Clockwork Orange: Revisiting Kubrick’s 1971 Film

Set in a futuristic British society, which looks very contemporary, Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is one of the most controversial and stylized works ever made.  Four decades after it was made, the film continues to be fascinating and intriguing to scholars and viewers; densely rich in ideas and images, it calls for repeated viewing.

Like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which came out in 1968, the movie has acquired a cult status, albeit for different reasons.

In his adaptation, Kubrick changed the perspective of Anthony Burgess’ book, which suggested that we must be able to take responsibility for what we are.  Instead, Kubrick, perhaps ambitious to a fault, wished to comment on many relevant issues, such as crime, violence, punishment, and redemption in an increasingly heartless society and a culture that has lost its soul and is no longer capable of providing moral guidance.

Like all good movies, “Clockwork Orange” operates on many different levels.  For some critics, this still much understood film is first and foremost a poignant tale (and allegory) about free will versus determinism, individualism versus authoritarian society.

The saga’s protagonist (hero or anti-hero, depending on your view) is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a punk -hoodlum who leads a gang of juvenile delinquents.

The group spends its time beating the poor and homeless, but it doesn’t “neglect” the upper class. They invade the houses of the rich and famous for rape and murder—and fun. Indeed, among their victims is a prominent writer, Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee), whom they beat senseless before gang-raping his wife, Mrs. Alexander (Adrienne Corri), using a phallic ornament displayed on her mantle.

The hoodlums speak in a bizarre dialect, which combines colloquial Russian with Cockney expressions.   It’s hard not to notice the band’s uniforms (designed by the brilliant, Oscar-winning Milena Canonero), which are like jumpsuits fitted with codpieces.

Alex hates school, formal education, and discipline.  But he is passionate about Beethoven, whose music he associates with sexually-driven violence.

Turning point occurs when, after suppressing an uprising among the “droogies” (Russian for “friends”), Alex is betrayed by them during an attack on another home.

Caught by the police, he is sent to prison, where he “consents” to undergo experimentation in “aversion therapy.”

As a result, he becomes nauseated by the mere thought of violence–and listening to Beethoven. Having been brainwashed into a revulsion against sex and violence, he becomes a victimized robot, a passive man with no will or desire of his own.

The authorities, satisfied with their treatment, pronounce him cure and ready to go into the outside world.  However, once out there, vengeance dominates his new life He is revisited by his fellow gang-members (now policemen), and by his former victims.  Thus, he becomes a media celebrity, cooperating with the parliamentary opposition by observing proudly. “I was cured, all right.”

As always, Kubrick reveals the eye and ear of a master artist, evident in a brilliant vision, imagery, and sound. The film is sumptuously shot by ace lenser John Alcott and designed by the gifted production designer John Barry.

The film’s use of music is also worth mentioning. Alex’s passionate love of Beethoven, especially when he is involved in violent acts, is taken from the book, while the use of Gene Kelly’s tune “Singin’ in the Rain,” as accompaniment to an act of violence, was reportedly McDowell’s own improvisation.

Kubrick’s liberal adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ anti-authoritarian novel was controversial.  It was denounced by some critics as a shallow, sensational treatment of a complex and ironic book. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael was so repelled by the movie’s violence and general approach that she panned it completely.  She could not accept the film’s argument, that human capacity for evil is never exhausted.  Kael, and other critics, downgraded the film’s artistic elements.

But Kael must have been in minority, for Clockwork Orange was cited as the year’s Best Picture by the New York Film Critics, who also voted Kubrick Best Director.

In hindsight, the film is a sobering, cruel and nasty work whose prophesies have come true.  The mindless violence depicted in the film has become a reality—manifest in senseless shootings in schools and gang warfare of American inner cities.

Originally, the film was slapped with the putative X rating, which was later changed into R.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Stanley Kubrick
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay (Adapted): Kubrick
Editing: Bill Butler

Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context

In 1971, “Clockwork Orange” lost in each and every category to “The French Connection,” which won Best Picture, Best Director for William Friedkin, Best Screenplay for Ernest Tidyman, and Best Editing for Jerry Greenberg.

The other three Best Picture nominees were Norman Jewison’s musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Peter Bogdanovich superb period small-town drama “The Last Picture Show,” and the old-fashioned historical epic “Nicholas and Alexandra.”


Alex (Malcolm McDowell)
Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee)
Mrs. Alexander (Adrienne Corri)
Chief Guard (Michael Bates)
Dim (Warren Clarke)
Stage Actor (John Clive)
Dr. Brodsky (Carl Duering)
Hobo (Paul Farrell)
Lodger (Clive Francis)
Prison Warden (Michael Gover)

Running time: 137 Minutes