Clockwork Orange, A (United Kingdom, 1971)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Throughout his 50-year career, and especially in his great films, director Stanley Kubrick had a penchant for taking the novels of others and re-shaping them to fit his own vision. 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.

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?

Part of the reason for the movie's contemporary look is Kubrick's forward-thinking philosophy of film making. From Lolita onwards, the director pushed the envelope. (In fact, one could argue that he did it before the 1962 film - overtly homosexual scenes from Spartacus were cut at the studio's insistence.) While human nature may not have changed since 1971, motion picture standards have. There is copious nudity, sex, and violence in A Clockwork Orange. And, while the sex is not pornographic and the violence is not explicit, they were pervasive enough to initially earn the movie an X rating. Today, the saltier elements of A Clockwork Orange fall into the mainstream of the MPAA's R category (and the film has since been re-classified as such).

A Clockwork Orange is not an easy motion picture to absorb or digest. 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. Under its current mayor, New York City has yielded numerous freedoms in return for a reduction in the crime rate. And in Russia, the famished citizens would give up all their newly acquired rights for the promise of full bellies.

A Clockwork Orange is told in three acts. The setting is an unspecified English city some time in the near future. Crime is rampant, with prison congestion reaching emergency levels. Gangs of young ruffians roam the streets, engaging in a virtually unchecked reign of terror. Anyone unlucky enough to become their target may be raped, robbed, beaten, murdered, or a combination of those four. The government, eager to clean out the prisons (so, amongst other things, they can be used for political criminals rather than hard-core cases), has come up with a method of rehabilitation. By exposing a prisoner to countless images of sex and violence while pumping his body full of drugs that cause waves of nausea, doctors are able to develop a negative Pavlovian response to immoral and illegal activities. Thus, acts against society are inextricably linked to an unbearable sickness, and the brainwashed criminal is able to re-enter society and become a productive zombie. Cries of the liberals, that men are "no longer capable of [making] a moral choice" are ignored in the government's zeal to proceed with what seems to be a foolproof plan.

Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a quartet of "droogs" who spend their nights engaged in a number of unsavory activities. They beat up helpless drunks, break into houses and rape the women who live there, and brawl with rival gangs. One day, however, fissures develop in the group. Two of the four members, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), express an unwillingness to continue to blindly follow Alex's lead. His response is to thrash both of them. After that incident, they bide their time and nurse their wounds until the opportunity arises to set up Alex. They strike at the scene of a botched burglary/murder, knocking him senseless and leaving him for the police to find. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. While there, he plays the role of the model prisoner, earning the chaplin's trust. After learning about the government's experimental rehabilitation program, he aggressively pursues becoming a candidate. He is eventually selected and subjected to the procedure, then sent back helpless into the violent world that he is a product of. He soon becomes a pawn between those seeking to bolster the government's actions and those who want to topple it.

Many have watched A Clockwork Orange without understanding what it all means. And for those who take everything presented on screen in a straightforward manner, a certain amount of confusion will result. But, like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, George Orwell's 1984, and other futuristic political satires, A Clockwork Orange is meant to be understood as part allegory, part black comedy, and part drama. The film takes aim at the ineffective and inhumane methods often devised by governments to stem criminal behavior, asking what sacrifices we're willing to make to live in relative security. Then there's the trickier question of whether the removal of free will destroys an individual's essential humanity. Does the State have the right to do this, to "kill the criminal reflex"? Would execution be a preferable fate? Finally, Kubrick illustrates the fickle nature of public opinion. Those that laud the government's methods one day revile them the next.

While thematic content and plot form the unshakable foundations of a film like this, it's style that elevates it from the level of a thought-provoking piece to a genuine classic. Style has always been one of Kubrick's strong points, even in his less successful efforts. The director maintained a reputation for an obsessive attention to detail, and it shows in the final product. The film's language, kept intact from the 1962 novel upon which it is based, is a mixture of common expressions, Shakespearean English, and slang. The set design is flawless, suggesting a future that is at once familiar and alien, where the commonplace details of everyday life are slightly skewed. This does not look like 1971; it looks like 2010. Shot selection and editing are also carefully calculated. There are no abrupt or jagged transitions, and the director's penchant for long, unbroken takes is in evidence. Then there's the use of music. The score of A Clockwork Orange is varied, with Beethoven's 9th Symphony, "The William Tell Overture", and "Singin' in the Rain" all making key contributions.

