The key ingredient in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is not the amalgam of white overalls and a bowler hat, nor is it the fictional style of colourful language that draws us into the mind of the central character, it isn’t even the director’s ability to make that character so likeable and charming, even though he is both evil and revolting. No, what specifically makes “A Clockwork Orange” a great movie is it’s relationship between the sight and the sound, and Kubrick’s ability to create such a striking (yet equally as mesmerising) image using these rules of the screen. All we have to do is take a look at the film’s opening scene, which consists of one shot, to see one of the finest examples of this technique.
From the opening titles, we are drawn. Kubrick grabs our attention with a blood-red title card and a gloomy, disturbing soundtrack (composed by Wendy Carlos) and leads us into an extreme close-up on the film’s narrator and revolving character, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) who sits amongst a crowd of spaced out, hauntingly placed men (he refers to them as ‘droogies’). As the camera slowly pans out, revealing more and more of the nightmarish half-bar-half-strip-club looking interior, we are introduced to the voice of Alex in the form of a voice over. There is something bedazzling about the combination of his voice and Carlos’ soundtrack – managing to maintain a slightly futuristic feel, yet overall it is the sounds of a sinister scenery. The shot in itself, equaling to around one minute of film, is perhaps the greatest shot Kubrick ever filmed. It is so simple yet so effective. We are not sure why we are so drawn in at such an early stage (seconds in), but it most probably has something to do with the director’s signature move of a menacing, hypnotic face.
He almost creates a painting. The scenes that follow are along a similar path: There is a wonderful moment where the four ‘droogies’ emerge from the darkness before they fight a rival gang. Notice how perfectly the mood and lighting is set: the navy blue sky and ground helps to create a real sense of danger to the scenes. Creating a scary place between realism and make believe (the costume the droogies wear help reassure us that it’s more futuristic than anything). “A Clockwork Orange” is not a horror film, but it has similar characteristics. The anti-hero of the movie, Alex, is somebody who is driven by pure lust and envy. He is murderous, but he is intelligent; after an evening of violence, rape and drugs he returns home to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and fantasies whilst getting lost in the music. He is the perfect horror villain. But Kubrick manages to make Alex a center piece in what is ultimately a Drama, as well as being slightly politically satirical and most certainly sexually and psychologically metaphorical.
I say anti-hero cautiously here. Alex is able to become both the hero and villain in “A Clockwork Orange” prominently through his use of voice over. Throughout the film, he is talking to us – he refers to us as his “brothers” and often refers to himself as “your dear old narrator.” We are as disturbed as we are charmed by him. His vocabulary is well spoken, with bits and bobs twiddled from Nadsat (a language that was written by writer Anthony Burgess for the novel), which typically is a combination of Russian and cockney rhyming slang. This comes as no surprise though, nor is it hard to follow. The visuals help explain the unknown words – for example, in the film’s opening shot he mentions his “three droogs”, which may seem alien, but as we pan from Alex and see he is with three friends – we tend to get the jist! There’s countless other notable words (“horrorshow” – really good, “yarbles” – testicles, “devotchka” – woman, “viddy” – see).
Burgess’ novella, written in 1962, contains a lot more of the Nadsat language than the film. The film tends to swerve away from a lot of the characteristics in the book too. For example, the iconic look of Alex and his droogs (right up to the eyelash) is not mentioned in the book, nor is the bland and deserted Britain that is pictured. I’m not sure how many years in the future “A Clockwork Orange” is set, but a lot of it seems to represent a working-class Britain that does not mere much futuristic element at all. The whole ‘future’ element comes strictly from the dressing and the scenes at the Korova Milk bar (it sells drugged milk). Burgess’ book is also, believe it or not, a lot more sexually explicit than Kubrick’s adaptation. The book deals with elements such as pedophilia and torture – which are two topics that Kubrick had dealt with in earlier work, “Lolita” in 1962 and “Paths of Glory” in 1957 – which combined with the graphic rape scenes and indulging violence, would have made “A Clockwork Orange” even more controversial.
