Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

This article is an excerpt from “The Master Works”, Part 4 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

The human race is inherently violent—one only needs to pull up CNN at any given moment to see the proof. The building blocks of society are laid on a foundation of violence—the land on which our cities sit was either taken by force or successfully defended against those who wished to take it by force. Anger is a natural human emotion, and we can all cite a time when we wanted to inflict physical harm on another person. What matters is whether we actually follow through—a personal choice that we call “free will”, and its one of the principles that the definition of “personhood” is established upon. So if we were to find one day that we could condition violent inclinations out of a person entirely— to the point that violent thoughts would make that person physically sick— would we consider such a development to be taking away a person’s free will, and by extension, their very humanity? It’s a potent question; one that director Stanley Kubrick tackled in brilliant fashion with his challenging, divisive 1971 masterpiece, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

After the success of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Kubrick started working earnestly on a long-gestating passion project—NAPOLEON, an epic biopic starring Jack Nicholson as the infamous French emperor. He had spent most of the 60’s conducting an exhausting amount of research for the project, and by the time he was finished he had an elaborate notecard system that detailed Napoleon’s exact movements—one notecard for every single waking day of his life. However, right as cameras were preparing to roll in 1969, the project fell apart, and the failure of Sergey Bondarchuk’s similarly-themed Napoleon film WATERLOO a year later killed any chances Kubrick had at reviving the project. Even today, Kubrick’s unrealized NAPOLEON project still haunts the film community as one of the greatest films never made.

Kubrick was now faced with the task of finding a new project to develop in the wake of NAPOLEON’s failure, and he turned to a book that Terry Southern had recommended to him on the set of DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)—a book he had initially dismissed as incomprehensible. That book was Anthony Burgess’ seminal novel, “A Clockwork Orange”. Looking at it with new eyes, he was drawn to the book’s dystopian setting and its examination into the psyche of a violent young man as a byproduct of his environment. As he had done with2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kubrick served as his own producer as well as his own screenwriter in adapting A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to the screen. The film is a curiosity within Kubrick’s body of work in that it is very faithful to its source novel, whereas Kubrick had a reputation for dramatically altering source material to fit whatever given movie he wanted to make. This can be credited to the fact that Kubrick disregarded his own script and worked on set using the novel itself—an uncharacteristically haphazard approach for the notoriously disciplined director, but it fit with the lo-fi, improvisational nature of the shoot.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE tells the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a young man living in a dystopian future Britain with one hell of an extracurricular activity: dressing up in menacing attire by night and terrorizing the town with his gang of like-minded buddies. They beat hobos senseless, brawl with rival gangs, and break into the homes of decent, upstanding citizens for “a bit of the old ultraviolence”. Alex and his so-called “droogs” are seemingly unstoppable—that is, until a routine nocturnal break-in goes awry and Alex murders a woman he had intended to rape. When his gang of droogs betrays him and enables his capture by the police, Alex is thrown into prison for his heinous crime. However, instead of languishing in a jail cell for the rest of his life, he’s given the opportunity to participate in an experimental new form of aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique. He is forced to watch several days’ worth of horrifying, gruesome footage as a way to condition him against his own violent impulses. In return for his participation, he is given an early release back out into society and hailed by the media as a cured man. However, his transition back into society proves harder than he expected, and his inability to cope with his natural violent tendencies leaves him a broken shell of a person—and vulnerable to retribution by all those who he had previously harmed. The story raises a salient question that cuts to the core of Kubrick’s message: Alex’s crimes were horrible yes, but by depriving him of his free will, could the government’s conditioning of his very identity be considered an even worse transgression?

Despite all the flash and theatrics, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is at its core a character study, which places a significant burden on the shoulders of young Malcolm McDowell. Under Kubrick’s steady hand, McDowell turns in a career-defining performance as Alex, the twisted, psychopathic antihero at the center of the story. While his crimes are vile and reprehensible, it’s a testament to both Kubrick’s vision and McDowell’s boyish charms that we as an audience ultimately find him sympathetic, and—dare I say it—relatable. McDowell’s devious characterization of Alex results in one of the most influential and iconic film characters of all time—a status that still stands today judging by the cues Heath Ledger took from McDowell for his portrayal of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). McDowell isn’t the only actor in the film, but his performance towers every other cast-member to the point that one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. That’s not to say that the other cast members don’t pull their weight and help fill out Kubrick’s nightmarish, dystopian vision of the future (Patrick Magee and future Darth Vader, David Prowse, are notable standouts).

Working with cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick trades the polish and gloss of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s visuals for a decidedly lo-fi, indie aesthetic in bringing Burgess’ novel to life. Tonally, the visuals of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE play like a hybrid between Kubrick’s clinical, restrained classical style and a hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon. For instance, Kubrick and Alcott exposed most of the 35mm film image using only natural light, resulting in a lifelike, down-to-earth look that features pops of color amid drab, neutral backgrounds. However, in those same shots he also uses wide-angle lenses to distort and exaggerate reality to unrealistic proportions. This is also reflected in the camerawork, which alternates between static wide shots that observe the action dispassionately and up-close, handheld shots that bring the objective point of view firmly into the subjective.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s reliance on natural light seems peculiar—if not entirely out of character— for Kubrick, whose reputation for controlling every aspect of his image was infamous. However, this development can be ascribed to two defining aspects of Kubrick’s artistic aesthetic. Kubrick was well aware of his superlative talents, and saw each project as the “definitive” film in its particular genre. So when he saw the wave of scrappy, low-budget youth films streaming out of Europe and America during the late 1960’s—films like Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969)—he decided that he would adopt the same affectations in an effort to deliver A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as the “ultimate” youth picture, much like he had done for the sci-fi genre in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Additionally, Kubrick’s interest in natural light didn’t stem from light itself, but rather in the technological advancement of lenses that required less and less of it to properly expose the film negative. This speaks to the pioneering aspect of Kubrick’s craft: his constant push to eliminate technical limitations on the realization of a filmmaker’s vision. In later years, he would make significant strides in this regard, working directly with NASA to develop a lens that could expose a film image using only candlelight for 1975’s BARRY LYNDON.

