I first saw A Clockwork Orange (1971) in theaters right after its release. I soon saw a second time. Then a third. I then read Anthony Burgess' novel upon which the movie was based. Then read it again. I bought the movie soundtrack. I bought an A Clockwork Orange poster. As they say on TV...But that's not all! I went to a fancy men's clothing shop in downtown San Francisco and bought a derby just like the one the film's main character Alex wore.
At the risk of being obvious...I was obsessed.
So two questions come up. Why the obsession and how do I feel about the film today lo these many years later as a married man with two daughters? I'll take the second question first. Though no longer obsessed, I regard A Clockwork Orange as one of the greatest films of all time. And in truth in answering the first question I'll be addressing why I still love the film.
Our protagonist is a young man guilty of murder, rape, breaking and entering, assault and vandalism. Alex is a sociopath with little regard for other humans and absolutely no regard for society and its laws. A real life version of such a creature would be feared and despised. We would want to lock him up and throw away the key. But A Clockwork Orange was fiction and Alex's crimes are thus harmless. Instead of reviling Alex we are able to enjoy his daring, his energy, his wit and most of all his freedom from society's conventions.
Moreover Alex soon becomes a sympathetic figure who's preyed upon by a Job-like string of misfortunes. A sample:
*Betrayed by his crew.
*Straight-jacketed with eyes forced open and made to watch horrendous film footage.
*Forced to abase himself before an odious character including licking the bottom of a shoe.
*Rejected by his parents.
*Set on by a group of geezers, codgers and coots.
*Beaten by ex mates.
*Driven to attempt suicide by psychological torture.
It's hard to remember any fictional character who has been visited by such adversity. When the victim is a young, handsome charming bloke its all the easier to overlook past transgressions and root the lad on. To top it off you have Malcolm McDowell in the lead role. As with his earlier role as Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson's If...(1968) and to a lesser extent in O Lucky Man (1973) McDowell was made for the part and truly made the part. He was never good looking in a conventional sense nor for these roles would we want him to be. His sallow face was a little bit oddly shaped with a nose a bit big. But that smirk that passed for the smile, the shaggy hair, the interesting voice and his unique combination of confidence and vulnerability made him the quintessential anti-hero of his time. (I think of him as a British Steve McQueen though I've no idea if anyone else would see him that way.)
As is this case with so much great fiction whether novels or movies, what makes a story compelling is not so much what is being told but how. The Kubrick style was never better used nor more essential to a film than with A Clockwork Orange. The action could be frenetic, kinetic or in slow motion. Dazzling lights and antiseptic settings. Ballet like fight scenes or stark blood and spittle. Most importantly, Kubrick knew when to go hyper fast and when a snail's pace would do. His visual sense was inspired, think The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyessy (1968). The magisterial sweep of some shots combined with the smallest detail created a visceral reaction
And the music. Beethoven, so crucial to the story used perfectly within the story. Kubrick could score a movie with the best of them -- aside from Scorsese maybe he was the best of em.
Another Kubrick speciality was over the top characters who were veritable caricatures of themselves. None better in A Clockwork than the prison guard Michael Bates. How far was that tongue in that cheek?
Of course A Clockwork Orange had a strong social message and as a young man that sort of thing was quite meaningful to me. As an older gent, maybe not so much (I know, you'd think it the other way around). We must all have free choice or nothing we do matters. Good isn't good if its programmed. Governments must respect our essential humanness, no tampering with that. Meanwhile our culture is so dollar drive that it's rife with junk. Youth rebels through violence with no values to ground them to a sense of community. Yes, a lot to chew on.
You want a laugh? The movie was blamed for a lot of copycats crimes. There's the simpleton answer to crimes. Twas the movie that made them do it! Censorship now! After all how many people are good law abiding folks until inspired by a movie to beat the crap out of someone? (Probably around zero.) How many thugs use the last violent movie they saw or song they listened to as an excuse for their actions (plenty).
I can see why my younger self was obsessed with A Clockwork Orange. It was powerful stuff. I still find the the movie exhilarating, exhausting and fun and Alex one of filmdom's most arresting characters. I showed it to my 20 year old daughter last week.
She didn't like it.