The controversy that surrounds the film has become a bit of a legacy in Britain. After a series of attacks involving copycat violence in the U.K., Kubrick decided to ban the film here until his death in 1999. This is one of the main reasons how it has gained a bit of a cult following and is never considered one of his best – “2001: a Space Odyssey” (1968) always tops the lists, with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) or “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) being a close second. Re-watching the film, I had forgotten about how sickening some of the violence is, and how unsettling some of Alex’s fantasies are. But I think the violence in “A Clockwork Orange” is nessecary to establish the point of the film’s message. There is only one scene inparticular that seemed to draw a fine line between subjective violence and self-indulgence, which is a scene in which Alex kills an innocent woman with a large phallus.
Another scene to mention would be the horribly memorable scene in which the droogs run into a country house, and rape (and maybe kill, it never later explains) a woman whilst her husband is bound and gagged, forced to watch the act. The scene is so disgustingly done that we can’t quite ever listen to Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” the same way again. As Alex thrashes the house, and throws bookcases to the ground, he sings the musical number – while accompanied by his not-so-sharp ‘droogy’ Dim (Warren Clarke) who represents the muscle of their group. Yes, the muscle. The muscle who just seems to always get picked on throughout their scenes.
The film tends to swerve away from what many people might think as “Clockwork-Orangey” around forty-five minutes in. Where we are moved from street to prison, and witness Alex’s attempt into becoming a better man in an experiment by the mental institutions in London. Arguably, one of the hardest scenes to watch in the movie is where Alex is being forced to watch graphic images of violence and rape, whilst his eyes are drawn open with a device that could only be described as ‘dentist-y’. When Alex is ‘cured’, he returns to his father and mother’s house – who have abandoned him and replaced him with a knitted jumper type, called Joe. It’s strange when we see Alex drip tears, holding his only bag of luggage, as we realise that we have somehow formed a relationship with him. This is another strategy of Kubrick’s that always seems to amaze me.
If the ending of “2001: a Space Odyssey” is to represent the beginning of life, than the ending of “A Clockwork Orange” is representing the re-birth of one. The film is just effortlessly Kubrick. His distinct style of camera control makes sure that in any given second of the film, we can immediately recognise it’s a Kubrick film. From the long, detailed shots that would seem ridiculously too long-winded for any other director (the scene where the droogs are barreling down a country road in a car) to the haunting. hypnotic crashes of SFX that he uses when demonstrating a dramatic violent sequence (when Dim and Georgie – now policemen – beat Alex whilst drowning him, Kubrick allows us to feel pain by adapting a piercing sound effect).
The film is full of little characteristics Kubrick has adapted over the years too. Notice how he always fast-zooms from the main point of a shot, to the entire scene. This can be seen when Alex unlocks his door in the morning, and when Dim is holding the bottle of milk before they attack Alex. Remember when he used this technique in “The Shining” (1980) during that horrible bear scene?
When we watch “A Clockwork Orange” from a modern day perspective, we can see how it has aged over the years. But it has aged well. More important than this, we can see how it has influenced some of cinema’s greatest names. Sam Mendes borrowed the similar style of narration in “American Beauty” (1999), Heath Ledger based his final role of the Joker on Alex in “The Dark Knight” (2008), Quentin Tarantino directly referenced the rape scene in the movie by re-working it into “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), where Michael Madsen tortures a bound cop whilst performing a rendition of “Stuck in the Middle with You”, and on the subject of Tarantino: notice how similar the two scenes are where the ‘Dogs’ are walking down the street in slow-motion, and where the ‘Droogs’ are also. I think “A Clockwork Orange” is a film that deserves more recognition than it gets. Even if you find the language hard to get around, or the violence a bit too much, no film fan can deny the influence and legacy it has raised since it’s 1971 release.
Note: There is a quote by Dann Gire, film critic of the Chicago Daily Herald, that I think completely defines my love for Kubrick. It was, “[Stanley Kubrick] He has been called the Howard Hughes of cinema, because he was such a reck loose. I prefer to think of him as the Frank Sinatra of cinema, because he always did things his way.”