A Clockwork Orange
Screenplay : Stanley Kubrick (based on the novel by Anthony Burgess)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Malcolm McDowell (Alex DeLarge), Patrick Magee (Frank Alexander), Michael Bates (Chief Guard), Warren Clarke (Dim), James Marcus (Georgie), Michael Tarn (Pete), Aubrey Morris (P.R. Deltoid)
Dehumanization is at the heart of almost every film by Stanley Kubrick, but none so much as his masterfully disturbing and ultimately edifying "A Clockwork Orange." What makes it troublesome is not the violence itself, but the film's suggestion that violence is an inherently human characteristic, and to take that potential away from someone is to, in effect, make him less than human. That's hardly a pleasant thought, and you have to wonder if it's the theme of this film, not so much the actions portrayed on screen, that generated such controversy when it was first released in 1971.
Through a first person narrative, the film traces the adventures of its hero Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), and his gang of Droogs (Warren Clarke, James Marcus, and Michael Tarn). The film is set in England in the near future -- a future which vaguely reflects our own, but it seems that society has started to crumble, and at night the streets are overrun with teenage gangs who run free of parental control. According to the original novel by Anthony Burgess, Alex is only 15 years old (although McDowell as 26 when he played him), which adds an additionally disturbing dimension to his antics because he is at such a young and customarily vulnerable age.
The first half hour of the film is a relentless portrayal of a typical night for Alex's gang. They start off in the Korova milk bar, drinking drug-laced milk that "sharpens them up for a bit of the old ultraviolence." After leaving, they happen upon a drunk beggar who they first ridicule, then beat senseless. They later happen upon a rival group in the midst of raping a woman, and a gang fight ensues. Still restless and looking for something to do, Alex and company steal a car, break into a the isolated home of Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), and rape his wife in front of him. Even then, they still go back to the milk bar for a few more drinks before going home at dawn and sleeping through school.
Kubrick presents the violence in a dizzying, heightened fashion that makes it alarmingly attractive. With close, hand-held camera shots, he invites us to join Alex in raping and pillaging to show that violence and power are inherently attractive. Alex is like the Freudian id running free, and that pulls at something in all of us, making this film all the more uncomfortable because you find yourself sympathizing with such a morally repugnant person.
Alex's twisted life seems safe and secure, until one night his Droogs double cross him when he's breaking into a woman's home. During an attempted rape, he accidentally kills the woman with a giant phallic statue, and his friends leave him for the police. He is subsequently arrested, spit on and beat by the cops, and sentenced to prison.
While in prison, he hears of a new reform treatment, and willing to do anything to get out of the suffocating world of prison life where he can only dream of violence, Alex volunteers as one of the subjects. The experimental treatment involves his being strapped to a chair in a movie theater with his eyes pried open with clamps. He is then given a drug and forced to watch violent films. The drugs causes him to feel nauseous, and therefore his body adapts so that any time he is exposed to anything violent, he becomes sick. He is therefore conditioned against violence, and as the government proudly points out during an ironic stage display to prove the success of the treatment, he is the ultimate in goodness, unable to harm a fly.
And so he is released into the world where he runs into all the people he harassed as a young hoodlum, including the drunk beggar, the husband of one of his rape victims, and even his old Droogs who are now corrupt members of the police. This all feels like contrived plot conveniences, but "A Clockwork Orange" is really more of a fable than a story. It is devised entirely to make its point about the nature of free will, and everything in the film is contrived to work to that end.
Of course, Alex is unable to defend himself in the evil world he helped create, and he becomes the victim. It is both harshly ironic and ultimately heartbreaking. He is, as Burgess coined the term, a clockwork orange -- seemingly a healthy and vital human on the outside, but inside he is programmed, no longer able to make choices for himself.
Kubrick is single-minded in his goal, and at times the film feels a bit preachy, especially near the end. But the rest of the film is unnerving and invigorating in its ability to manipulate the audience. Never has such a vile character been so charismatic and attractive as Alex. McDowell's performance is cunning and lethal in its sincerity. He can be brash, funny, horrifying or sympathetic.
Kubrick never gives Alex any excuses for his behavior -- he just asks us to accept him as is. Reasons for his behavior are never clearly explained -- his parents are shown, but they are weak and unguiding, easily manipulated by Alex's obvious intelligence and craftiness. A better explanation may come from the society he was raised in, which is slowly but surely losing its moral fiber, and becoming a military state with no care or control of its people. The state is so desperate that it is willing to program its citizens in order to gain control, a sure sign that they are near the end.
"A Clockwork Orange" continues to be a powerful film, more than twenty-five years later. The on-screen violence, while probably less explicit than half the action films shown today, still resonates of true horror because it is tied to a deeper meaning, not just surface exhilaration. With its dynamic futuristic set design by John Barry, pulsating classical music score, and striking visuals by John Alcott (who also did Kubrick's "2001" and "Barry Lyndon"), this is one of Kubrick's masterpieces, a film will continue to strike chords and rattle nerves for years to come.
Copyright © 1997 James Kendrick