The raucous perfection of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange

Kubrick’s brutal-surrealist adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian caper – now back in UK cinemas on re-release – is a boisterous and gaudy vindication of the director’s acclaimed perfectionism, argued Philip Strick in this feature-length take on the film from its first release.

Philip Strick

from our January 1972 issue

Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange

Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

That there is a basic incompatibility between clockworks and oranges would seem self-evident enough for reminders to be unnecessary. As writers of speculative fiction have frequent cause to comment, however, human nature is not disposed to accept the obvious. As long as there are oranges, there will be men with bright ideas on how to make them tick – and those with equally bright, if somewhat reactionary, ideas on how to leave them just as they are.

The matter is not, of course, solely one of citrus mechanics: Sophocles was not the first to examine it, nor would Orwell be the last. When Anthony Burgess came to tackle it some ten years ago in his exuberant novel A Clockwork Orange, he wisely confined its repetition to a quotation from the work of the hysterical journalist in his story (an insulating device of which Nabokov would undoubtedly have approved): “The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.”

Dickens wouldn’t have put it quite like that, nor would Carlyle, Wells or Kipling (although it must have been a close thing sometimes), but they certainly shared the sentiment. It was only by satirising the theme in this lasciviously conventional manner that Burgess could feel free to go ahead and expound it once again in a fresh and thoroughly unconventional disguise.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The novel tells how a teenage thug in a future of no great distance from now is imprisoned for murder, rehabilitated by a form of shock therapy, and restored hastily to his former self when the side effects of the rehabilitation drive him to attempt suicide and the popular press rushes to his support. His reign of terrorism given new respectability, he is even more potent than before – and at this point some editions of the book come to an end, glowing with anticipation. In others, Burgess has added a further chapter in which, worn out at 18, Alex decides to settle down and get married as soon as he can find the right girl. What clockwork couldn’t achieve, the orange does for itself by going soft at the centre.

In transferring Clockwork Orange to the screen, Stanley Kubrick has dispensed both with the capsule explanation of what he is about and with the milk-and-water ending. The former is superfluous, the latter uncharacteristic. The activities of Alex DeLarge (and resemblances to Alexander the Great are more than nominal) are their own message, while it is more in the nature of Kubrick’s heroes to go down fighting if they have to go at all than to resign the struggle in favour of a quiet life.

More importantly, since A Clockwork Orange is primarily an assault upon the cosy, the comfortable and the mundane (precisely the unthinkingly obscene conservatism, in fact, that is expressed by Burgess’s raving radical), even the suggestion of a Hollywood-hued sunset romance at its conclusion would be the most treacherous kind of emasculation. The film has taken from Burgess the fun and vitality of his novel and rejects its second-thought compromises, even if Kubrick, ironically enough, has added a compromise of his own here and there. Alex, for instance, has matured into his 20s (a ten-year-old candidate for rape in the book has also shot up to well-endowed adulthood in the film), his drug-taking is confined to glasses of milk ‘plus something else’, a number of his less engaging exploits – including an extra killing during his period in prison – have been omitted, while his henchmen have become almost lovable.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Kubrick’s most wholehearted adoption has been of the Burgess vocabulary, an argot compounded from Romany and Russian words that have been directly Anglicised: tolchock (hit), devotchka (girl), malenky (little), and, most memorable of them all, horrorshow (roughly translatable as ‘very well’). Alex takes us into his confidence as the film begins, and the basic words are painlessly established, spoken with a chirpy and engagingly familiar Midlands accent: “I could never stand to see a moodge all filthy and rolling and burping and drunk, especially when he was real starry like this one was.”

The Burgess phrases have a rhythm and glitter to them which the film often maintains delightedly intact, both in the colloquialisms of Alex and his droogs and in the remarks of the more integrated members of society (“Love’s young nightmare like,” observes one of the constables as he beats up Alex in the interrogation cell); and if the puzzle words become less prominent as the film ceases to need them, their echoes remain in Alex’s unmistakable inflexions and his conspiratorial asides to his audience. Although the extent to which Russian has infiltrated the language of those least likely to have encountered it raises interesting conjecture as to political developments in Alex’s tomorrow world, this is the first sustained success on film of what science fiction writers (notably Heinlein) have long used as a necessary element in describing plausible futures.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

But then words, and the gaps between them, have always been important in Kubrick’s work. He divides his dialogues into immense soliloquies like the rolling catalogues spoken by General Ripper, the President, and even the bomber pilot in Dr. Strangelove, or alternatively into a nervous shorthand, like the clipped formalities of 2001. In Clockwork Orange, the unclassifiable poetry of Burgess has somehow become the same Kubrick vernacular – a duet between the articulate Alex, flourishing his words like torches in the air, and the brutish snarls of his opponents who, like the warder or the cat-lady, curse him with venom but without subtlety. And when Alex is forced into reticence, his place in the scene is taken by other smooth talkers: the teacher, the prison chaplain, the Minister, each with the same ability to talk in a kind of half-twist, their arguments as elusive as a Moebius strip.