This approach is mirrored in the edit, where Kubrick and editor Bill Butler brazenly cut from distant, observational setups to dynamic handheld shots that bring the action up close and personal. Kubrick uses the expressionistic nature of his edit to creatively portray the film’s most violent aspects, such as the murderous bludgeoning of the cat lady. Instead of showing us the act itself, Kubrick cuts away to a series of rapid shots of the cat lady’s paintings, strung together in such a fashion as to suggest animation (specifically, those colorful flashes one would see in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon after dynamite explodes). A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s editing was highly influential, forecasting the rise of rapid music video-style editing popularized by films of the 90’s and 00’s, as well as the stylistic flourishes of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.

Like his previous three films, Kubrick shot A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in England—both in London and around his home in Elstree. He recruited John Barry as his production designer, who adapted existing locales to fit the needs of the story rather than build entirely new sets. To convey the dystopian feel of Kubrick’s vision of a future Britain, Barry sought out socialist-style housing projects and municipal buildings built in the Brutalist school of architecture. The cold, uninviting concrete structures stand like oppressive symbols of the society that has allowed youths like Alex to run amok—a society that’s lost any interest in civic infrastructure or betterment. Kubrick contrasts this with the interiors of Alex’s family flat, a garish mishmash of bright colors and patterns that suggests a counterculture struggling for its voice in the absence of a unifying message. The production design of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE suggests a very different future than the one Kubrick depicted in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY—indeed, this future is decidedly earthbound and considerably more cynical.

Wendy Carlos, credited here as Walter because the film was made before her sex change operation, fashions the score for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as a blend between baroque classical compositions and computer-age instrumentation. Alex’s love for classical music is reflected in the appropriation of works like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, filtered through the inspired use of a Moog synthesizer and vocoder that makes it sound as if it was being sung by a computer. This perversion of music’s inherent beauty extends to the inclusion of “Singin’ In The Rain”, which runs over the end credits in addition to being sung by Alex as he brutally rapes a woman during a home invasion. Kubrick’s filmography is littered with music that plays counter to the actual image it accompanies, but A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is really where he perfects his surprising, brilliant concoctions. Our perception of “Singin’ In The Rain” has been permanently discolored, seared into our collective memory as the sound of impending doom. Kubrick peppers the soundscape of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with this sort of audiovisual irony, giving a twisted elegance to the carnage on display.

The world of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE affords Kubrick several opportunities to develop his aesthetic. The frequent usage of narrative voiceover, one-point perspective compositions and extended tracking shots (sometimes even the combination of the two, such as the shot of Alex roaming his beloved record store) are the clearest visual indicators of Kubrick’s hand. He also experiments with a few new techniques, like the breaking of the fourth wall, or filming from the floor up at someone leaning over a closed door—a very unconventional, somewhat disconcerting angle that Kubrick would later use to great effect in 1980’s THE SHINING.

Kubrick’s career-long meditation on sex and violence takes center stage in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, what with its depiction of a seemingly-lawless future society and explorations of conditioned behavior. The character of Alex is the result of a hypersexual culture—a culture that is implied through the pervasiveness of penis popsicles and pornographic pop art displayed in the homes of otherwise respectable, upstanding citizens. Perhaps as a prediction of the nascent birth control movement, Kubrick’s vision of a future Britain is a world in which sex has been stripped of consequence, and thus exists merely for titillation and self-serving gratification. In other words, it is simply for entertainment. Whereas bored teenagers of the 1970’s would find entertainment in hanging around drive-in movie theaters and cruising the main strips of their hometowns, the bored teenagers of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE get their kicks in the form of indiscriminate rape and torture. Rape is a particularly salient theme for Kubrick to explore, precisely because it is the intersection of sex and violence—it perverts the act of love into an act of hate, and Kubrick’s somewhat-humorous (yet ultimately horrifying) depiction of it forces us to reckon with the darkest parts of our own humanity. Man’s capability for inhumanity towards his fellow man (and woman) is reinforced by Kubrick’s exploration of the inhumanity capable of institutions—civilization’s invention to protect man against himself. The Brutalist architecture of the socialist housing blocks—cold, concrete structures with no personality or history reflective of their inhabitants—reinforces the purely utilitarian reasons for the existence of institutions. In their efforts to create a stable civilization and strip man of his wild nature, they overreach and subsequently take away a man’s ability to govern his own behavior. This sacrifice on behalf of the individual for the greater good of the societal whole is a common theme that runs through Kubrick’s work— films like PATHS OF GLORY (1957), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, andDR. STRANGELOVE all examined the inhumanity of institutions towards the individual (albeit DR. STRANGELOVE did so in an inverted way that saw the government sacrifice the masses for the few—themselves).

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE stills stands today as Kubrick’s most controversial film, by any standard of measure. The violence and carnage on display was shocking, and far exceeded anything that had been made up to that point. In the wake of its release, public furor over its content and real-world copycat crimes prompted death threats on Kubrick and his family, leading to his voluntary withdrawal of the film from UK cinemas—an embargo that would last until his death in 1999. In America, the film was a runaway hit, and secured a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With the divisive success of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick’s reputation as a daring maverick auteur was assured. If he wasn’t already the figurehead of the new wave of radical filmmaking sweeping the world, he was now.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick
Director of Photography: John Alcott
Production Designer: John Barry
Edited by: Bill Butler
Music by: Wendy (Walter) Carlos