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Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange
Malcolm McDowell played a depraved Alex in Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ (Photo: Warner Bros)

With the tagline “the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven,” a single film captured the zeitgeist of violence, anger and misogyny that swept away the Swinging ’60s.

“A Clockwork Orange” was released in 1971–some 50 years ago this year– at a time when the American psyche was being ripped apart by Altamont, Kent State, Vietnam and widespread civic disorder.

Half a century later, the film’s ultra-violent, dystopian themes seem just as relevant, even if the circumstances have changed.

A deadly pandemic is sweeping the nation. leaving tens of thousands dead and millions more suffering from depression and anomie under stifling lockdowns.

Tens of millions are jobless, living on the brink of an economic abyss without money for food, clothing or shelter.

Violence–and murder– are rising in the streets, and a surge in right-wing terrorism brought the nation the closest to a political coup in its 240-year history. It remains to be seen if the government can stem the decline.

 Every generation may get the dystopian nightmare it deserves, but “A Clockwork Orange” appears timeless.

“Every new generation rediscovers A Clockwork Orange,” the flim’s star Malcolm McDowell once said.

“But not because of the violence, which is old hat compared to today, but the psychological violence. That debate about a man’s freedom of choice is still current.”

The film was based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 futuristic novella of the same name.

It was about youth gangs, or “droogs,” living in a dystopian Britain. They speak in an English-Russian-slang and spread terror randomly through gratuitous acts of violence.

Arrested for murder, their leader Alex, played brilliantly by McDowell in a career-defining role, agrees to serve as a guinea pig for a new therapeutic experiment that renders any form of violence unbearable to him.

Once released, now as meek as a lamb, he is driven to suicide by one of his vengeful former victims. Alex survives and is returned to his original state on government orders.

Conceived as a dark satire on modern society, “A Clockwork Orange” still holds up today on another level– as an analysis of societal evil that begs many questions.

Can hardened criminals and psychopaths change? Is it morally acceptable for the government to induce that “change?”

Does everyone have an absolute right to free will?

The film’s crux is how you define “goodness.”

Writing in The Saturday Review, Kubrick described the film as “dealing with the question of whether behavioral psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.”

Along with trailblazing films like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Straw Dogs,” Kubrick’s masterpiece displayed a new, more open treatment of violence in movies.

The film depicts extreme brutality in a highly stylized and novel manner. There are few moments in cinematic history more disturbing than the home invasion sequence at the writer’s house.

It is made particularly memorable because of Alex, donning a macabre phallic rubber mask, joyfully singing “Singin’ in the Rain.”

He punctuates lines in the song with punches and kicks. Though the rape of the writer’s wife is implied and not shown, it’s nevertheless a harrowing, yet completely engrossing few minutes for the viewer.

After going over budget and over schedule with his previous film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick made “A Clockwork Orange” on just $2 million (about $13 million in today’s dollars)

He shot much of it on location and with natural light. He used handheld cameras not just for a budgetary reason, but also for aesthetics.

The handheld camera lent an intimacy that sharpened the viciousness of the violence and viewers are disorientated when the camera switches perspectives.

Kubrick’s unpredictable camera techniques, combined with Alex’s quirky narration, ultra-violent acts, garish colors and a mostly classical score, unsettle the viewer further.

Even if you are disgusted by the violence, one thing is crystal clear: the film is the work of a visionary.

Starting with the opening title sequence of bright and brash full screen colors, “A Clockwork Orange” is an orgy for the senses.

It opens with an eerie and dirge-like synthesized interpretation of Henry Purcell’s “Funeral Music for Queen Mary.” It communicates a curious sense of troubling majesty and anticipation.

The opening shot begins as a tight close-up on Alex’s scornful mug and then slowly zooms out, revealing his trio of brutish partners in crime and the bizarre interior of their favorite haunt, the Korova Milkbar.

An unblinking Alex, complete with a fake eyelash, subtly raises his glass of drug-induced milk to the camera and then we’re off.

The set design is a mixture of kitsch, futuristic chic and psychedelic pop art that both dates and defines the film.

The Korova Milkbar, one of the few constructed sets, features instantly confrontational fiberglass female nudes that the droogs use as tables for their drinks.

