Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick based on the novel by Anthony Burgess.
Starring: Malcolm McDowell (Alex), Patrick Magee (Mr. Alexander), Michael Bates (Chief Guard), Warren Clarke (Dim), Adrienne Corri (Mrs. Alexander), Carl Duering (Dr. Brodsky), Michael Gover (Prison Governor), Miriam Karlin (Catlady), James Marcus (Georgie), Aubrey Morris (Deltoid), Godfrey Quigley (Prison Chaplain), Sheila Raynor (Mum), Madge Ryan (Dr. Branom), Philip Stone (Dad).
A Clockwork Orange is infamous for its controversial depiction of violence. Stanley Kubrick shoots the violence in the film with the same glee that the film’s protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) commits it. But Kubrick also frontloads the violence in the film so it’s almost all right near the beginning. Within the first five minutes, Alex and his “droogs” have beat up a homeless man – from there, Kubrick goes immediately to a rival gang on the verge of gang raping a young woman, which turns into a gang war with Alex and his gang, and then right from there Kubrick goes cuts to Alex and his gang driving recklessly down the street, running others off the road, and then goes immediately into the scene where Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain” as he beats up an old man, and then rapes his wife. All of this happens within the first 15 minutes of the film. Kubrick keeps going with the violence in the movie for another 15 minutes – the infamous fast forwarded threesome with Alex and two teenage girls, his fight with his own gang, and then the second home invasion – with the cat lady – when Alex plays with her phallic sculpture, and then attacks her – leaving her dead – and then he’s confronted by his gang, attacked and left for the cops to clean up. Within the first 30 minutes of a movie that runs well over 2 hours, Kubrick has had almost all of the graphic violence the film will contain – the violence from that point on is still there, but it’s shown much quicker – Kubrick doesn’t dwell on the violence later in the film, and doesn’t show it with the same glee that the violence in that first 30 minutes is show.
All of this is done on purpose. Kubrick wants to establish right off the bat what kind of person Alex is – Tasha Robinson, in her excellent essay from September, would refer to Alex as one of cinema’s “irredeemable protagonists” – a lead character who is rotten to the core and not only isn’t going to get better, but has no interest in getting better. Alex goes through a lot in last hour and forty-five minutes of A Clockwork Orange – but he remains precisely how he is. The reason Kubrick does this is because more than anything else, A Clockwork Orange is a film about free will. Like the old saying about free speech goes - `Freedom of speech means nothing without the freedom to offend`. The same is basically true of free will – it doesn’t mean anything if you cannot choose to do evil. Alex is an evil character to be sure –but he is a human being right up to the point where the government takes away his ability to choose to be good or evil – then he ceases to be human. Kubrick could very well have made movie with the same message that was easier to take – to make Alex a more likable character who had his free will taken away from him – but that would have been a much safer, much less interesting film – because how could anyone argue against an innocent person losing their free will. By arguing that someone as evil as Alex deserves the freedom to choose to be good or evil makes A Clockwork Orange a much more daring, much more memorable film.
A Clockwork Orange was an interesting choice for Kubrick coming off of 2001: A Space Odyssey – which is Kubrick’s most hopeful film, one that shows humanity place in the universe, and argues that we have room to grow as a species. To Kubrick, the history of humanity wasn’t the same view that religious people take – that looks at how far we have fallen from the Garden of Eden in paradise – but how far we have come from the time we were apes. A Clockwork Orange is probably the darkest film in Kubrick’s career – but is still keeping in line with his view. Like 2001, he creates an entire universe in A Clockwork Orange – and it’s one of the most memorable in film history. The film takes place in some sort of future dystopia – but Kubrick doesn’t spend any time telling us how humanity got to this point, or even really what this point is. There are some references to politics – and before Alex undergoes the treatment to cure him of his violent ways, it is mentioned that all the room in prison will soon be needed for political prisoners. What those prisoners’ crimes are is never mentioned – I think because Alex doesn’t really care. He never sees beyond his most immediate needs and wants – he doesn’t care about the world around him. Kubrick lets that world seep in around the edges – but only to a point.
The production design, the cinematography, the use of classical music and the costumes are all as well executed as they were in 2001 – Kubrick was a master at world building, but he keeps that in the background. We spend the entire movie with Alex – brilliantly played by Malcolm McDowell, who does nothing to make Alex likable – which strangely makes him all the more interesting. McDowell goes over the top from the beginning, and keeps it there – it’s a portrait of a youth who just doesn’t care as disturbing as anything we’ve seen in the movies. None of the other characters leave anywhere near the same impact as Alex – they come and go quickly – leaving as soon as Alex has no use for them.
The violence in the movie is strong and disturbing – but it’s the later scenes that are perhaps even more disturbing. Alex is used as a test subject for a new treatment – drug therapy combined with been strapped down and forced to watch violent movies, which eventually make him physically ill when he even contemplates violence. This is an abuse of government power to be sure – and something the audience would never except with a more innocent character. And that is what makes A Clockwork Orange so memorable – Kubrick makes you at least consider what the government is doing to Alex, and its benefits. Clearly society cannot function with people like Alex – who rape, kills, beat and rob whoever they want – but what are they supposed to do with them. You may well find yourself agreeing with the government – which when you consider the implications makes the film more disturbing.
I have probably seen A Clockwork Orange more times than any other Kubrick movie. It immediately draws you in, but leaves you shaken and disturbed. Many critics – like Roger Ebert – do not seem to be able to get over the violence, and do not much want to dig in much deeper to what Kubrick is doing in the film. That violence at the beginning of the film is strong and memorable – but it’s only the tip of the iceberg to what Kubrick is doing here. It needs to be that strong for Kubrick’s purposes. I understand if you don’t want to spend too much time with Alex – but you’re missing out if you don’t.