Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a quartet of ‘droogs’ in an unspecified English city in the near future. They spend their nights raping, brawling, attacking helpless drunks and breaking into houses.
Fissures develop in the group when two of the four members, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), express an unwillingness to continue blindly following Alex’s lead. Alex’s response is to slash both of them. They bide their time and nurse their wounds until the opportunity arises to set Alex up. They strike at the scene of a botched burglary/murder, knocking him senseless and leaving him for the police. He is tried, convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Alex becomes a model prisoner, upon whom the Minister of the Interior, anxious to reduce the prison population, allows brainwashing experiments to be conducted. He is sent to the Ludovico centre where he is forced to watch footage of brutal beatings, rape and Nazi marches all the while with good-old Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing in the background. Doctors pump Alex full of nausea-producing drugs, developing a negative Pavlovian response to immoral and illegal activities. As the treatment slowly works, Alex screams in agony as he begins to feel sick at the sight of violence.
Alex comes out of the Ludovico Centre a changed man. Or is he?
The film is a stylistic masterpiece. The environment of Clockwork is very much an early-70s British dystopia: multistory flats with space-age tunnels, awash in litter, infesting the edges of the green belt. Alex and his droogs use much of Burgess’ made-up slang language, Nadsat. The group is a mishmash of British subcultural styles – a bit of teddy boy, part boot boy, even part Mod. They swagger in bowler hats and speak with prole accents. They intersect with Britain at the time of the film’s production – one of labour disputes and mainland bombings – yet there is enough of a futuristic tone (albeit a bleak one) to also make Alex and company harbingers of a world to come.
In the opening sequence with the droogs, the system is revealed to be impotent – ineffectual in all its deliberation and justifications. In its failure to assert any discernible purpose, the rule of nature rises unchallenged. Visceral power is the only valued force. Such is Alex’s attraction to Beethoven – it is not a reflection of high taste, rather a natural attraction to genius, power and force.
The theme of modified behaviour versus actual contrition is a strong one. Kubrick achieves this nicely by degenerating Alex to a broken animal. Alex is not reformed, merely subdued, bereft of human dignity. It seems that a culture that resorts to such measures has no moral imperative to govern. When an emasculated Alex encounters his former victims, each of them acts vengefully toward the helpless Alex. In a turn of events, Alex encounters a homeless victim, his former droogs who have since become constables and finally an intellectual openly opposed to behaviour modification. Each of his victims loses a bit of humanity in their vengeance. It seems an indictment of revenge punishment as it does behaviour modification. The only true change comes from the greatest gift of conscious beings: free will.
In 1971, A Clockwork Orange won two awards from the New York Film Critic’s Circle: Best Picture and Best Director. The Academy recognised the picture with four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. The British Academy followed suit, topping the American total with six. And the public-friendly Golden Globes accorded A Clockwork Orange a trio of nominations – one for the film, one for the director, and one for Malcolm McDowell as Best Actor.
In 1974 Stanley Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in Britain. He had felt threatened and undermined by the film’s reception: people called it obscene and accused it of glorifying violence. Kubrick was not wrong to feel threatened – the film was hated in a very personal way, and threats were made against him – and in time claims of ‘copycat’ violence would be used to damn the film even further. For 28 years he refused to re-release it. Following Kubrick’s death, UK distributors agreed the film could be screened again. I suppose the irony of suppressing a film that explores the morality of mind control became too blatant even for them.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer(s): Anthony Burgess (novel), Stanley Kubrick
Runtime(s): 137 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.