#563) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
OR “Say No to Droogs”
Directed & Written by Stanley Kubrick. Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess.
Class of 2020
The Plot: In a dystopian future where England is overrun with teenage crime, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang (Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn) spend their nights engaging in “ultra-violence”. After a botched attempt to assault an older woman (Miriam Karlin), Alex is arrested and sentenced to prison. Two years into his sentence, Alex gets an opportunity to participate in an experimental aversion therapy that will completely cure him of his criminal behavior in two weeks. The treatment goes well, except that in addition to crime and violence, Alex now has an aversion to his favorite piece of music; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Will Alex become a respectable member of society? Or will his past misdeeds come back to haunt him? Burgess’ mediation on human behavior meets its match with the dark, twisted imagination of Stanley Kubrick.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the work of Kubrick and McDowell (misspelled as “MacDowell”), and states that the film “remains as it always was: disturbing, controversial and startling unsettling.”
But Does It Really?: I’m putting “Clockwork Orange” on the “Taxi Driver” list of great movies: Riveting, iconic, but whose problematic subject matter may jeopardize its future as a classic. “Clockwork” is a visceral experience, with the kind of fantastic visuals and engaging moments you expect from Stanley Kubrick. The question is: how much longer will we revere a movie with such intense scenes of violence and assault? Ultimately, the film doesn’t condone this behavior, but it still makes me watch it. “A Clockwork Orange” deserves to be on the NFR, but I’m curious to what degree future film fans will hold it in esteem.
Shout Outs: Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain” during the infamous rape sequence, and the Gene Kelly version plays over the end credits (Side Note: Kelly was not a fan of this). Kubrick also references his previous films: “2001” and “Dr. Strangelove“.
Everybody Gets One: Malcolm McDowell began his acting career as an extra in the Royal Shakespeare Company. His performance in the 1969 film “If…” caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, who cast him as Alex. Although Kubrick praised his performance (even stating publicly that he wouldn’t have made the movie if McDowell had been unavailable), Kubrick never spoke to Malcolm after the film was released, which surprised and saddened the actor.
Title Track: Anthony Burgess claimed he heard the phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub in 1945, and it stuck with him. Further research shows no evidence of the phrase’s existence prior to the publication of Burgess’ novel. Regardless, a “clockwork orange” is used in the novel to describe Alex after he is “cured”: natural on the outside, mechanical on the inside.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite mixed critical reception and an X rating (which Kubrick successfully bumped down to an R for the film’s re-release), “A Clockwork Orange” was a box office smash. At the 1972 Oscars, “Clockwork” received four big Oscar nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Editing, losing all of them to “The French Connection“. Rumor has it that many Hollywood stars turned down the opportunity to present Best Picture for fear of this film pulling off a win. Two-time nominee Jack Nicholson ultimately did the honors.
- Upon the release of the novel in 1962, the film rights for “A Clockwork Orange” were bought by Mick Jagger, who intended to star in an adaptation with his Rolling Stones bandmates. A few years later, “Strangelove” screenwriter Terry Southern recommended the novel to Kubrick. In the early ’70s, Kubrick’s long-gestating Napoleon film lost its backers, and his wife Christiane suggested he finally get around to reading “Clockwork”. Kubrick loved the novel, snatched up the film rights (which had exchanged hands a few times at this point), and wrote a surprisingly faithful adaptation.
- This is your reminder that “A Clockwork Orange”, frequently listed among the greatest films ever made and a cultural touchstone for 50 years, was added to the National Film Registry in 2020, despite being eligible since the Registry’s inception in 1989.
- This movie grabs you from the start. The titles are on a bright red screen, there are no opening credits (unheard of in 1971), and the first shot lingers on Alex staring down the camera while creepy synthesizer music plays. It’s unsettling, and also great.
- While the rape scene is still difficult to watch, it stands out as the first real gut-punch of Hollywood’s post-Code era. During filming, Kubrick felt that the scene was too conventional, and asked Malcolm McDowell if he knew any songs. McDowell improvised “Singin’ in the Rain” on the next take, and Kubrick loved the choice so much he immediately sought the rights to use the song. I guess MGM really needed the money.
- So in the future, cassettes make a comeback? At least they correctly predicted the return of vinyl.
- Kubrick loves messing with the speed of this movie. A fast-paced sex scene is immediately followed by a slow-motion fight between Alex and his gang. I’m sure there’s some symbolism to this that I’m not getting, but it looks great.
- Despite the dark subject matter, this movie is surprisingly funny. Michael Bates is perfectly over-the-top as Chief Guard Barnes, who apparently can only yell all his dialogue. It’s hilarious, and supports the claim that this was intended to be a dark comedy all along.
- The violence and raping make me squirm, but the toughest scene for me to watch is always the therapy scene in the screening room where Alex’s eyes are forced to stay open. As someone who used to put contacts on every morning, this scene is beyond disturbing.
- For those of you wondering what Darth Vader looks like without his helmet: Frank Alexander’s assistant Julian is played by bodybuilder David Prowse, just a few years away from being permanently dubbed by James Earl Jones.
- Gotta love those Kubrick steadicam shots. It’s like the crew is on roller skates.
- Part of Alex’s rehabilitation in the hospital is the thematic apperception test, or as it’s known today, The New Yorker caption contest. “Christ, what an asshole.“
- The final chapter of the novel involved Alex, now a bit older, finally maturing and giving up his criminal past. This chapter was omitted from the novel’s American release because the American editor felt it didn’t mesh with the rest of the book. Kubrick’s screenplay was based on the American edition, and he was only made aware of the final chapter after he had finished writing. In Kubrick’s defense, “I was cured alright” is a great curtain line.
- “A Clockwork Orange” was one of the biggest hits of 1971, but unfortunately its controversy expanded beyond a few damning reviews. Shortly after the film’s release in England, “Clockwork” was connected to several copycat crimes involving teens, including a rape in which the assailants sang “Singin’ in the Rain”. At Kubrick’s request, “A Clockwork Orange” was removed from British cinemas, and the film would not be seen again in England until after Kubrick’s death in 1999.
- Stanley Kubrick’s next film was the far more conventional (and far less controversial) “Barry Lyndon”.
- Anthony Burgess had mixed feelings about the movie. He enjoyed Malcolm McDowell’s performance and the “brilliant” music selection, but was equally disappointed that the film overshadowed the book, as well as the rest of his bibliography.
- Although Malcolm McDowell would never have another film role that could match Alex DeLarge, he has been working steadily for the last 50 years, usually as the bad guy in every sci-fi franchise and lackluster comedy.
- The aesthetic and dialogue of “A Clockwork Orange” appear in pop culture so often, the references have their own Wikipedia page. For god’s sake, Alex and his gang are in the new “Space Jam” movie!
Further Viewing: “Vinyl”, Andy Warhol’s loose adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”. Hopefully this Warhol movie is the real one, and not a fan remake that I don’t recognize until after I’ve posted an entire write-up about it.
Listen to This: “Lovely Ludwig Van” Beethoven gets represented a couple of times in the National Recording Registry. Among his selections: all 32 of his piano sonatas as performed by Arthur Schnabel, the first such recording in history.