault on a woman while belting out “Singin’ In the Rain”, that does not feel rightfully in its place. Above all else remember that though there may be “ultra–violence” and all kinds of other terrifying insanity, this is at its core satire concerning the way we see criminal rehabilitation, how government use of psychological conditioning is merely a Band-Aid rather than a permanent solution. Of most importance is that Kubrick attacks all types of government, no side is safe, as his film alongside the writing of Anthony Burgess points their satirical darkness at all of society, asking the questions through Alex, his droogs, and all the terror of their adventures.
I love the way things look and feel very dystopian without anything overly elaborate in terms of set pieces. Most of the sets look proper, but there’s also a pervasive feeling of trash everywhere, run down buildings and parking lots, general chaos in the streets and throughout the buildings amongst the city in which Alex lives. The small sci-fi bits come in with the modern look of the furniture, the shops, the various 1970s-looking stuff that almost does have a futuristic feel on its own.
An interesting sequence happens when Alex is first listening to Ludwig Van Beethoven. He hears the music and Kubrick catches the Christ statuette, nails in its wrists and blood seeping out, almost in gunshot pattern. Bang, bang, bang, edited at various speeds. To me, the way Jesus is out in the open and prominent in the shot as well is due to the personality of Alex, how he is a criminal and sins yet keeps a statue like that; he is delusional enough to believe having a Chris statue and listening to classical music makes him cultured. Similar to the titular clockwork orange, he is a human on the outside, organic and real, while on the inside he’s a mechanised bit of equipment. Even before the conditioning he receives Alex is essentially a machine: appearing human, underneath he is monstrous. Afterwards, his monstrosity is still there it’s only covered with another layer. Same sin, different packaging.
More interesting is when Alex talks with the priest in prison. The priest tells him about morality and goodness, that they are not implanted or created in a person. They are chosen. This directly foreshadows exactly the trajectory of Alex’s path to come. He’s never truly rehabilitated, and this is one of the largest comments Burgess and Kubrick try to make. That certain criminals, such as the sociopathic Alex and others like him, are beyond rehabilitation, and that sometimes rehabilitation is not even that. In the end, Alex becomes assimilated into another form of criminality. He’s calmed down just enough to make him suitable for a possible life of politics down the road, something bigger. So the concept of criminality in A Clockwork Orange extends beyond Alex and the droogs. We are to understand that criminals are everywhere, not only on the street. It’s all a matter of appearance, how things look on the outside. Again, the title of the film and the original novel comes into play, as what’s on the outside must feel genuine, and beneath it all lies the mechanical, robotic heart.
Kubrick makes this into a genuine post-modern creation. There’s an amazingly threaded mixture of high and low culture. Alex himself is the post-modern male, at once he listens to Beethoven and other classical music (though Ludwig Van is his top man), sings songs from musicals, all the while he’s out perpetrating a rape and committing other extreme acts of violence. Meanwhile, the scenes themselves have this exact same atmosphere of post-modernity. As the violence, the sex between Alex and two young women, all the low brow hideousness happens, Kubrick opts to go for his usually well placed inclusion of classical pieces. In this way moments that might normally appear completely dark and sinister come off as darkly humorous. This whole concept of high and low culture in one whole is again an element playing into the overall theme of appearances, the hidden face of the criminal, and so on.
Something that helps is the fact everything is shot so well. Cinematographer John Alcott helps Kubrick capture each end of the spectrum. To start, most of the first half is filled with brash, garish looking sets from the Moloko to Alex’s room to the shops where he met the two women. Everything is so vibrant you can almost reach out and touch it with your bare hands. Then there’s the more clinical portions of the film where Alex is being rehabilitated, everything is quite stark in comparison to the earlier brightness. The film’s palette of colours changes in the various sections. In this part as Alex goes from the prison to the scientific facility where they plan on rehabilitating him, the palette becomes more muted, along with a hospital-like feeling with lots of white and vivid colours though shot in darker, often blue filters. Once Alex regresses to his old criminal behaviour there’s a switch back to the garishness of the film’s first half. We return to the modern, gaudy furniture in one of those 1970s-near future British homes. In that sense as well, Kubrick brings everything full circle: the story, Alex, criminality, and the whole visual aesthetic.
This impressively effective, darkly comic satire is one of the best of the ’70s. One of Kubrick’s best and in my top three favourites of his filmography. A Clockwork Orange has lots of disturbing subject matter and thematic material on the surface. If you dig in you’ll find depth in all of it. There are many comments within about the nature of criminality, how the government deals with it and if they may in fact make it worse, as well as a whole host of other things. Anthony Burgess’ novel is a groundbreaking work of writing, just as Kubrick makes the film adaptation into an equally groundbreaking work of cinema. There are plenty points to be made. You suss out the ones which make the most sense to you. For me, it’s all about that scene where Alex is being shown off, supposedly rehabilitated in full, and the priest steps in: he lays everything out for us, plain as day. Although, in the film as in life nobody listens, or nobody hears.
One thing I know for sure? This is one of the greatest films of all-time. It’s fine if you don’t think so, but I could mine this for days and find tons more to talk about. Judge for yourself. Personally, I believe Kubrick makes profound points about law, order, and so much more swirling around the two concepts. And Alex, he is a warning, a result, an effect to which we all should be paying attention.