Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, was the culmination of possibly the greatest consecutive run of three films from a single director, ever. Before this film, he had released Dr Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb in 1964, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. The former is, if not the single greatest comedy film ever made, is certainly the greatest satire. The latter, is inarguably the greatest science fiction film in the medium’s history, to date, and in the running for greatest film of all time, period. Yet, in some ways, A Clockwork Orange equals and surpasses its progenitors. It is a film that, despite its claims of being science fiction or pornographic, is even more subversively funny than Dr. Strangelove, in certain moments, and in others is as audacious as 2001. This trio of films is all the more remarkable when one considers that, before it, Kubrick had only one inarguably great film: Paths Of Glory, and after it he only produced one inarguably great film: Eyes Wide Shut; thereby making this run all the more amazing. Also, bracketing this chronological trilogy were two relatively flat and lackluster films (although, as Kubrick fare they were still well above most other films; hence the qualifier of lackluster): Lolita and Barry Lyndon. And, aside from just the artistic greatness that went into the trio, and A Clockwork Orange, specifically, is how historically important all three films were. Dr. Strangelove forever changed both comedies and war films- injecting darkness and politics into the former and black sardonism into the latter. 2001 rendered almost all sci fi before it obsolete. And all sci fi since has hewn to a closer fidelity to the science part over the fiction part of the genre. And A Clockwork Orange showed that nudity and violence could both go mainstream and remain artistic.
The film is based upon the seminal novel from Anthony Burgess- a book that was to British youth what J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye was to American youth a generation earlier. It is ostensibly set in the near future of England, possibly one in which the Soviet Union has brought the U.K. into its orbit, for the youth of the day speak a language called Nadsat (as mentioned in the book, never in the film), filled with Cockney rhyming slang admixed with Yiddish and Russian slang. The lead character, and narrator, of the film is Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell)- whose surname was never mentioned in the book, who leads a foursome of thugs that includes himself, and three droogs: Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus), and Dim (Warren Clarke). They spend most of their time drinking drug-spiked milk at milk bars, rumbling with rival gangs, and breaking into people’s homes and raping and pillaging as they please.
The home they break into this night happens to belong to an aged writer (Patrick Magee). They gag him, and force him to watch as Alex takes a pair of scissors, and cuts off her cat suit, then rapes her, as the writer watches, and Alex sings Singin’ In The Rain. The quartet go back to the milk bar, and then head home. Alex lives in a slum, with his parents, and gets visited by a probation officer (Aubrey Morris), who may or may not have a homosexual interest in Alex. Alex then has a sexual threesome with two girls he picks up at a record shop, and re-encounters his droogs, who challenge his role as leader. As the gang walks near a sewery canal, Alex lashes out, attacks his mates, and re-establishes order. This is the first time in the film Alex must set things back to ‘normal.’ Late that night, the droogs plan to rob a rich woman who lives in a fancy home with her cats. Alex climbs up a pipe to an upper window, lets himself in, and encounters the old lady, who fights back ferociously, until he kills her with an art work shaped like a penis and testicles. As he takes off, his gang ambushes him, and smashes him with a glass bottle of milk, in retaliation for his earlier attack. Alex is arrested, fights back against the cops, and sent to prison for murder.
Alex then relates to the viewers how prison has affected him, after almost two years of avoiding prison rape. He sucks up to the prison chaplain and reads the Bible, but fantasizes only of more violence and sex. On a visit to the prison by the Minister Of The Interior (Anthony Sharp), Alex volunteers for the Ludovico Treatment- a system that deters violence by audio and visual overexposure to it, including having his eyes forced open so he cannot blink. After several weeks of this treatment, Alex is ‘cured,’ of violent impulses, and paraded before the media, as he is degraded publicly, and feels sickened at the thought of violence. At this point, Alex goes from being the film’s antagonist to its protagonist- a neat switch of identifiers that rarely occurs in fiction of any genre. Only the prison chaplain decries what has happened, stating that Alex cannot be considered a good citizen if he has no free will to choose. Alex is then pardoned as ‘cured.’ But, then he seems to experience retribution from all those he abused. His parents refuse him because they’ve rented his room to a lodger. An old drunk and his friends assault him, in a reversal of an assault Alex and his droogs launched upon the old drunk at film’s start. Two cops break up the assault, but they turn out to be Dim and Georgie. They take him into the country, beat and almost drown him. Alex then makes it to the home of the writer whom he assaulted years earlier, and whose wife he raped. His wife suicided, and he now lives with a bodyguard Julian (David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars films). After taking him in, the writer realizes who Alex is after he sings Singin’ In The Rain while bathing. He then drugs Alex, locks him in a room, and plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to drive him to suicide, via jumping out a window, for he knows that, via the Ludovico Treatment, Alex has been conditioned to hate it.
