Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Based upon Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel, Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film of 'A Clockwork Orange' - 'Being the story of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven' as the advertising slogan went - is a biting political satire which caused a storm of controversy when released that still hasn't fully abated to this day. No doubt this is at least partially due to the fact that the film hasn't been seen in this country (pirate video wasn't withstanding) since it's original release; before allowing the film to be re-released after it's initial success the British censors demanded further outs (Kubrick had performed minor surgery on the original print.) , but Kubrick refused, withdrew the film, and hadn't allowed it to be seen.
The outcry that greeted the release of 'A Clockwork Orange', following so closely in the wake of Sam Peckinpah's equally controversial 'Straw Dogs', led to much analysis and comment from such diverse groups as psychiatrists and the clergy, as well as the usual critics. All of which detracted from the fact that the film is also very funny, albeit in the blackest sense; as Malcolm McDowell told ''Film Review' in 1975: "...'A Clockwork Orange' was an extremely fine social film, a black comedy. When we were making it, none of us realized the controversy it would create."
Fortunately, this hysterical (over) reaction from a narrow-minded minority couldn't prevent the film from becoming a deserved financial and critical success, gaining four Oscar nominations (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Editing) seven B.A.F.T.A. nominations and winning numerous awards. Including The New York Film Critics Award for Best Film and Best Director of 1971, the Italian David Donatello Award, the Belgian Film Critics Award, the German Spotlight Award and the Hugo Award for Best Science-Fiction Film of 1971; as well as being highly praised by Kubrick's contemporaries, such as Fellini, Bunuel and Kurosawa.
Still, the damage was done, and the wounds must have gone deep for Kubrick still to deny the film to British audiences in any form, be it screenings at the N.F.T., a video release (as it surely would have passed unscathed among the plethora of I spit on your driller killer experiment camp schlock that loaded the market in the early eighties), or a T.V. showing (so anyone who saw Mary Whitehouse on 'The Jimmy Young Television Program smugly declaring that" 'A Clockwork Orange ' will never be shown on British television” can take some solace in the fact that if this is the case it certainly won't be anything to do with Mary and her merry band of marauding moralists.) .
But oh my brothers, the bitter irony of our being denied access to a film whose central theme is freedom of choice. In keeping with Kubrick's desire to surprise and challenge his audience with each successive release, A Clockwork Orange' aptly follows ''2001: A Space Odyssey''; where '2001' takes us from the dawn of man to the heights of space travel (and beyond), 'A Clockwork Orange' returns us to earth with an unceremonious bump, revealing man's baser instincts and showing how little we've progressed from animal savagery (the shots of Alex wielding his stick against his recalcitrant droogs are very reminiscent of the ape in ''2001 A Space Oddysey'' first learning to use the bone as a weapon and they are both shot from the same low angle). Indeed, as ''2001'' finishes on the eyes of the astral foetus, so ''A Clockwork Orange'' opens on the menacing stare of Alex, and the tramp, bemoans the fact that there ar men on the moon and men spinning around the earth, and there's not no attention paid to earthly law nor order no more."
The film is a visual and aural treat, with many stunning scenes:The fight with Billyboy's gang, set in a derelict opera house and played out with theatrical exuberance to the thunderous tones of Rossini's The Thieving Magpie (with choreography to rival anything by Busby Berkley) ; the notorious rape scene, where Alex and his gang beat Hr Alexander and rape his wife, Alex merrily singing ''Singing in the Rain''; Alex undergoes the Ludovico Treatment, his head strapped to the back of his seat and his eyes damped open as he is forced to view scenes of terrible violence, all accompanied by his beloved Beethoven (the look of terror on Malcolm McDowell's face could well have been genuine as there was a very real danger of his eyeballs drying out if clamped open for too long!); and Alex's suicide leap, seen from a subjective viewpoint thanks to a sturdy Newman Sinclair clockwork mechanism camera. ..to name just a few.
All of this is enhanced by Stanley Kubrick's imaginative and inventive camera work: long tracking shots, hand held camera shots, slow-motion for the scene where Alex reasserts his authority over his droogs and quick-motion for the orgy scene which, to a background of the 'William Tell Overture', was Kubrick's way of satirizing the then current vogue of using slow-motion to give such scenes a pretension of art. And allied to masterly editing this produces a film that, despite being two hours and sixteen minutes long, is tighter and better paced than many ninety minute films.
Like any film adaptation of a novel, several changes have been made in transferring the story to the screen (a story which, incidentally, is semi-autobiographical as Burgess's first wife was beaten and raped, later to die of the injuries inflicted, by three deserting American G.I. 's during a blackout in World War Two - art reflecting life again and not vice versa, no matter how convenient it is for politicians, pressure groups and defense lawyers to claim so). Among the more notable changes are the discrepancies in age of many of the characters; Alex is fifteen in the book, but his age is unspecified in the film (although he does receive a visit from the school inspector). Conversely, the Cat lady is younger than in the book, perhaps because an older actress couldn't have participated so vigorously in the fight with Alex. In the book the 'weepy young devotothka (girl) about to be raped by Billyboy and his gang (played by Cheryl Grunwald, for those who wish to put a name to the face/body in that oft-printed picture) is only ten years old, as are the two ''ptitsas'' (chicks) in the orgy scene - this of course, would have posed insurmountable problems with the censors. Alex's induction into prison is extended, while the murder he commits there is forsaken (apparently for reasons of time); this murder lead to Alex being sent for the Ludovico Treatment, but in the film he boldly steps forward during a visit by the Minister in charge of the program, saving time and showing another facet of Alex's manipulative nature. The best known, and most audacious change is the aforementioned musical rape - something worked out almost by accident during rehearsals, when Kubrick asked McDowell if he could dance and McDowell launched into an improvised song-and-dance routine that was quickly refined into the form we see in the finished film (where it is given an added grotesque air with Dim intoning "Ready for love" over and over as Alex strips Mrs Alexander), This same song (Singing in the Rain) later betrays Alex to Mr Alexander when having taken him in upon his release from prison, he hears Alex singing it in the bath, again saving time and tightening up the narrative.
