Britain in the near future. There was him, that is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and his three droogs, that is Pete (James Marcus), Georgie (Michael Tarn) and Dim (Warren Clarke) and they sat in the Korova Milkbar making up their "rassoodocks" what to do with the evening. Alex and his gang are little better than thugs who take the most pleasure in life from "ultra-violence": beating up innocent people, raping young women, and generally behaving recklessly with no thought for others. Tonight, after a fight with a rival gang, they steal a sports car and roar off into the countryside, forcing other vehicles off the road. Tiring of this, they stop at a cottage on the outskirts of a village and trick their way inside - Alex doesn't know it, but he's made his first mistake...
A vividly fashioned, reptilian parable about free will, there were few films as controversial as A Clockwork Orange, director Stanley Kubrick's deeply pessimistic take on the way the world was going. The violence depicted was so attractive to a certain part of society that Kubrick feared copycat attacks and even attacks on his own person, so had the film withdrawn in Britain, where he had made his home. So for over twenty-five years up until his death, the only way Britons could see the film was on grainy pirate copies, awarding it the status of a cult classic. Of course, now it turns up without any protest on UK late night television and has lost some of its outlaw glamour, but one thing holds it as grimly compelling throughout.
That one thing is the extremely charismatic performance of its leading actor and our humble narrator, Malcolm McDowell. We see the story entirely through his eyes, so that everyone seems grotesque, with exaggerated speech and actions: even Alex has more than the hint of the caricature about him. The effect of this is a complete lack of sympathy for any of Alex's victims, in fact as the film draws on the only person we're supposed to feel sorry for is our psychopathic anti-hero and any violence he metes out is portrayed as the product of his sheer, youthful high spirits. When he and the droogs break into the house of the writer (Patrick Magee), he happily belts out "Singin' in the Rain" as he commits his crime, as if it's all a big joke.
Alex also commits the sin of pride as he believes himself to be the unassailable leader of his gang, but they have other ideas and want rid of him. He even goes as far as beating them up, an act which does not endear him to them, and when they come up with a plan to rob a health farm which is lying dormant for the weekend, Alex is prepared to humour them as long as he thinks he's in charge. However, when he breaks in he confronts the owner (Miriam Karlin) and ends up murdering her; on rushing outside to make his escape, the droogs are waiting for him and smash him to the ground, leaving him for the police to pick up.
So begins Alex's prison life, but after a couple of years he hears of a new treatment that may set him free. This is the Ludovico Technique, and he volunteers, yet things don't work out as smoothly as he was hoping. Interestingly, where conservative opinion believes that subjection to violent images makes the viewer more violent, here it makes Alex, thanks to additional use of chemicals, physically ill. So he is the unnatural "Clockwork Orange", whose impulses to commit crime, and incidentally to hear his beloved Beethoven's 9th, are reined in by science, leaving him now the victim. In Anthony Burgess's novel, Alex eventually renounces his life of mayhem as part of growing up, but Kubrick said he wasn't aware of this final chapter; however, I doubt he would have included it in the film if he was. Here is his sourly cynical view of humanity, where there is no solution to our darker side, where everyone but the most reprehensible is tedious, and the progressive opinions count for nothing when the crimes happen to them. Nobody comes out of the film in a beneficial light, and only Alex's intelligence and capacity for dangerous mischief makes him rise above everyone else. Distinctive electronic music by Wendy Carlos.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.