Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick
136 mins. Rated R.
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Picture
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Director
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Film Editing
IMDb Top 250: #103 (as of 9/30/2020)
I remember where I was when I first watched A Clockwork Orange. I was a teenager, jammed into my bedroom back home with two buddies. We had rented the DVD (my local video store had a 5-5-5 deal, 5 Movies, 5 Days, 5 Bucks) along with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and we planned for a midnight double-feature. I was eating a 3-foot gummy snake that would give me a rough stomach ache the next morning. As we settled in for A Clockwork Orange (my memory is a little hazy on this, but I believe we chose Clockwork first), I didn’t know what to expect. Both films were ones I knew little to nothing about, and that’s usually the way I like it. No research, just experience. I recently looked back on A Clockwork Orange, it being a film I haven’t watched in years, and I elected to dive back in, see if my initial thoughts on the film have changed and what, if anything, I was able to pull from it this time around.
A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek: Generations, Bombshell), a deviant youth who spends his nights robbing, assaulting, harassing, and of course, drinking some delicious milk at the milk bars. Alex and his droogs are fans of all sorts of malicious mayhem, and Alex being the leader, he gets to have the most fun with displaying the “artistry” of his violent psyche. When he is caught by police, though, Alex is sent to prison for one of his more horrific deeds. There, he is given the opportunity for a strange and unorthodox method of treatment, said to fix his criminal ways, called the Ludovico technique. This possible treatment method could get Alex out of prison years ahead of schedule, so he elects to try it. Now, Alex has become a pawn in the rehabilitation process, one that may fundamentally alter his perception forever.
I still remember watching this film for the first time. I was in awe. As I took the occasional bite of the 3-foot gummy snake, I was entrance with what I was seeing. Certainly, at this point of my youth, I’d never seen anything like A Clockwork Orange. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I’ve seen anything similar. After that viewing, it had become clear that this was my favorite Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon) film, as it was the only one I didn’t initially hate (I had this rhythm with Kubrick where I hated his films on first watch only to rediscover them later and love them). Looking back on it now, I cannot say that it is still my favorite Kubrick film, but it feels the most unhinged and wild of his pictures, one that imprints itself onto the mind and stays there.
Malcolm McDowell’s take on Alex is so memorably menacing. It’s neither the way he speaks nor the horrible deeds he commits. Instead, it’s the way he derives joy from these acts, the way he views them. He is our narrator so we spend the film in his head, and we see that this violence, this debauchery, is merely his art, much in the way that music was Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He gets glee from the pain and mistreatment of others, singing Gene Kelly musical numbers while he inflicts physical harm on his victims. He’s the kind of young man who would enjoy kicking a puppy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s not a likable protagonist, but he is an interesting one, and I was fascinated in what would happen to him, how he would be changed by his arrest, incarceration, and “treatment.”
The film has a perfect three-act structure, one aided by intelligent and thoughtful filming techniques. Each of the three acts is easily separated from the others by unique choices in framing, lighting, and sound. Early on, there’s a menace to the filming techniques, but when we arrive in the prison with Alex, we get a colder, less-colorful world, and then there’s what comes after, something I’ll avoid getting into as you’ll want to see it for yourself.
There are themes abound in Clockwork, and so many of them resonated with me back then, in the basement, on a cheap projector, with two late-night friends, and they resonate all the more with me now. The way Kubrick showcases behavior conditioning and criminal reform is disturbing, and I think it’s great that Kubrick never feels like he is shoving his opinions down our throats here. In fact, he sort of feels like a curious child asking questions and letting us formulate our answers. I also really like the priest questioning Alex’s choice and free will in choosing to do good. He asks whether we’re really good if we’re conditioned to be afraid of being bad and how that loss of free will loses humanity as well. This question has been asked many times before, but not in this way, and rarely this effectively.
One wonders how A Clockwork Orange would have looked if made with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones as the droogs (which is how it originally would have been when Jagger owned the rights to the novel), but what we have is astounding nonetheless. It’s neither an easy film to watch but it is a wholly effective experience unlike any other. That’s what many of us search for in film, the unique experience, and Clockwork gives that in abundance. If you’re looking for a messed-up movie for your messed-up mind, give A Clockwork Orange a try.
-Kyle A. Goethe
- For my review of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, click here.