It was withdrawn from circulation in England (by its own director) for decades. Anthony Burgess (who wrote the film’s source novel) grew to despise it. Pauline Kael loathed it, while Rex Reed called it “perfect” (putting me in the odd, rare position of siding with Rex Reed over Pauline Kael). It was rated X, then got an R after some trimming (every American home-video edition has been the uncut X-rated version). It was nominated for four Oscars and won none. As I write this, it sits at #54 on the IMDb’s Top 250, right between The Bridge on the River Kwai and Das Boot.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange remains as unsettling and shocking today as the day it was released. That it was released, and by a major studio (Warner Bros., which has seldom shied from controversial films), is a testament to the unique relationship Kubrick had with the studio. That it was suppressed in England, by Kubrick himself (following death threats made to him and his family), until after his death, testifies further: Warner at any time could’ve said “Fuck you, Stan, there’s a huge audience wanting to see this film again and a lot of money to be made — we’re putting it out on video in the UK,” but they didn’t.
What Warner got for its trouble was a hard, nasty, pre-punk pop-art Molotov cocktail, filmed in leering, oppressive close-up, as if Kubrick couldn’t be bothered with the exterior details of the “future.” (Given how much the costumes and hairstyles have dated, one suspects Kubrick never intended the film to be futuristic.) It was the first film Kubrick made after being appalled by how much a TV showing of 2001 butchered its widescreen compositions; as a result, this film and all of his subsequent films were composed to be comfortable within TV’s square confines, and the change in dimension makes for a disconcertingly intimate experience. The mechanical zooms in and out, the static shots with little room for the actors to roam about — it’s all very locked-in, hermetically sealed.
No movie announces itself quite so boldly as a Kubrick film; it gets in your face right at the start and then pulls back — literally, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, which opens with plain credits against bright mod colors, accompanied by Wendy Carlos’ mischievous Moog-rape of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” the first image being Malcolm McDowell leering up into the camera (the famous “Kubrick crazy-face”). The camera then zooms out slowly, encompassing the whole of the Korova Milkbar. It’s as if to say, Here is your guide, and here is his world.
McDowell’s Alex (never given a last name in Anthony Burgess’ 1961 novel, he claims “DeLarge” as his surname in the movie, a joke on a bit from the novel in which Alex refers to himself as Alexander the Large) is the leader of a pack of four “droogs” who tolchock their way through the blue and chilly night. Dim (Warren Clarke) is the dummy of the group, harshly chastised by Alex for a rude response to Beethoven; the others, Pete (Michael Tarn) and Georgie (James Marcus), are pretty much interchangeable nonentities. In the book, Alex is fifteen, but the movie’s droogs seem to be of a good age, perhaps late teens. McDowell was twenty-seven when he made the film, though he’s youthful enough, and his performance carries such brio, such openness of spirit, that one can’t help identifying with Alex. (Critics, like Kael, who objected that Alex is the only attractive person in the movie missed the point: Alex is telling this story — of course he’s the coolest, the sexiest, the toughest.) In later years, McDowell would play a variety of sneering villains, deadly icy in temperament, but his Alex is very much a warm-blooded creature. The diabolical secret of his work here is that he has fun, and he lets us share in it. “I enjoyed ripping and raping by proxy,” Burgess wrote years later about his experience writing the book; McDowell allows us to rip and rape by proxy, too. The ride is not for everyone — your response to the film depends largely on how much jovial sexual violence you’re prepared to watch before the movie turns moralistic.
A Clockwork Orange has a classical three-act structure: Thug runs riot; thug is caught and neutered out of his sexual/violent urges; thug is released into a vengeful world full of the same people he hurt before. In Burgess’ original British edition, there is an additional chapter (left out of the American edition until 1987, and left out of the movie as well) in which Alex forms another gang but eventually grows weary of the old ultraviolence; given his freedom again, he is able to make a moral choice to stop being vicious. Kubrick, hearing of this ending while shooting the movie, rejected it as being false to the rest of the story — or at least false to the story he wanted to tell, in which evil is encouraged by the government to blossom in the name of freedom. The point seems to be: If we want true freedom, we will have to take the Alexes that come with it.
