A Clockwork Orange (1971) – A Retrospective

a-clockwork_orange-posterMalcolm McDowell discusses Kubrick’s scathing film version of the Anthony Burgess novel.

Producer-director Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel is a strangely overwhelming experience–at time contemptible, and yet always valid in its sardonic outlook. We`re forced to identify with a young, violent droog, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) as he rapes, brutalizes, and murders; after an experimental treatment conditions him to become violently ill at the mere thought of sex or violence, his karma is leveled as, one by one, those he wronged have their chance at revenge. The sick joke of the movie is that everyone else, indeed the very state itself, is as morally corrupt as our `friend and humble narrator.` Burgess`s point was that destroying someone`s free will, his ability to make moral choices, was as immoral as anything Alex did; in the novel (at least in England, where its last chapter was not shorn off), Alex eventually outgrows his youthful penchant for violence and finds himself aware of a desire to settle down. For Kubrick, life moves in cycles, endlessly repeating; thus the film ends with Alex returned to his previous state, presumably ready to embark on another spree as soon as he`s released from hospital (`I was cured all right`). A cynical film, without redeeming characters, and yet it makes its point.
This X-rated item came out during that brief period when Hollywood was not afraid of releasing a movie for an adults-only audience. Shortly thereafter, controversy in Great Britain caused Kubrick to withdraw the film from re-release, and the prints in America were slightly re-edited to garner an R-rating. Fortunately, the original cut was reinstated in 1995 for a midnight movie re-release in the States (this is the version now on the DVD), and the film finally was allowed to officially screen in England again in the year 2000 (there had been underground screenings from time to time).
CLOCKWORK ORANGE has maintained a perennial popularity on the revival house circuit, even in these days of home video, laserdiscs, and DVD. Something about the exploits of the amoral anti-hero have a continuing appeal, perhaps most strongly to teenage boys when they first reach the age when they can see the film. The “ultra-violence” of the first half hour is enough to galvanize those adolescent hormones to frightening levels.

Based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, the story follows Alex as he inflicts violence on helpless victims with the help of his gang (known as “droogs”), then finds himself arrested and subjected to a form of psychological violence that (the film suggests) is at least as reprehensible as anything he himself committed. One of the film’s ghastliest moments comes not from violence but from Alex’s realization that the technique used to curb his violent impulses is also conditioning him to become ill when he hears his favorite music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. His tortured howl (“It’s a sin!”) is one of the film’s most moving moments, a clear condemnation that the government’s doctors have no right to be doing what they’re doing, no matter what crimes Alex has committed.
This sociological argument (that the government is wrong to use conditioning techniques to deprive a convicted criminal of free will, even if that will was used mostly to commit violence) has led some critics to argue that the film endorses Alex’s behavior (in much the same way that later critics accuse SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and HANNIBAL of glorifying Hannibal Lecter). Kubrick himself once corrected this misperception (back in the old days, when he gave interviews) by pointing out that old Hollywood Westerns used to portray a lynching as evil because an innocent character would be wrongly hanged. In Kubrick’s view, a lynching was immoral even if the character was guilty, and in CLOCKWOR ORANGE he set out to make a similar point, with a character who could not be considered an innocent victim.
Seen today, the film’s X-rated violence pales somewhat when compared to the carnage on view in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but the satirical sting remains intact, and the film holds up well. In fact, rather than looking dated, this dark vision of the future now seems far too contemporary, as if taking place in some skewed parallel universe where typewriters and vinyl records still proliferate. The black humor may occasionally seem condescending, but McDowell’s subversive performance, slyly engaging our sympathies against all our better judgment, holds the whole saga together.


The films was based on a controversial novel, which remains a remarkable achievement in its own right. “It is a brilliant piece of work by Anthony Burgess,” says actor Malcolm McDowell, who credits much of the success of the film adaptation to the author “because they’re his words. It’s Stanley’s vision, but it’s also Burgess’s vision. He was a brilliant man, and I think honestly this is his masterpiece of his canon of books.”
Much of the novel’s effectiveness comes from the author’s use of language. Narrated by Alex in the first person, the text is written entirely in “Nadsat,” a sort of futuristic dialect that requires the reader to pick up the meaning of words like “millicents” (police) and “rookerful” (handful) from the context “Nadsat,” This can present initial difficulties for impatient readers, until the gradual process of assimilation begins to make the meaning clear.
One of the chief differences between the book and the film is a matter of the difference between the written and filmed medium, which replaced Burgess’s subjective pen with Kubrick’s more objective lens. Nevertheless, first-person feel of the book survives, thanks to the voice over narration provided by Alex, which includes many of the odd colloquial expressions from the book. McDowell says that these tongue-twisting lines of dialogue and narration formed no great challenge for him, thanks to his stage training.