Alex wakens in a hospital bed, in traction. He realizes that his aversion to violence has worn off, and gets a visit from the Interior Minister, because Alex’s suicide attempt has become a cause célèbre in the media. He apologizes to Alex for the Ludovico Treatment, and tells him the writer has been put away. With a wink and a nod, the Minister bribes Alex to ‘play nice,’ so he and the government can save face. Alex agrees, after being bribed with a government sinecure, and the media photographs the two of them together, as Alex again has violent fantasies, and lets the viewers know that ‘I was cured, all right!’ This final scene highlights the truly masterful acting job done by McDowell. Watch as the Minister allows speakers into the hospital room, when the media swarms, to conduct hi sown little bit of ‘performance art.’ McDowell’s face almost immediately seems poised to retch, only to have it seem like he swallows his puke and overcomes the impulse. It’s a minor moment, but one in which the excellence propels that often throwaway moment, for a lesser actor, into something memorable.
The two disk DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, is an excellent package. Disk One has the film, in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and a theatrical trailer, along with a very good commentary track featuring film historian Nick Redman and Malcolm McDowell. McDowell is a fairly good raconteur of the goings-on during the making of the film (as example, he recalls scratching his cornea during the Ludovico Treatment scenes), and Redman wisely allows him about 70% of the airtime, chiming in with some pertinent queries and facts (such as the Korova milk bar being the only set built for the film) about the film and its participants. This seems to be a good mix, and a good way to do a commentary for an old classic film- allow a participant to flesh out the behind the scenes stuff and bracket it with the historical expertise of a critic or expert. The second disk has three excellent featurettes: Great Bolshi Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange, which delves into what its title claims; Still Ticking: The Return Of A Clockwork Orange, which provides a historical perspective on the film from release and early controversies to its life on video; and O Lucky Malcolm!, an interesting hour and a half look at the career of the film’s lead actor.
The film’s technical aspects are, as usual in a Kubrick film, not only superb, but nonpareil. Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos’s soundtrack is sort of an early techno sort of music that plays Classical riffs, mostly Beethoven, and this sets up both the dichotomous nature of Alex and viewers’ reactions to him, as well as foreshadowing a synthesis of the seeming disparity. The cinematography by John Alcott (and, let’s face it, this is really Kubrick directing Alcott, for almost all the major scenes could be still photographs that tell a novel’s worth of a story) is superb- not as instantly memorable as the shots from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but even more subtly penetrating. They irritate you and they are hard to shake, mainly because they tend to be presented on a vertical axis, not a horizontal one. The camera is usually zooming in and out of scenes and character faces, rather than sweeping left and right, in pans.
Like many controversial films of the era (it was originally rated X, and was withdrawn from release in the United Kingdom, by Stanley Kubrick, until his death), there were wildly disparate takes on the film, and to this day the film is not well understood (a thing that recurred with many of Kubrick’s works). Many critics were naturally Puritanical, like the dense Pauline Kael and the dull John Simon. Unfortunately, perhaps the most disturbing review came from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. I often use Ebert’s reviews, over others, for several reasons: 1) he is the most famous critic of his day, and his reviews are the most well known and influential to wannabe critical cribbers, 2) he is a better writer than most other published critics, and 3) therefore, when he gaffes, he usually leaves easily traceable and tell-tale signs of his errors and their sources. Thus, let’s scan one of the silliest and most embarrassing reviews of his career, where he wrote:
Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" is an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading As an Orwellian warning. It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex.
This simply is not so. Kubrick’s film is firmly against the state, and history has shown its prescience- think of all the post-9/11 star chambers. And it does not celebrate Alex’s nastiness, merely his independence, as deplorable as where that leads him. He continues:
Alex has grown up in "A Clockwork Orange," and now he's a sadistic rapist. I realize that calling him a sadistic rapist -- just like that -- is to stereotype poor Alex a little. But Kubrick doesn't give us much more to go on, except that Alex likes Beethoven a lot. Why he likes Beethoven is never explained, but my notion is that Alex likes Beethoven in the same way that Kubrick likes to load his sound track with familiar classical music -- to add a cute, cheap, dead-end dimension.
Even a cursory glance at the film can show that Alex’s like for Beethoven’s music is merely a part of what makes him a realistic character, and NOT a stereotype. It’s odd, but some critics accuse Kubrick of not having real or nuance characters in his film, and here is Ebert complaining that Kubrick does have a ‘real’ character in his film.
Now Alex isn't the kind of sat-upon, working-class anti-hero we got in the angry British movies of the early 1960s. No effort is made to explain his inner workings or take apart his society. Indeed, there's not much to take apart; both Alex and his society are smart-nose pop-art abstractions. Kubrick hasn't created a future world in his imagination -- he's created a trendy decor.
