By John H. Foote
6. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
To be clear, Warner Brothers, an American company, produced and distributed this film as they would all the films directed by Stanley Kubrick until his final work, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). That is why the movie is included here in the seventies, because it is at its heart an American film.
The greatest praise one can give A Clockwork Orange, and there is much praise to be given, is that today, in 2020, this dystopian tale released in 1971 still feels like a futuristic film, still seems probable, and has not dated a single second. No year within the film is ever given, meaning we could be looking ever farther into the future, past 2020. How many science fiction films from the seventies can we say that about? The answer is very few. Go further, how many films from the seventies still possess the urgency of this film, again, the best of them are on this list, so of the thousands of films made in the years spanning 1970-79, very few films have the lasting power of this one.
Like all of Kubrick’s best work, this movie has a perversity that is alarming, slamming home the significance of the actions on screen, perhaps bringing forth laughter that is quickly erased by a realization of mounting horror. A Clockwork Orange is as much a horror film, a cautionary tale, a dark fantasy as it is a science fiction film, and frankly I consider this to be the greatest film he ever made, a bold statement considering the body of his work. I feel shame I could not include Barry Lyndon (1975) on this list but simply could not find a film I could replace with another. It was agonizing watching Barry Lyndon again and realizing it would not make my top 30, ending up at 37. In a week, I might think differently, who knows, but Barry Lyndon remains his most exquisitely beautiful film, his most patient, his most stunning visual work. However, to be fair, the seventies were filled with so many brilliant films I could not include them all.
A Clockwork Orange opens with the baleful stare of Alex (Malcolm MacDowell) the leader of a gang of Droogs, young men with no regard for the law, who spend their nights pillaging, robbing, and raping anyone they encounter. Sociopaths all, Alex has been in a great deal of trouble for a long time, the law knows him well, and even his underlings in the gang are growing tired of his antics. We see them first after stealing a car and playing a game called “hogs of the road” where they drive at enormous speeds, running other vehicles off the road, until they find a house they believe might bring them some fun and loot. Very quickly they are in, finding a beautiful woman of perhaps 40, but looking 25, and her husband, an older man, a writer, they quickly make their intentions known. The man is kicked to the ground and beaten while his wife becomes the object of Alex’s attentions. Both are beaten, and while the violence takes place Alex begins to sing, “Singin’ in the Rain” punctuating each stanza with a slap or a kick. A pair of scissors is produced and begins cutting the woman’s clothes off, leaving her naked. With his mask on he leans down to the prone man, a ball taped into the man’s mouth and makes clear what he is going to do, and then does it. Like a car wreck we know we should be looking away, but as Alex sings and dances, it becomes a scene of such perversity we simply cannot. And they do not stop with this one, oh no. After straightening the gang out when they complain, Alex beats them and cuts one badly, bringing them to heal. To soothe them he agrees to one of their plans to rob a woman who collects great art, living alone in her huge home with her cats. They surprise her as she is doing yoga, and she attempts to fight back, but is no match for Alex. She angers him when she lands a blow with a statue, hurting him and he crashes a giant penis down on her head, killing her. As he flees, one of his gang hits him in the head with a milk bottle, leaving him blinded (for the moment) and for the police.
Alex is arrested and goes to jail and tries to be a model citizen hoping to be released to get revenge on his brothers. Instead he is chosen for an experimental program in which he will be conditioned to react to confrontation, violence, sex, and rape in a very different way, unable to act. Sitting with his eyes held open he is shown images of horrible violence including Hitler, the concentration camps, and scenes of horrific violence. By the time they are finished, Alex is a new man. Any sort of argument makes him physically ill; he tries to touch and rape a naked woman and is ill, and when another man humiliates him, he can do nothing but cry and gag.