Malcolm McDowell as Alex

“That was actually easy to do, because I had been to the Royal Shakespeare company,” he explains, implying the speaking Shakespeare’s older version of English prepared him for speaking a new version of the language. “Really, the image in my head for this part was Laurence Olivier’s Richard the III, initially. That’s immediately what I thought of—this wonderfully arch character that Olivier had created, one of the most memorable performances, especially to an English schoolboy. As I had been with the Shakespeare company, this language thing was no problem—you just go for it with a lot of confidence.”
Regarding the futuristic look of the film, McDowell confirmed the stories that most of it was created with available locations, dressed up by production designer John Barry (no relation to the James Bond film composer). “I think we built only one set, which was the Korova milk bar. All the rest was location—as close to Stanley’s house as possible, because he hated to leave home. When he did have to shoot location, you wanted to beat him out of location, because he’d get in this Mercedes and do like five miles an hour. On those little windy roads in England, there was a huge traffic jam behind him—it was all the crew trying to get home! So you knew, Stanley must be in front!”
In the 1970s, Kubrick gave an interview in which he talked about what he called the “Crucial Rehearsal Period,” the time spent with the actors before shooting, when he and the cast would try to extract everything possible from a scene. Often, this CRP would result in additional ad-libbed bits of business being added to scenes. Such was the case with several memorable moments from CLOCKWORK ORANGE, including one of the more horrific. During the home-invasion- scene, in which Alex and his droogs beat a writer (Patrick Magee) and rape his wife (Adrienne Corri), Alex breaks into a song-and-dance routine, warbling “Singing in the Rain” while delivering a vicious kick to the prostrate writer at the end of every line. McDowell recalls that the routine “came from an ad lib, because we came to do the scene of the rape, and it was rather feebly written.” The story goes that, after McDowell delivered his rendition for the camera, Kubrick immediately called the Warner executives to secure the rights to use the song in the film.
When first released in 197a, the film was given an X-rating by the Motion Picture Association of America; it was recut to earn an R for its re-release in 1973. Although the home invasion scene seems truncated, suggesting that’s where the cuts took place, most of the editing took place in the scene where Alex is psychologically conditioned to abhor violence by being forced to watch violent films after being given an injection that makes him feel physically ill. Ironically, in the context of the story, the violent imagery is not supposed to be “real”; it’s supposed to have been staged for the camera as part of the treatment.
The title of the film is something of an anachronism, in that it is retained from the book, but the meaning is not—or at least, it goes unexplained, and viewers have to infer that it suggests the psychological treatment that leaves Alex looking like an organic human on the outside, but with his behavior mechanistically determined. In effect, he’s a “clockwork” being, no longer a person capable of exercising free will and making moral decisions.
According to McDowell, the term is one that author Anthony Burgess “heard in a pub in the East End of London, where the saying is ‘as queer as a clockwork orange,’ meaning ‘he’s an odd fellow.’ It’s interesting, because I spent a week with Anthony Burgess in New York, and he told me all the stories about what everything meant. It’s an interesting story, because Burgess was told by a Welsh doctor that he had a terminal illness—god knows what it was—and he would be dead in nine months. Now he had a youngish wife and two young kids, I think. He thought, ‘My god, I’m going to be dead in nine months; I better start writing to leave them a legacy and leave them some money.’ He wrote five novels in that nine months, one of which was CLOCKWORK ORANGE. He used different names, pseudonyms, because he couldn’t put out five novels with his name on them—that’s flooding the market. So he put these novels out under different names, and as it so happened he was the literary critic for the Yorkshire Post.” McDowell pauses, savoring the punch line. “You know where I’m going with this! Glowing reviews! [The Post] found out, and he was fired. He outlived the Welsh doctor by thirty years.”
When originally released in England, the novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE contained twenty-one chapters, but only twenty survived when the book was released in America. It is this version of the story which Kubrick filmed, omitting the final, twenty-first chapter in which Alex finds himself “cured” and back on the streets, trying to recreate his former life as a violence-loving droog. A strange, and completely unexpected, transformation occurs: Alex matures. He’s no longer a young man with the energy and appetite for ultra-violence; he finds himself with new desires, yearning to get married, settle down, and have children. By dropping this redemption, the film cynically implies that the story has come full circle, with Alex ready to launch into a new series of assaults on society. Burgess would later object to this interpretation of the film (on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW, for example), and eventually the last chapter of the novel saw publication in the U.S. courtesy of ROLLING STONE magazine, finally giving American readers a chance to decide for themselves which was the better ending.
STAR WARS fans take note: the bodyguard-assistant-strongman in the later scenes with Patrick Magee is played by David Prowse, who would go on to wear the Darth Vader costume in the original STAR WARS trilogy.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). Produced & directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, Adrienne Corri, Aubrey Morris, David Prowse.