Many of the actors featured in A Clockwork Orange will not be familiar to today's audiences. It isn't that players like Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, and Clive Francis haven't had long careers, but that they're far better known for appearing in small, non-Hollywood productions. (In fact, despite having more than two dozen credits on his acting resume, the only other thing I remember Francis from is the BBC/Masterpiece Theater mini-series "Poldark".) There are a couple of exceptions. One is, of course, Malcolm McDowell, who has gone on to international stardom. At the time of A Clockwork Orange, he had only been in a handful of features. Future roles would cast him as H.G. Welles (Time After Time), the title character in Caligula, and a Star Trek villain (Star Trek: Generations). Another familiar name belongs to David Prowse, who is both seen and heard here as the hulking male nurse of a wheelchair-bound man. Six years after A Clockwork Orange, Prowse would inhabit the black costume of one of the cinema's most famous villains: Darth Vader.

At the center of A Clockwork Orange is the character of Alex, so McDowell's contribution to the film is a key component (even though the actor was twice the age of the character in the book). McDowell's Alex can be charming, chilling, sympathetic, despicable, or deliciously over-the-top - all as the situation demands. Kubrick was known for getting the most out of his actors (witness Matthew Modine's surprisingly solid turn in Full Metal Jacket), and there's no doubt that McDowell's work here is some of the best of his career. Alex's character has a long and twisted arc as he travels from amoral hedonist to beaten zombie, and McDowell doesn't miss a beat. And, perhaps most astonishingly, Kubrick and McDowell cause us to identify with this thoroughly detestable individual.

Distinct images often play a significant part in Kubrick's films. After all, 2001 was essentially one memorable image after another. A Clockwork Orange doesn't offer the same kind of visual kaleidoscope, but it has its moments. One is of four crucified Christ statues positioned so that they appear to be in a chorus line. Another features Alex on the attack with a giant sculpture of a penis. A third is the infamous "Singin' in the Rain" rape scene, where Alex mimics Gene Kelly while assaulting a woman. And a fourth is the climactic tableau with the media taking photographs of the Minister of the Interior and a bedridden Alex.

Despite the controversy surrounding its release, A Clockwork Orange proved to be a huge hit with critics and a recipient of numerous awards and nominations. History has been kind to the movie - it is now widely regarded as a classic. In 1971, A Clockwork Orange won two awards from the New York Film Critic's Circle: Best Picture and Best Director. The Academy recognized the picture with four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The British Academy followed suit, topping the American total with six. And the public-friendly Golden Globes accorded A Clockwork Orange a trio of nominations - one for the film, one for the director, and one for Malcolm McDowell as Best Actor.

It is difficult to rank A Clockwork Orange in Kubrick's body of work. Its look and approach are unique, but not as visionary as 2001. It's tone is bitingly satirical, but it's not as corrosive as Dr. Strangelove. Few, however - even the movie's critics - would debate that it leaves a forceful impression, and, when you study the reason for that, you uncover the evidence of genius. A Clockwork Orange has a universal message. Admittedly, it's one that many would prefer not to hear, but to deny the importance of its central themes or to dismiss the movie as a descent into debauchery is to ignore both an artistic achievement and a cautionary tale. A Clockwork Orange is not a pretty or comfortable experience. It does not pander to the crowd-pleasing mentality that shapes the structure of many films. (In that scenario, a Rambo-like Alex would have avenged himself upon all of his wrongdoers in the final fifteen minutes.) But it demands thought, compels the attention, and refuses to be dismissed. And, for that reason, A Clockwork Orange must be considered a landmark of modern cinema.

Clockwork Orange, A (United Kingdom, 1971)

Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1