Stanley Kubrick is possibly the most overrated of the truly great directors. That’s not saying he isn’t a great director, and if forced to select my favourite film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have very few competitors. It’s just that I find some of his other films (and he didn’t make that many in his long career) pretty tedious and sometimes only redeemed by the gorgeous cinematography of John Alcott.
A Clockwork Orange, his next film after 2001, could never be called tedious! It’s a stimulating film that carved out its uniquely infamous place in cinema history for the psychological impact some people claimed it had on them. Billed as, “being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven,” it’s hardly surprising Clockwork Orange courted controversy and became notorious for being banned. Except, it never really was…
Back in the 1990s, when I was working in a very respectable video rental shop in London, A Clockwork Orange had become ‘a thing of legends’ and was the most requested under-the-counter film. In the store room, out back, there was a big box of old VHS (and even Betamax) tapes from before the 1984 Video Recordings Act, remnants of those home video halcyon days when uncensored ‘nasties’ and ‘obscene’ movies were freely available. Of course, these were now banned and never loaned out. There were some great films in that box, among them such classics as A Bay of Blood (1971), Last House on the Left (1972), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Evil Dead (1981), The Beyond (1981), The House by the Cemetery (1981), Tenebrae (1982)… but A Clockwork Orange wasn’t among them.
This was because it was never designated a ‘video nasty’. In fact, it had been given an 18 certificate by the BBFC. The reason why it disappeared from British screens after a limited release was because Stanley Kubrick himself had withdrawn the UK distribution rights in 1973. He’d made this decision after a rash of violent crime seemed to accompany the initial cinema run; the most extreme instances being the rape of a 16-year-old tourist by a gang chanting to the tune of “Singing in the Rain”, mimicking the film’s rape scene, and a 16-year-old who claimed he was inspired to beat a ‘down-and-out’ to death after merely hearing details about Clockwork Orange from friends who’d seen it.
Ironically, one of the few to voice any sensible defence for the film was the actress Miriam Karlin, whose cameo ends with her character being brutally bludgeoned to death with a hefty phallic sculpture. This is the pivotal moment in the narrative that changes Alex from ultra-violent delinquent to murderer.
Kubrick’s comments on the controversy were scant, and it seems his attitude was that if such crimes were linked to the film, regardless of any arguments about causality, then withdrawing it from UK cinemas was the least he could do to respect the feelings of victims and their families. Also, he was receiving death-threats.
So it was Kubrick that “banned” his own movie. He made a point of keeping full control of the rights to his material, and never rescinded this decision. Only after his death, in 1999, did Warner Bros. reconsider a UK re-release and, in 2001, the uncut version was premiered on British TV. Finally, the mystique that had built up around the film dispersed and UK audiences began to realise that what they’d thought to be a gratuitous exercise in voyeuristic violence, was actually a finely crafted satire brimming with a scathingly dark wit.
The film was adapted from the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel which Kubrick first tried to read whilst filming his Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). He’d been given a copy by co-screenwriter Terry Southern, who thought the book shared a similar darkly satirical edge and dystopian humour. Apparently, Kubrick couldn’t get past the linguistic fireworks of Nadsat, the made-up patois of the teenage Droogs, which is a combination of phonetic Russian and Cockney rhyming slang. I have to admit, this is what has stopped me from getting through the book on several attempts!
Shortly after Kubrick’s planned biopic of Napoleon fell apart, he heard that a film version of A Clockwork Orange was already in development and became interested in the book again. Ken Russell was in the running to direct and the casting of Mick Jagger as Alex, with the other Rolling Stones as his gang, was being tentatively discussed. When Kubrick stepped in, he did so on the condition that Malcolm McDowell take the lead role as Alex DeLarge. He saw strong parallels in the character McDowell had just played in Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) which, like A Clockwork Orange, is a satirical indictment of the British class system, themed around the frustrations of youth manifesting in violence. By then, Kubrick’s negative opinion of the book had changed to admiration, and he kept his screenplay so close to the original that he encouraged the cast to refer to the novel to learn their lines rather than his script. The only significant difference is that Alex and his Droogs are teenagers in the book and, though Kubrick has described Malcolm McDowell’s looks as “ageless,” he and his gang were no longer teens.
Kubrick kept the Nadsat language, and it works so much better as spoken dialogue than on the page. He also tried to echo the literary style of Burgess by using methods to compress and extend perceptions of time. Scenes are presented in slow-motion, often to heighten the impact of violent moments—a technique already well-used in action films to ‘glorify’ violence as a form of exciting entertainment. Other scenes are speeded up, notably a sex scene—he claims this was to avoid it being viewed as pornography and to add a touch of visual humour. He also used some super wide-angle lenses to give some scenes a distorted, unreal sense or to express the moral disassociation of Alex.
The film is visually arresting throughout but never really settles down into a cohesive style. One minute you feel like you’re watching a docudrama, verging on social realism, the next you’re assaulted by baroque visuals verging on the grotesque… then something comedic jumps at you, but before you can laugh a punchy sequence of expressionistic violence slaps you in the face. But this visual concoction works to some extent and the abrupt changes in pace and tone prefigure the punk aesthetic of the late-1970s.
It was the first film for Milena Canonero as costume designer, who was invaluable for creating the quirky iconic look. I mean, what image springs to mind when you recall the film? It’s probably either a close-up of Malcolm McDowell with his eyes clamped open, or with his gang of Droogs in their white overalls and bowler hats, maybe wearing that infamous Pinocchio-nose mask? Simple yet effective costumes. Canonero went on to win her first Oscar for costumes with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and later worked with him again on The Shining (1980).