In fact, the WHOLE film is an effort to get inside of Alex’s mind and character. Alex narrates the film, and is aware of ‘the audience.’ Hence, the film is a cat and mouse game where Alex tries to snooker ‘us.’ Here one can clearly see, given all the demonstrably wrong statements Ebert makes, that he is reacting on a purely emotionally visceral dislike for the film and character. How else to explain the contradictions not only between the film’s reality and Ebert’s perception, but the dissonance Ebert even makes in his characterizations? Now, read this, and my claim is proven:
When Kubrick shows us Alex, however, he either places him in the center of a wide-angle shot (so Alex alone has normal human dimensions,) or uses a standard lens that does not distort. So a visual impression is built up during the movie that Alex, and only Alex, is normal.
This might be a helpful bit of insight….if it were true. Yes, there certainly are shots where Alex is in the center of the frame (he is the main character, after all), but the rest of Ebert’s claim is demonstrably false: see, among others, Alex quelling the droog revolt, where his profile leers in from the side, much like many shots from the sci fi Alien film series, wherein the Alien is about to strike its prey; Alex’s assault on the writer and rape of his wife; Alex’s diminution in the scenes with his probation officer (Alex is clearly shot in the inferior/supplicant position), and the gang fight at the film’s start, wherein Alex is reduced to merely being one of a rabble. And, even in the shots where Alex is framed center, there is no blurring nor distortion or proportions to make Alex seem the lone ‘normal’ person. This is, frankly, an outright bizarre claim, and anyone watching the film can see it’s demonstrably untrue. In short, Kubrick, in these and many other shots, shows no bias toward Alex. Indeed, the visuals of the film plus the role reversal after Alex gains out sympathies, ADDS to the masterful and complex portrait Kubrick builds. But, as I stated, Ebert is chugging along and trying to justify his emotional dislikes, not any intellectual objections (as he is wont to do in many of his worst reviews of good or great films he simply dislike). Need proof? Ebert provides it:
The New York critical establishment has guaranteed that for us. They missed the boat on "2001," so maybe they were trying to catch up with Kubrick on this one.
Sorry, Roger, ‘twas not them, but thee, who is bending over backward to rationalize. By contrast, James Berardinelli, one of Ebert’s critical scions, had more prescient comments:
Of the 16 movies Kubrick directed (including his final feature, Eyes Wide Shut), the film maker was credited with script involvement in 12 of them. For that reason, 2001 is not referred to as "Arthur C. Clarke's 2001" but as "Stanley Kubrick's 2001." Dr. Strangelove is "Kubrick's Strangelove" not Peter George's. The motion picture version of The Shining owes a greater debt to the director than to author Stephen King. Similarly, the driving force behind A Clockwork Orange was more Kubrick than novelist Anthony Burgess.
This is a good point, and I have long argued that Kubrick was not only a great film director but a great screenwriter with an exceptional insight into developing characters to their most interesting human potentials. This is especially so in Kubrick’s wise decision on how to end the film, which I will touch on in a bit. Berardinelli continues:
One of the first things that will strike anyone watching A Clockwork Orange today is how thoroughly modern it looks. If not for the presence of the youthful face of established thespian Malcolm McDowell, one could be forgiven the assumption that the movie was made far more recently than 1971. Unlike many of its contemporaries, A Clockwork Orange is in no way dated, and the issues it addresses are as urgent today as they were three decades ago. How many other films from the early '70s can make this statement?
Another good point, and herein, it’s worth noting that the costume design by Milena Canonero and set decoration by John Barry aid in this, for the ‘futuristic’ look of the film has become an ‘otherworldly’ one. And, certainly, as I noted in critiquing Ebert’s gaffes, Kubrick’s film presciently anticipates the post-9/11 Big Brotherism if the W. Bush years. And, herein, Berardinelli is ahead of the curve, when he writes:
Oddly, the sex and violence are easier to take than the razor-sharp edge of Kubrick's satire and the corresponding awareness of its pinpoint accuracy when addressing the issue of the dehumanization of people. As I write this in 1999, the extremities of A Clockwork Orange have not come to pass, but society is slowly moving down the slippery slope that the movie cautions against. I have the disturbing feeling that if the solution to crime proposed by the film (brainwashing) was medically and economically feasible, the government would leap onto the bandwagon. When one character speaks of our willingness to "sell liberty for a quieter life," it strikes an ominously familiar chord.
