Dir.: Stanley Kubrick; Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Warren Clark, James Marcus, Michael Tarn, Adrienne Corri, Carl Duering, Miriam Karlin, Michael Gover, Anthony Sharp; UK/US 1971, 136 min.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 decline-of-civilisation novel, A Clockwork Orange, remains a chilling, thrilling and unsettling cinematic vision of nihilistic violence and social control.
The brutal socio-political satire was a big success for Kubrick taking £618K at the UK box office on its opening weekend in January 1972. Burgess’s oeuvre of over thirty novels is overshadowed by A Clockwork Orange. The author claimed writing was merely a “jeu d’esprit, just for money, finishing the novel in three weeks”. But during WWII his first wife Lynne had been raped by American soldiers, which led to a miscarriage.
Set in a futuristic Britain, teenager Alex DeLarge (McDowell) is the leader of a teenage quartet called the ‘Droogs’. Brutal and psychopathic, they enjoy wreaking havoc after school. Alex is the gang-leader keeping Dim (Clarke), Georgie (Marcus) and Pete (Tarn) under the cosh: disobedience is immediately repressed with violence. After a fight with a rival gang, they break into the Hertfordshire home of writer Alexander (Magee), reducing him to a cripple and raping his wife Mary (Corrie) while warbling “Singing in the Rain”.
Next day, Alex, a keen Beethoven fan who lives with his parents in a garish high-rise, plays truant from school. Later the Droog break into the house of “Catlady” (Karlin), a yoga freak, who Alex kills with the bust of his beloved Ludwig. Arrested and imprisoned in a masterfully performed series of scenes demonstrating just how draconian the authorities were back then, Alex is offered the chance of submitting himself to a new-fangled therapy “the Ludovico treatment”, which aims to ‘reset’ his mind, making him averse to violence and sex. The therapy has the desired effect. But in one of the films, selected by Dr. Brodsky (Duering), Beethoven’s Ninth is played, making Alex feel nauseous when he hears the music. After a demonstration by the Interior Minister (Sharp), during which Alex faints at the sight of a naked woman, he is released. But his parents do not want him back, they have rented his room to a male lodger, who now fulfils their parenting needs. So Alex is forced onto the streets for a touch of his own medicine.
Attacked by an old hobo, whom he had punched up in his Droog days, he is saved by two policemen – Dim and Georgie. They drive him into the countryside, beat him senseless and leave him for dead. Half-crazed, Alex finds himself once again on the doorstep of Mr. Alexander’s house, who is wheelchair-bound, and widowed. Strangely, Alexander does not recognise Alex without his Droog outfit, instead he publishes articles in his defence, claiming he is a victim of the government’s inhuman treatment. But when he hears Alex crooning that same song of the original attack, his trauma resurfaces and he finds a way of getting his own back by playing Beethoven’s music. Alex jumps out of the window. The fall resets the therapy, and soon Alex returns to his evil ways.
The minister promises to help, accusing Alexander of cruelty, and uses Alex in his campaign to quieten down critics of his government. Alex wakes up in a hospital with broken bones. While undergoing a series of psychological tests, Alex finds he no longer abhors sex and violence. The Minister arrives and apologises to Alex, offfering to take care of him and get him a job in return for his cooperation with his election campaign and counter-offensive. As a sign of goodwill, the Minister brings in a stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth. Alex then contemplates violence and has vivid thoughts of having sex with a woman in front of an approving crowd, and thinks to himself, “I was cured, all right!”
So what is the message behind A Clockwork Orange? Obviously it’s a film open to individual interpretation but there a few clear themes running through the narrative: crime and retribution; personal responsibility; the nature of forgiveness.
DoP John Alcott widescreen images, using frog eye lenses, show the bad taste of the 1970s aesthetics in all its glory, presenting us with a dystopia of mind-blowing crassness. McDowell is the prince of darkness, his long false eyelashes giving him a satanic look. With gang violence erupting in Britain on a large scale – Kubrick himself received death threats and asked Warner Brothers to withdraw the film from circulation for good. One victim of this ban was the famous repertoire cinema “Scala” in Pentonville Road, which showed A Clockwork Orange in 1993 and had to close the same year for good, after rising rents and the prohibitive legal costs of Kubrick’s legal team led to insolvency. AS
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | 4K RESTORATION | IN CINEMAS from 17 September 2021