Choice. The boy has no choice, has he? Self-interest. The fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.
Padre, these are subtleties. We’re not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime and relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek. Ready to be crucified, rather than crucify. Sick to the very heart at the thought of even killing a fly. Reclamation. Joy before the angels of God. The point is that it works.
Alex is arrested for inadvertently murdering a woman, and is sent to prison, where he hears about the radical new Ludovico Technique. It robs him of the ability to act on violent or sexual urges, but in an unintended side effect it also robs him of the joys of Beethoven. The movie plays like a parody of melodrama (Kael uncharitably referred to Alex as “a male Little Nell”). Does the movie glorify rape and brutality? Yes, for its first third we are asked to share in the glee of our narrator, who at one point even addresses us as “my brothers and only friends.” But when he’s helpless to defend himself against the victims and victimizers of his former life, the movie certainly makes the point that tolchocking isn’t so horrorshow after all. Kubrick is as merciless about running Alex through the wringer (and McDowell, too — the infamous eye-clip sequence left him with a scarred cornea) as he is about showing Alex’s earlier sadism. Alex’s joie de vivre, represented by his adoration of Beethoven, is inextricable from his sociopathology. So when you take away the things that give a sociopath’s life meaning, what’s left? Good behavior, certainly, but at what cost?
Burgess was a composer, and the rhythmic pleasure he took in the book’s language reflected that. Kubrick doesn’t make as much use of Alex’s nadsat slang, a mix of Russian and gypsy and cockney. In 1961, when the book was published, it was meant to be a chilling irony that the youth of the future would take up the speech of the Cold War’s big bad. Kubrick isn’t as interested in the sociological details; his reach extends deeper, to the origins of violence in the human machine and the question of whether the machine can be reprogrammed. For all that, this is easily his most playful film. No small tech geek himself, Kubrick enjoys the idea of the state attempting to rewire Alex using the very medium Kubrick had adopted. Kubrick’s fiendish editing makes the row of Jesus statues in Alex’s bedroom appear to dance; the movie pretty much stays that sportive. Like Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange is a pitch-black comedy about the twin follies of human hubris and the technology made possible — and dangerous — by that hubris.
What makes the movie such a short sharp shock after all these years is the amount of realistic pain underneath the jocular horrors. When Alex does his “Singin’ in the Rain” number as prologue to raping the young wife of the novelist (Patrick Magee), he gives her just one slap in the face, but it brings us up short — it looks like it hurts. Later, when Alex sings the same tune in the bathtub and the novelist hears it, Kubrick shoots Patrick Magee from below as he spasms madly; the image is both funny and terribly ominous. Kubrick certainly knows how to give us violence without consequence, as in Alex’s gang’s fight with Billyboy and his droogs. But it’s hard not to wince when Alex roughs up his own gang, or when they retaliate by smashing a milk bottle across his face, or when the two droogs turned policemen take Alex out into the woods and hold his head underwater for what seem like hours while pounding him in the ribs. Kubrick has not made an unfeeling movie here, regardless of critical broadsides like Kael’s.
A Clockwork Orange has the tone of a fable, with unapologetic stereotypes and a narrator who tells us how to feel at every turn (Alex is also, of course, that literary stock in trade the Unreliable Narrator). On the surface, the story couldn’t be simpler, but currents of contempt and cynicism run through it end to end. Wendy Carlos’ unearthly Moog riffs on the masters — technology again! — give the movie a sort of classical modernity perfectly in keeping with the story itself, which uses ancient literary motifs in dystopian dress. Burgess looked to the future fearfully, armed with the knowledge of man’s violent past; Kubrick viewed past and future as a continuum, nothing to get hung about. Man will always be idiotic; Kubrick saw the comedy and the consistency in the human condition.
When talking about violent movies, or movies about violence, or movies that seem pro-violence or anti-violence or both or neither, there is A Clockwork Orange, and then there’s everything else. It felt like a summing-up in 1971, and it still does. No movie since has matched its sardonic vision of a world all too willing to sweep freedom aside in the name of security. That may seem especially relevant in the Bush era. But it has always been relevant, and always will be.