Production Designer John Barry contributed much to the memorable imagery, including the stark ‘Korova Milk Bar’ set with its white ‘tables’ in the suggestive forms of nude female figures. His production design for A Clockwork Orange is strikingly original throughout, and there’s some resonance between shots of Alex and his Droogs marching along the urban underpass and the scenes of white-clad stormtroopers trotting along corridors in Star Wars (1977) for which Barry and his production team won an Academy Award.
Many of the sets and locations are crammed with Modern Art. The eroticised furnishings of the Milk Bar are direct pastiches of the work of artist Alan Jones, who Kubrick had approached to design the entire set. He neglected to offer a fee, expecting Jones to contribute his art simply for the kudos of it appearing in a Stanley Kubrick production. Jones turned him down, of course.
The phallic sculpture used to murder the ‘catlady’ was a piece by Herman Makkink titled Rocking Machine (1969). A large print of one of Marcel Duchamp’s 1935 Rotoreliefs is the canopy for the record booth where Alex picks up two girls for some speeded-up sex. The Alexander house is a recognisable piece of modernist architecture, designed by Norman Foster’s Team 4. Kubrick is certainly making some sort of comment about Modern Art.
Kubrick saw filmmaking as part of the Modern movement, but he derided most of the post-modern art of the ’60s for being too involved with expressing the individuality of the artist and thus devaluing its broader cultural significance. The prominent use of classical Ludwig Van Beethoven music symbolises what he thought of as true ‘art’—created from the inspired vision of an individual, yet awe-inspiring to the many. (Busts of Beethoven crop up throughout the film and I think there is a drinking game to do with how many you can spot.)
In the divisionist society of A Clockwork Orange, it seems that the elite own art as a badge of good taste and social standing, but in doing so seek to express their own individuality by appropriating that of others. This becomes the central topic of the film’s discourse. The elite desire the products of individuality, but only the individuality that suites their taste.
The cast turn in some terrific performances, particularly McDowell. The film just wouldn’t have worked with any other actor in the lead (especially Mick Jagger). The part could easily have become a caricature, a mere symbol of angry youth, but McDowell managed to keep Alex visible through the signature overalls, bowler hat and cane. Even when he is robbed of his individuality by experimental aversion therapy, the Ludovico technique, McDowell maintains a depth of character.
By today’s standards it’s still strong stuff. The powerful scene where Alex and his gang terrorise Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri) in their home is particularly difficult to watch. Their very real helplessness in the face of unreasoning, detached brutality is expressed through physical acting along with some clever wide-angle distortions. The close-up of Magee’s expressive face against the floor, his eyes wide and mouth taped as he watches his wife being raped, is one of the most disquieting images and stays with you long after the film is over.
Kubrick had directed McDowell to do something suitably outrageous and so he improvised by changing his attack to a sort of violent song-and-dance, singing the song “Singing in the Rain” and timing his kicks as if they were dance steps. McDowell later explained he played the scene as if Alex was in a state of violence-driven euphoria and thought that the song summed up such emotion perfectly.
The juxtaposing of flippant brutality, humour, satire, and horror give the film its distinctly uncomfortable character. To some extent this is effective, but I find it also creates a barrier to fully engaging with the film. I was never absorbed by A Clockwork Orange in the same way as I was by 2001. The constant jarring of styles keeps things lively and interesting, but also constantly reminds you that you are watching a film.
Perhaps this was Kubrick’s intention, to keep the violence from getting too intense, but, after several viewings I’m never sure what I’m watching. Is it an unfunny comedy? A serious satire? Maybe a flippant social commentary? Or camp sci-fi?
One thing it isn’t is boring, but I can’t help thinking it may not be as good as I want it to be. It has certainly benefitted from Kubrick’s self-imposed ban, which turned its notoriety into a pop culture legend. A cult grew up around it in the UK, but it doesn’t evoke the same reverence in other countries where it wasn’t withdrawn from distribution. It may be one of Kubrick’s more interesting films, but I don’t think it’s his best.
Blu-ray Special Features:
The new Blu-ray edition from Warner Bros. presents A Clockwork Orange in 1080p HD, which is very nice and clear and far removed from the dodgy pirate copies of the ’80s and ’90s! There are loads of extras, so many that they spread onto a second disc with two feature length documentaries. Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures is a biography of the director, made as a tribute in 2001. It runs 140-minutes during which an impressive host of cinema luminaries queue up to heap praise on Kubrick and his works. The other feature is Oh, Lucky Malcolm, a 2006 profile of Malcolm McDowell that reminds us just how versatile and accomplished his acting career has been. He’s as much a ‘national treasure’ as Dame Judy Dench. McDowell also provides the insightful commentary for A Clockwork Orange, joined by film historian Nick Redman, which is really worth a listen. There’s also a 45-minute documentary discussing the re-emergence of the film after its 30-year exile, a ‘making of’ featurette, and another discussing the film’s cultural impact and legacy of ultra-violence.
Interessovated in the sinny and want a better pony?
Why not kupet’n’vidi this?
Tis proper horrorshow.
Cast & Crew
director: Stanley Kubrick.
writer: Stanley Kubrick (based on the novel by Anthony Burgess).
starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri & Miriam Karlin.