It immediately displays the gang’s objectification of women and underlines their disregard and menace.

The setting of the home invasion displays carefully placed ultra modern, space-age ’60s furniture, almost like an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art.

The checkered flooring (Kubrick was a chess-obsessive) and the row of enormous light bulbs which echo the exposed light bulbs we saw earlier in the Korova bar, give the impression of a stage set where a theatrical performance, or “horror show” in this case, will take place.

The soundtrack includes classical excerpts from Beethoven and Rossini, but it is Wendy Carlos‘ electronic synthetic music based on the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that sonically defines the film.

Carlos’ unsettling tracks are pseudo-futuristic and are thematic extensions of Alex’s psychological conditioning.

I visited Beethoven’s birthplace years ago and his music was piped into the museum. I should have been thinking about the master composer as I looked at the exhibits, but in truth, your “humble narrator” had little Alex on his gulliver.

Kubrick, the Bronx-born filmmaker who chose to live in London with his family because of the growing violence back in the states, created a very English film.

It not only captures the English idiom, it was photographed mostly on location in and around London and within quick access of Kubrick’s home in Barnet Lane, Elstree. 

The Thames River is featured in a few shots and scenes set at the Ludovico Medical Clinic and Alex’s apartment block lobby were filmed at London’s Brunel University.

The record shop where Alex picks up the two young women was in the basement of the Chelsea Drugstore, located on the corner of Royal Avenue and King’s Road in Chelsea.

Of course, I made a point of stopping there whilst I was in London and discovered it had since been turned into a McDonald’s.

Instead of picking up two sexy girls at a record booth there like Alex in the film, I had to settle for a Big Mac and fries.

The white cricket uniforms, codpieces, black boots and bowler hats defined the droogs’ unnerving look and became as iconic as the settings.

“One day, I asked Stanley what my friends the ‘droogs’ were going to look like and he asked what I had,” McDowell recalled.

“The only thing in my car is my cricket bag. So I put my whites on. He asked what the groin protector was, and when I told him, he said: ‘Wear it on the outside!’ That became the look.”

The black boots the droogs wore were already known around London for their association with stylish ruffians and suspenders were associated with British skinheads at that time.

Though bowler hats were standard issue in the London of the ‘50s and ‘60s, by the ‘70s the hat took on a retro, throwback feel.

Shortly after the film’s release, the look spread throughout the London style scene and was picked up by major artists of the era including drummer John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and superstar David Bowie

A year after it’s release, the film won the New York Film Critics Award and Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “a brilliant and dangerous work, but it is dangerous in a way that brilliant things sometimes are.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Like all great works, the film had its detractors. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described her unease at the “gloating close-ups, bright, hard-edge, third-degree lighting, and abnormally loud voices.

But wasn’t that the point? Kubrick designed the film to disturb and stimulate its audience. 

Oddly, disheartened by continuing protests and shaken by British press reports of real-life crimes supposedly inspired by the film, Kubrick, who owned the film’s rights, withdrew the movie in the United Kingdom.

The rape of a Dutch girl shortly thereafter by a group of thugs crooning “Singing in the Rain” like the film’s protagonist Alex, convinced many that Kubrick’s decision was the right one. 

The self-imposed ban was finally lifted after Kubrick’s death in 1999. This means that an entire generation of British filmgoers could only see “A Clockwork Orange” on a black market copy.

The dispute over the film never reached the same feverish pitch in the United States, but for its American release, Kubrick replaced about 30 seconds of footage to win an “R” rating, as opposed to the dreaded “X,” which would have severely curtailed its distribution.

The only thing I knew about A Clockwork Orange when I was 17 was that it was made by the same director who did “The Shining,” and it had a very curious title.

I blindly rented it from my local video store one evening and my cinematic palette seemed to mature overnight.

I became a full-fledged Kubrickian after that fateful showing in my parents’ cellar. I soon bought my own VHS copy, and I continued to glean new nuances with each viewing. 

“A Clockwork Orange” is not only a meditation on crime, violence, sexuality and youth culture of the early 1970s, it is also a visceral, artful, and darkly comedic film that after half a century still manages to grab us by the collective “yarbles” and shock, dazzle, and provoke us.