Still circulating in Europe and America but withdrawn from British distribution by Kubrick in 1973, within a year of its first release, A Clockwork Orange currently remains a paradoxical testament to the manipulative obsessions of its director. On the one hand, Kubrick has taken to extremes his habitual attention to every detail of the shaping and presentation of his work by, in this instance, deciding not to let it be shown at all. On the other, the "suppressed" film has validated its own theme by refusing to be manipulated out of existence; instead, its notoriety has served only to enhance its creator's reputation despite his change of heart, thanks to the seductive skill and extraordinary impact with which his tale is told. That it is his tale, although phrased in the appealingly hybrid language devised by Anthony Burgess (who in 1962 based his brutally comical novel on a real-life incident of 20 years earlier), is obvious from the parallels in structure, emphasis and technique with all Kubrick's other dramas, from Day of the Fight in which arenas and split personalities find an uncanny preface, to Full Metal Jacket in which, once again, conditioned killers pursue the excesses of a fiercely private war.
The setting for A Clockwork Orange is Britain in the near future – "just as soon as you could imagine it, but not too far ahead – it's just not today, that's all" – when teenage thug Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) enjoys a daily routine of crime, sex, and Beethoven. Caught and imprisoned for murder, he volunteers for experimental shock therapy available as a government scheme to reduce prison overcrowding, which brainwashes him so effectively that he becomes in his turn a helpless victim incapable of defending himself and nauseated by all his former passions. Trapped by the deranged writer Mr. Alexander, once attacked by Alex and now intent on revenge (and author, we learn, of a book called A Clockwork Orange), he is driven to attempt suicide after an overdose of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The popular press rushes to his support, and the government hastily agrees to reverse the "rehabilitation" treatment. Like the astronaut of 2001, Alex is reborn ("I came back to life after black, black night for what might have been a million years") and, restored to rude health, prepares to make up for lost time.
Boisterous, intimate, explicit and gaudy, Kubrick's forecast owes nothing to the high-tech elegance of 2001, his other speculative trend-setter, except for the same scrupulous perfectionism. The costumes by Milena Canonero and the set designs by John Barry are a spectacularly lurid blend of transient fashion, stockbroker-belt kitsch, clownish irony and plundered grandeur, as if the palatial vaults of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining had been taken over for an acid-house boutique. The effect is more pantomime than prophecy, but it defines with hilarious clarity a society of fevered excess where the older generation clings listlessly to a dismal past while the present is ruthlessly pillaged by the young. Art has been reduced to tepid pornography, with sculpted nudes as furniture in the "milk-bars" (where drinks are automatically spiced with drugs) and erotic images as commonplace domestic wallpaper, while music has become mechanical and formulaic, even the classics (beautifully rearranged by Walter Carlos) converted to a remorseless clockwork rhythm.
In this weary, decaying environment, physicality offers the only reliable truth. With joyful energy, Clockwork Orange presents a torrential, dancing flow of movement, celebrating the simplicity of brute strength. A superb fight sequence quickly establishes the mood: in a derelict opera house lit by huge shafts of light across its rubbish-strewn floor, two gangs confront each other gleefully and plunge into a ballet of dazzling violence, hurling each other through furniture and windows with slapstick enthusiasm. Urged on by, and often synchronised with, Rossini's thunderous "Thieving Magpie," their exhilaration then bursts out into a headlong chase aboard the stolen Durango-95, scattering other traffic in wild panic and yelling with the sheer ecstasy of speed. Alex's night-ride recalls the toppling "Star Gate" sequence of 2001, the rush through the hotel corridors in The Shining, or more subtly the long journeys of Lolita and Barry Lyndon and the flight of the nuclear bomber in Dr. Strangelove. These anguished, self-defeating but inescapable odysseys, shaped from Kubrick's perpetually prowling camera, continue into the final image of Full Metal Jacket – a defiant advance into darkness by spirits who know the worst and no longer fear it.
Repeatedly, Kubrick opens his scenes with immense tracking shots, like the low-angle spin around the record-shop just ahead of Alex on the hunt, or the triumphant sweep through the wards with the psychiatrist and her trolley of equipment. Scenes of urgency and impending disaster are filmed with a hand-held camera (held by the director himself): Alex's fight with the cat-lady, a struggle in torrential rain, a march towards retribution in muddy woodland. And more than anywhere else in his work, Kubrick uses subjective shots, identifying us with Alex so that we too are crushed to the floor, lie powerless in hospital, or, most unsettling of all, fall in despair from a window to be smashed on the pavement below. This emphasis ensures that Alex has our sympathy despite the extremes of his behaviour, that he remains the misunderstood sufferer from social injustice ready to accumulate a further load of misunderstanding as soon as the opportunity arises.
"The story can be taken on two levels," said Kubrick before the film opened: "as a sociological treatment of whether behavioural psychology will lead to evils on the part of a totalitarian government (which I think is the less important level), or as a kind of psychological fairy-tale. And I don't frankly believe that audiences in general will see Clockwork Orange other than as a fairy-tale, which it also resembles in its symmetry, with each character encountered again at the end. There's a lot of hypocrisy about what the human personality really is: the Id may be largely suppressed by the super-Ego but it's with us just the same – and it identifies with Alex all the time. This darker side of our subconscious finds release in Alex: he makes nothing out to be better than it is, he's completely honest. How can we not sympathise with him?" Soon on the defensive, his film accused of inspiring new waves of delinquency (with about as much logic as if Full Metal Jacket were interpreted as an army recruitment exercise), the director with characteristic discretion has temporarily retired Alex as best he can from public gaze. But he compiled a portrait too potent to be forgotten: Alex's tortured face, enfolded in straps and wires, his eyelids held open by pitiless clamps, is one of the most haunting and vital apparitions the cinema will ever have to offer.
Release Date: 1971
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clark, John Clive, Adrienne Corri, Carl Duering, Paul Farrell, Clive Francis, Michael Gover, Miriam Karlin, James Marcus, Aubrey Morris, Godfrey Quigley, Sheila Raynor, Madge Ryan, John Savident, Anthony Sharp, Philip Stone, Pauline Taylor, Margaret Tyzack, Steven Berkoff, Lindsay Campbell, Michael Tarn, David Prowse, Barrie Cookson, Jan Adair, Gaye Brown, Peter Burton, John J. Carney, Vivienne Chandler, Richard Connaught, Prudence Drage, Carol Drinkwater, Lee Fox, Cheryl Grunwald, Gilliam Hills, Craig Hunter, Shirley Jaffe, Virginia Wetherell, Neil Wilson, and Katya Wyeth
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick
Source Citation: Strick, Philip. "A Clockwork Orange." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 254-257.