Acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick has come a long way since he decided to transition careers from a photographer for Look magazine to perhaps the most influential director of all time. His filmography certainly speaks for itself with several films being the center of gravity for their respective genre’s and everything else revolving around that point. 2 decades into his film career and A Clockwork Orange may be Kubrick’s most challenging film to sit with once the events wash over you. Not because of the continuous disturbing debauchery or the stylized acts of ultra-violence committed or the suggestive themes that at one point had the film banned in the UK, but due to how Kubrick takes the source material and elevates it with a satirical complexity that only Kubrick can.
The source material in question is the 1962 novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess. Set in a dystopian not so distant future in London, juvenile crime is on the rise and the films true north centers on Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs (friends) Georgie (James Marcus), Dim (Warren Clarke), and Pete (Michael Tarn). The night starts with the four delinquents at a milk bar swallowing ounces laced with drugs. After that, they proceed to viciously attack the homeless and another rival gang inadvertently saving a young woman from being sexually assaulted.
But the night doesn’t end there for Alex and his droogs – the gang speed down a pitch-black road (with a stolen car, most likely) causing other vehicles to swerve off the road and crash to even breaking into a home where they paralyze the homeowner, a writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and sexually assault his wife after tricking her to let them in. All in a nights fun according to Alex as he is given dual duties of lead and narrator of this disturbing crime drama.
The world in which Alex and his droogs reside in is a lawless and desolate one. The type of dystopian world where one axis superpower never loses control and instead forces the rest of the world to adopt their tyrannical policies. Trash overflows in the streets, art is vandalized and the law, when it makes its presence known is as harsh, overbearing, and forceful.
In our lifetimes, we can all agree on the fact that at some point we have crossed paths with a character like Alex – probably earlier on in life. His blatant disregard for others wellbeing’s is atrocious yet Kubrick who adapted Burgess’s novel injects so much life into the character that McDowell’s natural charisma and charm spills out of his performance. You can’t take your eyes off of Alex despite how horrible of a human being he is. McDowell draws you in from the opening shot of that sinister smile to his final plea for help. And aside from his suspicious charm, Alex’s love for music, specifically Ludwig Van (as he says) gives him depth that would be mishandled if not for the Kubrick and McDowell pairing.
For 136 challenging minutes that A Clockwork Orange exists within, there is a sense of sympathy for Alex as the films antagonist. No backstory on how Alex became this depraved lost soul is given, we’re thrust into the moment of a criminal life several years in the making, Alex already has a probation officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), and none is needed but for what Alex experiences after his most evil act, I felt bad for him, he goes from victimizer to a victim of a broken system in an instant.
Structurally, Kubrick breaks his film into 3 distinctive acts. The first follows Alex and his droogs committing crimes, the second and its most endearing follows Alex in prison where he clings onto the hope of a shorter sentence through becoming a guinea pig for the Ludovico Technique, an experiential psychological aversion rehabilitation that can cure criminals of their bad behavior in as little as two weeks’ time. What Alex doesn’t realize is how effective this therapy that prohibits him to blink and look away while acts of ultra-violence and sexuality are displayed on a screen in front of him is.
Yes, Alex is cured of his wicked behavior which signals his release from prison but at what cost? He becomes a zombie, a shell of his former self, half the man he used to be in all regards, losing the spark that made him a character to gravitate toward – though not his most prized traits, Alex possesses a higher intelligence and leadership qualities. Alex’s evilness as a victim of a cruel system to be made an example out of for others to witness is seen as something inhumane.
Act 3 starts with Alex’s release and re-establishment in society. A society that is still cruel and full of harm only in Alex’s case, the harm is inverted inward toward himself. The therapy may have cured his violent urges, but the damage done to Alex’s brain chemistry is far worse than any act of violence the young man inflicted on others. Inadvertently, the aversion therapy also triggers Alex to hate Ludwig Van, one of Alex’s most sympathetic traits, specifically Alex’s favorite piece, the Ninth Symphony as a result.
In most ways Kubrick is a man well ahead of his time, much like his previous films, A Clockwork Orange stands the test of time due to the many techniques Kubrick utilizes while filming. The film boasts a modern touch paired with a sleek and stylish design amidst all of the phallic images and décor. Once again, Kubrick leans heavily on composer’s symphonies to fill each painting like frame juxtaposing the beauty of Beethoven to the destructive evil of Alex DeLarge. Not exclusively like 2001 does, but a song like Singin’ in the Rain will never be heard the way its intended from now on.
A Clockwork Orange packs a powerful albeit disturbing punch on many unrelenting fronts. As much as it is a searing crime drama, Kubrick infuses within a remarkable character study. Powered by Malcolm McDowell’s outstanding performance, Kubrick’s brilliance shines through with shock and awe, and a showcase for the directors range and mastery as a filmmaker.
Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Music By: Wendy Carlos
Cinematography: John Alcott
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, Michael Tarn, John Clive, Adrienne Corri, James Marcus, Carl Duering, Aubrey Morris
Edited By: Bill Butler
Release Date: February 2, 1972
Running Time: 2 Hours 16 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Based On: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess