A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
A film director is rightly celebrated when they produce one masterpiece in their career. I would argue Stanley Kubrick did this twice, with two consecutive films. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY took technical accomplishment and mind-bending psychedelic ideas to a level that set a new benchmark for thought-provoking challenging cinema. With A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, he re-invented himself once again with a more shocking dystopian future vision of ourselves that captivated generations to follow with striking longevity.
The source was a novel by Anthony Burgess, a tale of an unrepentant gang leader who, as the poster neatly sums up, has the main preoccupations in life of ‘Rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven’ until the government unsuccessfully tries to brainwash him into docility. For Burgess, writing the famously horrific rape sub-plot was a form of catharsis. One of his wives had been traumatised for life by such an awful crime. Also, he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and in the white heat of fearing early mortality he dashed off five novel first drafts in a single year. This explains the urgent pace of the book of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Kubrick was given the novel and initially was reluctant to make it, thinking no-one would be able to get past the Nadsat youth language Alex and his Droogs speak (composed of roughly two hundred words of Russian, some cockney and a smattering of Romany gypsy dialect). Evidently he reconsidered, and after throwing out a screenplay written by Burgess himself, he elected to essentially film a very faithful version of the novel, even lifting much of Alex’s vital voice-over straight from the original tex.
Kubrick was already in for a challenge when he began pre-production on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Despite his stellar reputation, he was given a relatively very low budget and needed to prove to Warner Brothers that he could work to something of this scale. When you see the film in repeated viewings it’s surprising that it hides its paucity of budget incredibly well. It seems more lavish and high-tech somehow that it really is. A clever move was to film as much as possible in real locations without need of creating expensive futuristic sets. They used existing urban tower-blocks and the just-finished Thamesmead estate to feature its distinctive granite block designs.
In the casting of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, the film plays one of its most powerful cards. He’s an immensely charismatic presence; the charming villain who takes you into his confidence like RICHARD III, daring you to like him and will him to triumph. His narration through-out is an intimate friend’s confession in your ear without malice or cynicism and McDowell’s native West Yorkshire accent gives him a disarming working–class credibility without a southerner’s patronising fake northern-ism . He loves the exercise of power and cruelty and getting away with it with a cheeky grin and a super-fast car. Who could fail to love him? Kubrick had seen him in Lindsay Anderson’s IF and knew he had the perfect blend of insouciance, youth, rebellious joy and intelligence. Indeed, its Alex’s intelligence that’s an uncommon part of his appeal for a youth gangster. He’s cleverer than his TV-zombified family, his gang of Droogs (not difficult), and the authorities in all their manifestations - and it takes the full weight of the system to bring him down in the second half of the movie.
Alex’s passion for Beethoven is no accident either. It establishes a cultural sophistication and another of Kubrick’s master-strokes was to take that fetish and make it dominate the sound-track. As ground-breaking as his use of Ligeti and Strauss in 2001, here the director uses Beethoven as a rock music score would be used now. Since it floods Alex’s mind, it should engulf our senses as well – and it does so exhilaratingly. He also uses a speeded-up synth version of Rossini’s William Tell Overture for a ribald sex scene with two girls Alex picks up in a record shop.
Industry fans of Kubrick have rightly praised Kubrick’s films for how consciously-designed they are for effect. Although he had an intimidatingly super-human focus and perfectionism, he was always open to ideas from anyone regardless of their position and would incorporate all kinds of elements that would perfectly translate to his vision. This film was no exception, Alex’s look was conceived carefully; the co-opted bowler-hat to annoy the establishment, the single glam eyelash suggested by the make-up artist Barbara Daly.
Alex’s gang of thugs itself in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has its own attractive mystique. The slow-motion shot of him strolling menacingly with his Droogs Dim and Georgie (Warren Clarke and James Marcus) has influenced many a film’s group solidarity image (RESERVOIR DOGS for example). They dress in a believable way that youths could copy cheaply because gangs typically will salvage what they can from what’s around them (right from the Teddy Boys through to the DIY gear philosophy that punk would famously use a few years later). The tribal Nadsat dialect is a gift as well as it creates a secret code that the older generation are not privy to.
Unfortunately, the seductively copy-able look of the gang and the stylised ‘comic’ style of the rape of Adrienne Corri and the beating of the old tramp (both to the tune of ‘Singin’ In the Rain’) had an awful, sobering side- effect. Although the song’s use had been conceived innocently enough as an enlivening device because Kubrick found the rape scene flat and dull (and it was the only song McDowell knew by heart), it found itself being hijacked to form an undeniable link to real copycat violence and worse. After A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s release had permeated real youth culture, there were incidents of gang troubles where the accused would quote the movie’s influence on them in the dock. Even more alarmingly, there was a reported case of a Dutch girl holidaying in Lancashire who was raped by men singing the song in imitation of the film. A sickening story like this was too specific to be ignored in the way we have done since over ‘video nasties’ and their ludicrously unproven connection to murder. Kubrick was advised by police officers that since he, his wife and three children all lived together in similar vulnerable seclusion to the couple invaded horrifically in the film, he might have to consider a potential visit from real life Droog-esque gangs.
Kubrick felt forced to take an unprecedented step; one which not only impressively showed his life-long love of family above art to those who thought him a dispassionate man, but also demonstrated an unheard-of power in Hollywood. He made Warner Brothers pull the film from all UK cinemas from then right until his death in 1999. Such was his close relationship with the studio and their respect for him, that it was honoured, It’s doubtful that any film-maker will ever exert that kind of influence again. This no doubt added to the film’s compelling underground curiosity value from then till it’s re-release in a more enlightened, de-sensitised time.
At the same time though, in foreign territories like North America Kubrick’s visionary ability to capture the public imagination had a more positive outlet. His very hands-on direction of foreign marketing campaign imagery is widely accepted as being a chief reason for the film’s success abroad.