Bingo!, I say, a decade plus later. Unfortunately, whereas Ebert and Berardinelli provide good and bad examples of critically approaching this film, I just had to include what I found has to be one of the worst and most snidely simpletonian reviews in film history. This by The Chicago Reader’s bad critic, Dave Kehr. It is short, says nothing, and is ridiculously politicized. Herein the whole review:
A very bad film—snide, barely competent, and overdrawn—that enjoys a perennial popularity, perhaps because its confused moral position appeals to the secret Nietzscheans within us. It's a movie that Leopold and Loeb would have loved, endorsing brutality in the name of nonconformism. At best, Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film suggests an Animal House with bogus intellectual trappings. But the trappings—the rationalizations and spurious arguments—are what make it genuinely irresponsible, genuinely abhorrent.
Yes, that’s it! He draws a negative comparison it to Animal House! Is there any wonder newspapers are dying when they employ clowns like this? Really, isn’t one of the qualifications of a critic supposed to be that they must actually read or see or watch the work they are to review?
Of course, on one key tangential point, the stolid Kehr is correct, A Clockwork Orange is properly a dark comedy and satire, not a ‘straight’ dramatic look at violence, and the fact that it is a comedy allows it far greater leeway for its violence than many folks, like Ebert, Kael, and Simon can allow. But, in Dr. Strangelove, has any critic seriously thought that Kubrick was praising nuclear Armageddon and the early 1960s seeming rush toward that end? So, why do so many seemingly intelligent critics and viewers misread this film? Simple, it is a far more subtle and insinuating comedy than Dr. Strangelove, if not greater. It also is a film that makes the most of its limitations, inverting them to strengths. The best example of this comes with the use superlative use of real locations, rather than sets. Often the worst thing that can happen to a filmmaker is to get so much money and leeway that there is no constraint that forces him to truly be ‘creative.’ And it’s this impulse that leads to the high level of art that has led so many other filmmakers to copy both the film’s and Kubrick’s many great flourishes and moments (think of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, wherein the Dogs walk along in a pack not unlike Alex and his droogs along the sewery canal, or countless films that play off th eprimal fear of a person’s home senselessly being invaded, starting with Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left, released a year after this film).
The character of Alex, as well, is one of the earliest examples of a ‘true’ anti-hero. I know many people might point to the roles of James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart, or of Orson Welles’ performance of Harry Lime in The Third Man. But, in truth, neither Cagney nor Bogart were actors in a modern film, and their ‘anti-heroes’ were really more cartoony fictions than realistic; whereas McDowell’s Alex is realistic, however stylized. But more than just the appeal of the anti-hero, Alex is a bon vivant, with an incredible lust for life (pro and con), and it is that factor, added to his being an anti-hero, that makes him such a memorable character. Whether he is raping, killing, fucking, listening to music, fighting, daydreaming, he is in every moment, and then some. This is why, when he is soul cauterized by the Ludovico Treatment, there is such a strong reaction, even by people who loathe his character to that point. It is also why the ending to the film, wherein Alex is ‘cured’ back to his evil self is so much more satisfying than Burgess’s novel’s original ending, wherein Alex grows bored with his old violent life, to which he has returned, and decides to ‘grow up,’ settle down, and get a wife and child. Although Kubrick’s decision to go with the ending of the more cynical American version of the novel (in his screenplay) caused much dismay to Burgess (it never ceases to amaze how many artists do not fundamentally even get the points of their own works), it was the correct choice for the film, and a better and more realistic artistic statement. The truth is that Burgess’s novel is not nearly as potent nor powerful as some earlier dystopian works, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm nor 1984, nor Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In fact, it’s not even as interesting as A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan (save for the introduction of the Nadsat lingo). The reason for the film’s excellence is almost entirely on Kubrick’s shoulders. While people can ‘reform,’ with the passage of time and advent of maturity (I am a prime example), this ending would have done two things to damage the film- 1) it would have meant Alex had lost the very thing which made him ‘special,’ and a great character- his savage lust for life, and 2) it would have shifted the focus of the ending away from the society which soul cauterized Alex back to Alex, and this would have emasculated the film’s satiric edge. A Clockwork Orange, the film, is simply not about Alex nor youth hooliganism, but fundamental and institutionalized state terror. And it’s because of this change of target by Kubrick that the film still blisters its audience today; the same cannot be said of Burgess’s book. Had it just been a tract on young violence, or gangsterism it would have dated as badly as many other pop cultural films from the 1960s and 1970s.
But, no matter how you approach it, A Clockwork Orange is a great piece of filmmaking (whereas Burgess’s book is not a great work of literature- a fact that even Burgess admitted to), and the final jewel in a filmic consecutive Triple Crown that may be without equal. It deals with the most fundamental thing that our most fundamental human quality- intelligence- endows us with: free will; the ability to choose this or that, be it a minor distraction or an ethical choice of the highest order. And such travails and their contrails are best handled by the greatest of artists. Stanley Kubrick was one of them. The distance to them, however, is bridged by their works, and this film is quite the span.
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.