A Clockwork Orange Review
In the not-too-distant future, meet Alex (Malcolm McDowell). He’s the leader of a gang of Droogs, including Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus) and Pete (Michael Tarn), who meet up at the Korova milkbar before heading out for a bit of the old ultraviolence...
Anthony Burgess’s novel, published in 1961, was one of five he wrote in a year, a creative frenzy brought about by a terminal diagnosis that turned out to be inaccurate. While it’s probably not his best novel (maybe the Booker-nominated Earthly Powers can claim to be that) it remains his best known, not least because of Kubrick’s film. The novel was inspired by terrible events, namely the beating of his first wife by a gang of servicemen during World War II. After spending several years in the Far East, Burgess had returned to England and had observed the rise of youth culture in the 1950s, and also the rise of juvenile delinquency. The novel depicts the “reform” of a violent teenage sociopath, but at what price? Is it as immoral to unmake a monster as to make one? And in unmaking him, Alex’s one redeeming feature – his love of Beethoven, clearly something close to composer and musician Burgess’s heart – is taken away from him. No violent thug, but no Ludwig Van either. The original American edition of the novel removed the final chapter, as Alex, “cured”, grows older and out of his criminal ways. That was the version Kubrick first read, and that’s the version the film is based on, giving it a much more cynical ending, with a dark look at the ways of authority.
Following the great success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, anticipation was high for Stanley Kubrick’s next film, his third excursion into science fiction, from Anthony Burgess’s novel. A Clockwork Orange was a commercial success and also hugely controversial, with calls for its banning in the UK due to the film’s inspiring copycat crimes. The then Home Secretary Reginald Maulding personally stepped in and requested a viewing. Also – as was clarified after Kubrick’s passing – the director and his family received death threats resulting in Kubrick requesting that the film be withdrawn from circulation in the country he lived and worked in. For many filmgoers not old enough to have seen the film on its first release, in the 80s and 90s European travel was a reason to either seek out the film in a cinema (which I did, in Paris in 1988) or to buy it on videotape and bring it home. After Kubrick died, Warner Brothers returned the film to British cinemas in 2000, and now it is reissued again.
There had been plans to film A Clockwork Orange as far back as the mid 1960s (not counting Andy Warhol’s version Vinyl, of 1965). At one point Mick Jagger was to play Alex. However, the censorship of the day was a stumbling block. By the end of the decade, censorship was breaking down, and plenty of boundaries were being pushed, and a film of this novel became viable. Kubrick had intended to follow 2001 with a film about Napoleon, but when that collapsed, he looked for a project that could be made quickly and relatively cheaply, and A Clockwork Orange was it. Given his reputation for countless takes and obsessive perfectionism resulting in protracted production schedules, it may surprise that A Clockwork Orange – shot for $2 million, about a fifth of the budget for 2001 – was the shortest shoot of any of Kubrick’s feature films, just seven months. Malcolm McDowell was cast after Kubrick saw him in if.... McDowell was encouraged to improvise: Alex’s performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” while giving his victim a kicking, was one result of this.
The novel is in first person, and Kubrick made what amounts to a first-person film, as much as can be done in the film medium. As well as Alex’s voiceover in the Russian-inflected Nadsat slang lifted from the novel, the film is one of the most visually stylised films Kubrick ever made: slow and fast motion, wide-angle lenses and so on. After the andante pacing of 2001, this is a film with considerable energy. The question was, does it make violence – not just beatings, but rape as well – look exciting? These are distancing devices: Alex has no empathy for his victims and we are kept at arm’s length. When the violence is turned on Alex, not least in the Ludovico Technique which “cures” Alex (and during the shooting of which McDowell suffered a scratch to a cornea) it’s much more painful and personal, which is the point.
All this seemed state of the art when released in 1971, and Milena Canonero’s costume design (the Droogs’ uniform, with input from McDowell and Kubrick, soon became iconic and indeed imitated), production design (John Barry) and cinematography (John Alcott) remain very impressive. Another plus is the music score, played by Wendy (credited as Walter) Carlos on Moog synthesiser. But soon controversy set in. Before the film was released in the UK in 1972, there had been a furore over films taking advantage of the liberalisation of censorship, especially in the depiction of violence. The BBFC had weathered the storms over their passing of The Devils, Straw Dogs and others, and they faced another when they passed A Clockwork Orange with the then X certificate (eighteen and over) without any cuts. It’s fair to say that aspects of the film are more troubling now than they were then, in particular the depiction of sexual violence, then a boundary to be pushed at, now more problematic. While this isn’t (mostly) graphically portrayed – more often it’s the threat rather than the actuality shown on screen – the film also has a heavy emphasis on nudity, almost entirely female and with an emphasis on breasts. No doubt of its time, but more uncomfortable viewing now in ways its makers likely didn’t intend.
A Clockwork Orange has been freely available in the UK for nineteen years now, and no longer has a reputation inflated by inaccessibility. Is it Kubrick’s best? I would say not: at two and a quarter hours it’s overlong and definitely sags in the middle section, with Alex in prison. More than other Kubrick films, it’s no longer possible to watch it without definite reservations about some of its content and its intent. But it remains a key work from a major film director.