How many films made almost forty years ago retain their power? Moreover, how many science fiction films made nearly forty years ago still look futuristic in 2010? The answers to both questions is the same: very few. Yet Kubrick’s overwhelming work A Clockwork Orange seems today as fresh, as controversial, as dark and as brilliant as it was when first screened to stunned audiences in 1971. They emerged from theaters not quite believing what they had seen, some hailing it a masterpiece, others dismissing as the work of a self indulgent artist in love with his own mind. The picture was banned in England until 2006, and hit with the dreaded X rating in North America, feared for the impact the rating had on
potential box office. When the gusty New York Film Critics Circle honored the film with their Best Film and Best Director awards, it became clear that the film could be an Oscar favorite, and the Hollywood Foreign Press saw the film nominated in three categories including Best Film, Best Actor and Best Director. Gregory Peck threatened to resign his post as President of the Motion Picture Academy if the film was to win Best Film, giving some insight into what the more conservative members of the Academy thought about the picture. Yet despite Peck’s hard hitting statement, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Film Editing. How and why actor Malcolm MacDowell was overlooked for a nomination as Best Actor remains startling, as was the fact the film was snubbed for cinematography, sound and art direction. The film of course won nothing yet of the nominees that year A Clockwork Orange remains vastly more important and substantial than The Last Picture Show (1971) or the eventual winner The French Connection (1971), fine films both, but lacking the searing power of the Kubrick work.
While the director deserves much of the credit for the film, without actor Malcolm Macdowell, it may not be anywhere near as brilliant. The actor found the perfect note for his work as Alex, the Beethoven loving, sociopathic leader of the Droogs, a gang of punks who spend their nights cruising the streets, beating old men, raping women, and stealing cars to play “hogs of the road” running people off the road with no worry about the harm they may be doing. Early in the film, they lie their way into the home of a writer and hiw wife, bring carnage and hell with them. The woman is raped repeatedly, and beaten terribly, while the husband is forced to watch the entire nightmare, utterly helpless to do a thing. During the rape, Alex suddenly bursts into song, crooning the lyrics to the famous Gene Kelly song, Singin’ in the Rain, punctuating each stanza with a kick or punch. Leering, with a baleful stare full of contempt for all of humanity, Alex is indeed a dangerous young man watched closely by his bizarre probation officer who knows his charge is up to no good at night. When the Droogs make a power play to topple Alex he lashes out, and maintains his position at the top of the gang, but not for long. The gang members have long memories and after a particularly nasty rape and beating of an artist, they turn on their fearless leader and see to it he is left for the police who charge him with murder and send him to prison. There he is the target of perverts and rapists but manages to stay clear of them, instead forging a relationship with the minister who takes a special interest in the young man he believes is making progress, Alex is offered the chance to get out of prison early if he takes part in a special experimental treatment, and agrees at once to do so. Little does he suspect that he is about to become as helpless as man of his victims.
Bound into a chair, his eyes held open with metal wire, unable to turn his head or avoid seeing or hearing the images in front of him, horrofic images of violence, murder, war, rape and mayhem are shown to him over and over and over. At first he loves it, loves seeing the carnage on the screen dreaming of what he will do once free from prison, but then strangely a sick feeling comes over him, and seeing the images, shown to the strain of beethoven, he begins to fell physically ill. Begging them to stop brings no relief from the images assaulting his senses ntil the medical team declare him…cured. When he thinks of violence he begins retching, when he sees a naked woman and thinks of sex, he begins to vomit. He cannot return insults or defend himself in any way, and violence to him is now something that makes him unable to do a thing but fall over ill. While they may
have cured the need for violence and rape, they have taken away his ability to choose, and the minister accuses are every bit as terrible as Alex was before the experiment. He goes out int the world unable to fight back whenever he is attacked, and it seems all the crimes from his past are coming back to haunt him.
The old man hnear the beginning of the film. He severely beat in the tunnel leads a group of elderly homeless drunks against him, and he encounters his former Droogs, now police men who beat him senseless and take him to the country. There he is taken in by a man in a wheelchair who is being taken care by a massive manservant. In the hot bath they have drawn for Alex he begins to sing, gently at first so no one can hear him, but as his enjoyment of the song grows so does his booming voice, shouting out the words to Singin in the Rain which leaves the old man drooling and shaking because he is the same old man Alex beat to a pulp to that very song. His wife had died of her injuries and the shame of being assaulted, the old fellow has spent his time allowing his rage to grow and fester, eagerly awaiting a time when he might come fact to face with the man he so hates. And now with him in his home he arranges a clever end for Alex that involves his beloved Beethoven. With speakers blaring the music of Ludwig Von, Alex leaps to his death, but survives, to become something of a hero of the people who see the manner in which the government treated him as cruel and terrible punishment. His crimes are forgotten, his victimes are barely remembered, but Alex, Alex the
victim lies broken in a bed about to get everything he ever dreamed of. Including as we see in a fantasy sequence, a return to his old ways.
Kubrick’s film is perversely Kubrick, from the use of Singin’ in the Rain through to Alex’s strange folk hero status at the film’s end, a twisted, bizarre film that questions what is right and wrong and what is suitable punishment? And what is? Are the scientists who create a terrible punishment for Alex to heal him any worse than the vicious gang of Droogs who roamed the streets creating mayhem? Perhspas the difference is the scientists know what their work will cause, and the Droogs did not pay any attention to it. The violence in the film is jarring in its realism, though much of is stylized and somewhat beautiful to look at, nearly balletic in its movement and precision.
Malcolm MacDowell’s buoyant, jaunty performance is one of the more astounding film performances ever given, so good though that the actor would never equal the work again. His opening star, so full of hate, so angry, so utterly devoid of anything remotely human sets the tone for this darkly powerful film that is much a science fiction drama as it is a black comedy. Comedy you say? Oh yes, all Kubrick’s moments had moments of black homor, the point being it is black humor, as black as the souls of the characters within. We know we should not watch the fight between Alex and Billy Boy’s gang but we cannot look awaya as the balletic war is breathtaking to watch. When Alex begins to sing while beating and raping the woman, again it is like a car wreck, we should look away but we cannot. It is too terrible, and we cannot quite believe what we are seeing. More than anything that was what Kubrick gave us, something we had not seen before. That was why he was years ahead of many directors, why his films remain timeless and why a film like this, made nearly forty years ago, seems as bold, as fresh and as original as the day it was released. The man made many great films, but this was his masterpiece and his work never was as great as it was within A Clockwork Orange.