A Clockwork Orange
English Title: A Clockwork Orange
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Warner Bros/Columbia-Warner
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer(s): Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick
Cinematographer: John Alcott
Editor: Bill Butler
Runtime: 131 minutes
Alex DeLarge spends his nights in the company of his 'Droogs' – a gang of juvenile delinquents who 'entertain' themselves with terrifying acts of ‘ultra-violence’: they attack an elderly tramp, beat and maim a writer, rape a woman and attempt to burgle a home containing an extravagant collection of erotic art. When the last of these 'entertainments' goes horribly wrong, Alex murders his victim just as the police arrive. He is sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment, but volunteers for a treatment programme to secure an early release. Alex’s treatment is a form of aversion therapy: pumped full of drugs, which cause feelings of panic and nausea, he is straitjacketed, strapped into a cinema seat and forced to watch extremely violent films. Upon his release, Alex discovers, at the hands of his former friends and victims, what it is like to become a victim of such brutality.
Stanley Kubrick’s film-making is renowned for bleakness of emotional content and the corresponding clinical detachment of technique. This can be seen, for example, in the disturbing humour of Lolita (1961), the stark cynicism of Dr Strangelove (1963), the cosmic perspective of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the numbing horror of The Shining (1980), the casual brutality of Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the existential banality of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). A Clockwork Orange epitomizes and examines this perspective, and might be considered the most typical and reflective of Kubrick’s films. From Alex's (Malcolm McDowell) empty-eyed stare into the camera in the opening scenes, through Kubrick’s repeated use of static long-shots (which keep camera movement and reverse shots to a minimum, thereby maintaining emotional distance), to the austere surrealism of its production design, the visual style of the film signifies moral disconnectedness in the dysfunctional society it portrays and fixates upon moral alienation. When Alex rapes a woman in front of her husband, he sings Gene Kelly’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ – a grotesque counterpointing of action and music that recalls Kubrick’s use of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ as the bombs started to fall at the end of Dr Strangelove, and anticipates the blackly comic use of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ in the torture scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).
This rupture between aesthetic and moral contexts that is central to Kubrick’s film –perhaps to all his films – comes to haunt Alex DeLarge. The vicious hooligan is a devotee of the works of Beethoven, yet the aversion therapy designed to cure him of violence inadvertently fosters in his unconscious mind an incongruous and nauseating association between Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hitler’s concentration camps. Such music was actually played over the tannoys in the Nazi death camps, and Kubrick’s film reminds the audience that aesthetic and moral values do not always correspond. Similarly, an erotic sculpture becomes an implement for murder; Alex interprets the Bible as a collection of lascivious and gory vignettes; and cinema becomes both a cause of the violence of an anarchic underclass and a tool for the violence of an oppressive state.
A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s re-imagining of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name. The novel’s warning against the moral estrangement of contemporary culture is transformed in Kubrick’s adaptation into an icon of that estrangement. The film has even been linked with a number of so-called copycat crimes, most notoriously in 1972 when a schoolboy murdered a tramp and when rapists reportedly sang ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ as they attacked a woman. These crimes and the resulting media furore testify to the enduring and disturbing relevance of the film’s central message, its urgent anxiety over the hypocrisy of a society and a cinema which, in condemning the moral and emotional emptiness of its subjects, at the same time exploits and exhibits that very emptiness. Kubrick’s work has been criticized for its moral and emotional detachment, but in A Clockwork Orange that detachment is the film’s very subject, and therefore the key to its insight.
Author of this review: Alec Charles
Peer reviewer: Alec Charles