By John H. Foote
Of the films Stanley Kubrick directed and wrote or co-wrote, none is more powerful or filled with the genius of A Clockwork Orange. Made in 1971, forty-eight years old, set in a dystopian future, the film still feels fresh, its future stills look like a possibility. It was an extraordinary vision when it premiered in 1971, and to this day remains as brilliant as it was opening day. Time has eroded none of its visceral power, and time chips away at film quickly, taking away the edge that made the picture great in the first place.
Though forty eight years old, time has only improved this film, as it seems new, it’s themes still relevant, its look still futuristic. We could be living in the future Kubrick depicts, the time of Trump certainly feels like it, as human beings care less for one another and appear to feel less.
Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of his Droogs, a quartet of young criminals who roam the night causing chaos and mayhem. They steal, they intimidate and maim anyone in their path, play a dangerous game of chicken with the car’s they steal, and go to war with similar gangs. Speaking a futuristic slang which merges English with Russian with a created language for the film, initially, the viewer is challenged by will quickly adapt and fall under the spell of this language. It falls beautifully off the tongue of Alex, a fearsome young man, a complete psychopath, and sociopath, still living at home with his parents. On one of their excursions, they arrive at the home of a writer and his comely wife, bursting in on their solitude to wreak havoc. Beating the older man, they rape his wife in front of him, Alex all the while crooning Singin’ in the Rain, making that glorious song infamous for all the wrong reasons. Punctuating each stanza with a kick, a punch or striking them with his stick, what Alex and his Droogs do is monstrous, but I defy you to look away.
The next night after making his leadership status known, fighting his Droogs, wounding them, he accepts their idea to rob a woman said to be wealthy. Living with countless cats, Alex gets in and taunts her with a piece of art, a huge penis complete with scrotum and testicles. He wields the art like a weapon eventually killing her, bashing her in the face with this art. Betrayed by his treacherous Droogs, the police pick him up and he is sent to jail for murder.
A model prisoner, he is chosen for a new treatment funded by the government that will cure him of his violent ways. For days he is shown images of violence, his eyes held open, he is unable to look away and the images make him physically ill. What Alex does not count on is that the music played under these images, Beethoven will also make him sick. Having adored “Ludwig Von” in his previous criminal life, how will he function without that music in his world?
Seemingly cursed by the treatment he now becomes ill when he thinks of violence, of rape, of doing harm to anyone. The question is raised about choice, Alex has been robbed of his ability to choose. Yet supposedly cured, he is released back into the world, rehabilitated. He returns home to find his room given to a lodger, his parents fearful of their son. In the streets, he is recognized by an old drunk he beat and is himself beaten by the homeless, who rise like ghouls in the night. Saved by the police, he is horrified to see they are his former Droogs, now upholding the law, but empowered by the badge beat and torment Alex, leaving him to crawl for help.
Ironically the home he goes too is the home of the old writer he beat while raping his wife. Now in a wheelchair, his wife dead, the old man does not, at first recognize Alex and welcomes him into his home.
But while bathing, soothing his wounds in a hot tub, Alex begins to hum, then sing a song, the tune gaining in volume as he gets further into it. Outside the door, the old writer is left raging in horror, listening to Alex croon Singin’ in the Rain.
Torturing Alex with the music of Beethoven, hoping to drive the young man insane, huge speakers pump Beethoven into the room where Alex is being held, prisoner. Unable to deal with the torture Alex leaps out a window hoping for death but instead breaks every bone in his body. Left to heal in complete body casts, the government makes him a celebrity, but fail to recognize the fall snapped him back to the monster he once was. His last image is of Alex again raping, beating, creating mayhem. Oh, he was cured all right.
The performance of the magnificent Malcolm MacDowell is, was, one for the ages, he is both charismatic and repellant, an absolute joyful monster. MacDowell seems to float through the air in the film, his movements are smooth, like a dancer’s. There is a startling, bold confidence to his performance that is near miraculous to experience. Incredibly he was not among the nominees for Best Actor at the Academy Awards that year, a shock considering the bold performance the actor gave.
From that cold, baleful stare, so full of hate which opens the film, through to the near jaunty movements the actor employs in the film, he embodies Alex with a ferocity that is intensely startling. He feels like a spring coil wound so tight he might pop at any time, and we bear witness to what takes place when Alex pops. Yet amidst the sociopathic behaviour is a profound adoration for the music of Beethoven, who he refers to as “lovely Ludwig Von.” Alex becomes a tragic victim when even Beethoven is taken from him, triggering sickness when he hears that glorious music. MacDowells’ eyes brightly dance with mischief, evil thoughts, challenging anyone who dares challenge him to even meet his gaze. Alex though charismatic, charming, and likable is a monster, and no secret is made of that fact.
Kubrick made the fight scenes in the film almost balletic, something Jerome Robbins did with West Side Story (1961) though nowhere near to this extent. Bodies soar through the air during the fight with Billy Boy, they crash into one another all with the beauty and grace of dance. Though we know horrific violence is being done, we cannot take our eyes off the sequence.
The major theme within the film is one popular in Kubrick films, the dehumanizations Of human beings and their society. The England of the future depicted here, is overrun with crime and criminal acts, but is it a greater crime to take away Alex’s choice, his ability to possess a choice over his actions? After the government treatment he is organic on the outside, but a robot underneath, a true clockwork orange. Kubrick asks the difficult question is it immoral to treat immorality with what amounts to torture? Are the doctors treating Alex any better than he is, knowing the long term effects of their treatments?
What remains absolutely astonishing about the film is that the futuristic society depicted in the film still seems likely, even probable. Nothing in the film is out of the realm of possibility, which for any film set in the future is an enormous accomplishment.
When the great work of Kubrick is discussed, I find that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is the film widely considered his greatest. For me, A Clockwork Orange remains his masterpiece and among the greatest films of both the decade and all time. He dared, he challenged his audience, he invited them to experience his film, not just see it.
Rated X in America when first released, due to the sexuality, violence, and cruelty within, and the film was banned outright in England until 1999, shortly after the Director’s sudden death.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Film Editing, along with three Golden Globe nominations, and a Directors Guild Of America nomination as Best Director. Yes, the film and Kubrick should have won, no question, but hindsight is always 20/20. An absolute work of astonishing imagination and searing power. A black comedy as dark as it gets, and as a dramatic work a force of nature. Once seen it cannot be forgotten.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”