Determined to be cured he is released upon society where all his past deeds come back to haunt him. The old homeless drunk he beat recognizes him and brings his friends to beat Alex, and then the police who break up the fight are his former brothers, now officers of the law. They too beat him and take him into the country where they leave him to die. Instead he finds his way to a home he believes is familiar but cannot quite put his finger on it. We know it is the home of the couple he beat, the wife now dead, the man, a writer confined to a wheelchair. The gentle man takes Alex in and cares for him, feeds him and while Alex sits in a hot tub of water, he begins to sing “Singin’ in the Rain” giving himself away and driving the old fellow into a murderous rage. Knowing that the music of Beethoven, which Alex once was obsessed with, is among the things that drives him to illness, the old fellow locks Alex in his attic and pumps Beethoven’s music into the room with massive state of the art speakers. Just as he believes it will, the music drives Alex mad and he jumps out a window hoping for death. Somehow he lives, but every bone in his body is broken. The media has lashed out at the government for the treatment they gave Alex, and now they are convinced they must help him to quell the reaction against them. As he’s spoon fed, comically, he already knows what he is going to do, as his imagination runs wild with images of rape, pillaging and robbery. He was back.
One of the darkest mainstream releases of the seventies, only the New York Film Critics had the courage to honor the film with their Best Picture Award as well as Best Director for Kubrick. Controversially, the Academy nominated the film for four Academy Awards, Best Director and Best Picture among them, but it did not ever have a real chance at winning. The Academy was evolving, but never forget they gave Oliver! (1968) Best Picture over the extraordinary 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and were loath to change. Midnight Cowboy (1969) marked a huge step forward, the first X rated film to win, but there was not a chance A Clockwork Orange would win. Too dark, the character is vile, gets what he deserves but redemption comes into question when he is made what he was at the beginning, a villain. In addition, the frank nudity, language, violence and portrayal of all three would put off the still conservative Academy. That they even nominated the film was quite something for the group, a move forward in understanding the fast-changing cinema that had begun to explore topical urgent issues on film.
McDowell was not nominated for Best Actor, but he most certainly should have been. It is among the most iconic performances ever given, and the actor gave himself over to the hateful though jaunty Alex in every way. He never portrayed him as a villain, choosing instead to play as a bouncy, buoyant, happy go lucky, light on his feet young man who, if you met in daylight, you might like. Everything about him is cheerfully confident, even when challenged by his probation officer about missing school, even when challenged by his gang. But meet him after dark and he would find any reason to hurt you, rob you or even kill you. With wide snake eyes that followed you everywhere you went, Alex was clearly a predator always looking for his next prey. His walk through the music store results in meeting two young women who he takes home for sex, played in fast motion by Kubrick, which gives the scene a comical effect until you think about it. Contact with people, intimacy does not happen in real time to Alex, it is sped up because it means nothing but physical release for him. There is no real love making, it is sex, rutting, angry sex, nothing more. It is and remains a remarkable performance, bold, daring because Alex is repellant, yet McDowell portrays him as a boy next door, when in fact he is a monster.
Kubrick’s direction was equally assured and confident, as it always was. Every aspect of any Kubrick film is filled with detail, and little moments you might miss the first time. I have always said a Kubrick film must be experienced, not merely watched. Anyone can watch a film, but to experience it is to really see it. The violence within is near choreographed like ballet as the kicks and punches are landed, the leaps through the air resembling graceful dancers as they crash down on their victims. Watch Alex move, the manner in which he walks, with purpose, as though he knew exactly where he was going and precisely what he was going to do. The director gave the film an energy, and certainly the motion of the film was part of that energy, but most of what was drawn from his Alex, Malcolm MacDowell.
In the end what is the film saying?
A Clockwork Orange explores what happens when the family unit and social structure break down. As human beings our minds, our very conscience tell us what not to do, that what separates us from the animals, is always important. This is what happens when there is no sense of right or wrong, no conscience. Mankind becomes the beast.
The film was misunderstood when released. Malcolm MacDowell was so charismatic as Alex; audiences were cheering for him when in fact he was clearly the villain of the film. Only when the government took away his ability to choose, his choices, did he become the victim. Think back to that opening scene in the Korova Milk bar, the camera closing in on Alex as he raises his glass, subtly toasting the audience. He is saying to us “Welcome, you are in for one hell of a ride.”
And he was right.
More than 40 years later, very close to a half century, the timeless film retains all of its power. That terrific art direction that places the film in no specific time, the costumes which do the same, the editing which is perfectly in synch to the beat on the score, the slow motion, the long tracking shots which Kubrick became famous for using, and that infamous Kubrick stare, perverse, taunting that appears in nearly every one of his films. Challenging us, daring, intimidating us and in the right sequences, bathing us in terror. And it still looks brand new.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.