All these changes, as scripted by Kubrick himself, are worked to the film's advantage and, for once, a book and film of the same story complement each other as well as standing on their own merits - obviously a shared vision by Burgess and Kubrick.
Something that is retained from the book, virtually unchanged, is the dialogue and narration, especially the teenage dramatically intense speak of Alex which contrasts so diametrically with the empty, vacuous conversations of his parents (reduced to mere initials: P (pee) and M (em) ) that is so in keeping with their mundane lives. All the dialogue was recorded 'live' (note the black tape holding a miniature microphone to the inside of the tramp's right coat-lapel in the scene on the Albert Bridge), without any post-synchronization adding greatly to the vitality of the scenes; and this despite the fact that the film was shot entirely on location (i.e. not in a studio), with three of the four sets needed - The Korova Milk Bar, the Prison Check-in and the bathroom at Mr Alexander's - being built in a small factory rented for the production, while the fourth - the Entrance Hall to Mr Alexander's house - was built in a tent in the back garden of the house used for the interiors.
Cat lady in A Clockwork Orange
Another strong element of the novel that transfers well to the screen is the inherent symmetry of the story; this is reflected in individual shots (such as the mirrored hall-way at Mr Alexander's) as well as in the structuring of the film, which comprises three sections of approximately 45 minutes each, the second, Alex in prison and receiving the Ludovico Treatment, separating the matching elements of the first (Alex at the height of his reign) and third (Alex's fate after receiving the 'cure'): the encounter with the tramp, the confrontation with the droogs, the scene in Hr Alexander's home', and the scenes in the houses of the Cat Lady in section one and the conspirator in section three (Alex enters the home of the Cat Lady via a window and events that follow lead to her death, while events in the conspirator's home lead to Alex exiting via a window, hoping to cause his own demise).
The film boasts many fine performances, especially Patrick Magee as the ranting radical. Hr Alexander (the original looney left.), Michael Bates as the chief warden, simply a minion of his state masters who, failing to understand either them or the criminals, hides behind his bullying and barked commands, and Godfrey Quigley as the fire-and-brimstone prison chaplain (''..we have undeniable proof, yes, incontrovertible evidence that hell exists!") who cones to represent the film's moral voice: "When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man."
But best of all is Malcolm McDowell, who gives a bravura performance in the core role of the anti-hero Alex Delarge; whether glorying in the mindless violence of the early scenes, cringing indignantly from his police captors or fawning sycophantically to the prison chaplain (always with his own selfish ends in mind) he presents a truly repellent evocation of the nihilistic youth of a not too distant future - made in 1971, A Clockwork Orange' is seen as anticipating (and influencing?) the Punk movement of the mid seventies. Repellent, yes, but also compelling; for all his mindless thuggery, Alex cannot simply be dismissed as a mindless thug. He appreciates art and ' classical music (So did the Hitler.') , displays charm when picking up the two Lolita's at the record store and is disarmingly honest in his first-person narration
So when Alex is delivered into the hands of the state, we find our sympathies veering towards him - at least we can understand the motives behind his hedonistic pursuits (sex, money, fast cars, power and independence) even if they are taken to excessive extremes...
Once released, Alex finds himself at the mercy of his former victims who, finding they now have the upper hand, are quick to turn tormentors - suggesting that Alex merely represents a suppressed subconscious instinct in all of us. Firstly it is the tramp who, with fellow tramps, takes the opportunity to exact revenge ("Old age having a go at youth and I daren't do a single solitary thing..."wails our humble narrator) then Alex's droogs, now in the police humiliate their former leader, and finally Mr Alexander, who uses Alex for a combination of political subversion and personal revenge.
The final twist arises when it becomes more convenient for the state to 'cure' Alex, who lies in a hospital bed, arms and legs shattered, demanding food from the minister like a parasitic cuckoo, reverting him to his former anarchic self and increasing his potency by promising him a powerful but unspecified position, working with the state in an uneasy alliance - possibly joining his droogs in the police, using the most violent members of a society to control the rest (this is something that Kubrick himself hinted in an interview with Michael Ciment in the French publication 'Postif in June 1972 and reprinted, in English, in Ciment's 1903 book 'Kubrick. ' ).The closing images of Alex, eyes wild with pleasure as he Imagines future excesses, giving a thumbs-up to the assembled media (and to us) — "I was cured all right" — are only slightly less ominous than those post-election pictures of Thatcher leaning out of the window at Ten Downing Street, holding three fingers in the air.
Some versions of the book have an extra chapter, where Alex, burnt out at eighteen, envisages a quiet life with a wife and child, but Kubrick was unaware of this until he had nearly finished the script, and anyway, found it."unconvincing and inconsistent with the style and intent of the book", going on to say, "I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the publisher had somehow prevailed upon Burgess to tack on the extra chapter against his better Judgement, so the book would end on a more positive note" (again from the interview with Ciment) - the fact that Alex's job turns out to be working in the ''National Gramodisc Archives'' suggests that Kubrick maybe right, although the final line of this extra chapter does indicate that a spark of defiance still remains in our humble narrator. Kubrick concludes, "I certainly never gave any serious consideration to using it."