A Clockwork Orange (1971)
“Being the adventures of a young man … who couldn’t resist pretty girls … or a bit of the old ultra-violence … went to jail, was re-conditioned … and came out a different young man … or was he?”
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
Synopsis: In future Britain, charismatic delinquent Alex DeLarge is jailed and volunteers for an experimental aversion therapy developed by the government in an effort to solve society’s crime problem – but not all goes according to plan.
“Dooby-doo-doo, dooby, dooby-doo-dooby-dooby…”
Anthony Burgess’s slim novel A Clockwork Orange seems unlikely material to be adapted into a movie. Like many movies, the creation of the finished article appears to have been the result of a sequence of lucky incidents that undoubtedly prevented a radically different version reaching the screen: Mick Jagger once owned the rights, apparently, and planned to play Alex with the rest of the Rolling Stones playing his droogs; Ken Russell was slated to direct and planned to have Oliver Reed as Alex; the infamous ‘Singin’in the Rain’ rape scene was a spur of the moment flash of genius on the part of director Stanley Kubrick and leading man Malcolm McDowell.
And it’s McDowell (Royal Flash, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead), a vastly under-rated and misused actor, who makes the film. Not because he lifts The Clockwork Orange above what it would otherwise have been, but because it’s his note-perfect interpretation of Burgess’s anti-hero that enable the audience to both despise and sympathise with him in equal measure.
McDowell plays Alex, a charismatic youngster who leads a gang of ‘droogs,’ delinquents who speak a strange slang language that denotes their alienation from mainstream society and spend their time terrorising and raping decent members of society with impunity. However, after a power struggle between Alex and a couple of his droogs he is betrayed by them following the accidental murder of a female victim, and arrested by police. Two years into his fourteen-year prison sentence, Alex volunteers for a radical new violence aversion treatment which will see him released within a couple of weeks. However, once successfully ‘cured’ and released Alex discovers that society is far from forgiving.
What makes A Clockwork Orange so controversial isn’t so much the depictions of rape and violence — as distasteful as they might be — but its assertion that, in some twisted way, Alex is to be admired for at least being true to his instincts, while the rest of society suppresses the same urges upon which he enthusiastically acts. We’re all like him, but because we have become conditioned by society to resist temptation, we live in a world of self-denial that, in turn, ends up suppressing us, which is why we are so quick to condemn the likes of Alex, and to irrationally turn on them if we feel they don’t receive the punishment they deserve. Government attempts to correct Alex’s behaviour through use of the Ludovico Technique, the film argues, can only succeed if it removes something of the person’s own essence – hence Alex’s subsequent aversion to the music of Beethoven, which he had previously loved — and is therefore doomed to failure.
It’s a difficult film to watch, rubbing the audience’s nose in the scenes of violence against women while simultaneously forcing us to acknowledge the fascination these images can hold for us. What we are watching is artifice dressed up as reality, which gives us a convenient out, but Kubrick knew there were some in his audience for whom artifice and reality were redundant distinctions. It makes for uncomfortable viewing at times, and ironically, the reaction of the outraged few, who delivered threatening messages promising death to Kubrick and his family, served as proof of just how close to the mark some of the director’s ideas were. Kubrick was so concerned by this public reaction that he requested that A Clockwork Orange be withdrawn from circulation until after his death.
(Reviewed 26th October 2012)