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50 Years Later: A Clockwork Orange

13 January 22 words: Oliver Parker

He wasn't a bad filmmaker, that Stanley...

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
Running time: 136 minutes

Stanley Kubrick’s ninth feature film, A Clockwork Orange, turns fifty this week - released originally on 13 January 1972 to a swarm of controversy in its home country of the United Kingdom. Originally set to be directed by Ken Russell (The Devils, Altered States) the film eventually fell to Kubrick, who had previous experience adapting novels into films with works like Lolita and Spartacus. Kubrick’s cold and methodical style was an obvious choice given the film's themes of violence and psychological control. 

Malcolm McDowell plays Alex; leader of the Droogs, fanatic of Ultra Violence and drinker of drug-laced milk. It is almost certainly a freezing cold take but this is easily McDowell at his absolutely finest. There are few people who have the ecstatic charisma to play such a gleefully evil character as well as he does. McDowell is almost so good that he overshadows virtually everyone else in the film.

Alex is an intriguing character due to his incredibly irredeemable personality. Lots of films that feature anti-heroes or unlikeable protagonists feature some sort of reasoning or redemption for their lost and broken characters. None of that is offered up to the viewer here. Alex is a psychopath and the viewer has to watch the consequences of that - which certainly makes for an uncomfortable experience for people not used to that sort of narrative.

A Clockwork Orange has a sort of fantastical feel to it, a dreamlike haziness that is aided by the distinctive style of the dialogue and satire

One interesting part of this film is how it handles its dystopian setting. One of the cars that Alex’s gang drives looks like it has come straight out of a sixties sci-fi flick. Alongside that is some interior design that has an almost retrofuturist vibe to it. Despite this, the vast majority of the film was shot on location in London, due to the film's low budget. This fact caused Kubrick and art director John Barry to scour for weeks finding the perfect places to shoot.

Unlike other British films that tackle similar issues to this, such as 1979’s Scum - a more brutal and grounded take on criminality and the prison system - A Clockwork Orange has a sort of fantastical feel to it, a dreamlike haziness that is aided by the distinctive style of the dialogue and satire. I seriously forgot how weird this movie is but also how darkly comedic it can be at the same time. I’m not sure how many of Kubrick’s films are intended to be “funny”, but this sure did make me laugh a lot more than I ever remember it doing. Alongside the visuals is the absolutely gorgeous score by Wendy Carlos; the collision of synth and classical music goes alongside the film's visual content absolutely superbly.

Politically, this is probably one of Kubrick’s most overt projects. One could write a much larger essay discussing the philosophical and psychological aspects of this film. Overall, this is fairly bleak, even by Kubrick’s standards. There are almost zero kind people in this futuristic world. It is also an angry film, one that holds disdain for authoritarian institutions such as the police and the prison system.

Kubrick has never been an optimistic filmmaker, but this is maybe his peak level of nihilism

Alex is dehumanised and reduced to a mere number. The only way out for him is to submit himself to being brainwashed into becoming a robot, without any independent thought. This forces the audience to consider questions about free will, criminal reform and the aspect of nature vs nurture - can inherently bad people ever become “good” or is humanity truly doomed to be eventually sucked into chaos? Kubrick has never been an optimistic filmmaker, but this is maybe him at his peak level of nihilism. 

Despite having a few issues with this film - I think it is a tad too long and paced relatively poorly - no one can deny the totality of Kubrick’s vision and his dedication to the execution of it. For anyone who hasn’t seen A Clockwork Orange, it is a must see, and for those that have - well, it is certainly worth a rewatch now it’s out in glorious 4K.

Did you know? During the filming of the Ludovico scene, star Malcolm McDowell scratched one of his corneas and was temporarily blinded.

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