The result is Kubrick comedy, the subtle distortions quickly accumulating into surrealism to which the characters respond with earnest solemnity. An example in Clockwork Orange is the sequence in which the rehabilitated Alex is tested out in front of an audience of politicians and social workers. Glowingly introduced, he is suddenly set upon by a sinister man who forces Alex to lick his shoe, and by a semi-nude blonde whose invitation leaves him retching on the floor. The indignities are wildly applauded, his assailants bow ecstatically in the spotlight and skip off, and a discussion of the ethics of choice begins over Alex’s head. It couldn’t possibly work, but it does.

At the centre of all Kubrick’s films is an endurance test, and Clockwork Orange continues the pattern. Like Humbert Humbert before him, Alex sets in motion an inescapable retribution and weathers it tolerably well (two years in prison, two weeks of treatment, two days of punishment at the hands of his former victims) before being forced into his suicide attempt by the allergy his treatment has given him to Beethoven’s Ninth.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Then, like Bowman in 2001, he is reborn (“I came back to life after black, black night for what might have been a million years”), and is rescued by events outside his control, carefully restored to his original anarchism by attentive specialists. His new wisdom gives him a tremendous, if unspecified, power which he can confidently be expected to devote to self-indulgence; the parallels to 2001 seem too clearly pointed to be accidental, not least the opening shot of Clockwork Orange in which the Starchild’s unblinking gaze can be seen in the stare Alex gives us as the camera retreats from his face to the other side of the room. There is an awareness of potency in his look, a sense of power that, like General Ripper’s, will be wielded not wisely but too well. The end of the world as we know it is in his eyes.

Not that Kubrick is repeating himself – far from it. His greatest accomplishment with Clockwork Orange has been to step briskly out from the shadow of 2001 and to resume filmmaking as though multimillion budgets had never been heard of. In case we might have forgotten, he reminds us of the skill with which he can structure a simple conversation scene in a simple domestic setting, extract perfect timing from his actors, select lighting and lenses with invincible authority, and edit his material ruthlessly into an unflagging pace (Clockwork Orange is well over two hours and feels like 90 minutes).

His new film is boisterous, intimate, explicit and gaudy, none of which applied to 2001. Instead of being in any apparent way concerned about whether he was going to be able to live up to 2001, he has relaxed and enjoyed himself; and while it is difficult to imagine Alex and Bowman occupying anything remotely like the same century, Kubrick has contrived to show a fresh alternative future that owes nothing to 2001’s aseptic architecture. The exteriors are glassy, box-like, and cluttered with rubbish, the interiors are lurid, inelegant and uneasily angular, with contemporary furniture that looks uncomfortably like tomorrow’s suburban leftovers. Inhabiting these inhospitable cells, logically enough, are the ageing exponents of today’s fashions, locked as though ice-bound into their trendy gear.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Repeatedly, Kubrick opens his scenes with immense tracking shots, like the low-angle spin around the record boutique just ahead of Alex on the prowl, or the equally confident accompaniment to the psychiatrist sweeping through the wards with her trolley of equipment. The hand-held camera comes into action for scenes of urgency and impending disaster – Alex’s fight with the cat-lady, the struggle through torrential rain, and the seemingly endless march towards an unknown destination as Alex’s former gang members, now enlisted in the police force, lead him gloatingly off across muddy woodland. By contrast, he also uses static long-shots in which the human figures in the distance wander through an indeterminate choreography among settings made subtly ominous by his distorting lens.

And more than one can recall his having done before, Kubrick uses subjective shots which place us in Alex’s viewpoint, identifying us with the hero of Clockwork Orange in his moments of greatest crisis – being crushed to the floor, lying powerless in the hospital, or, most unsettling of all, falling in despair from his window to smash himself on the paving below. The device ensures that Alex constantly has our sympathy, that, despite the occasional extremism of his high spirits, he remains (as in his own irrepressible view) merely the misunderstood victim of social injustice ready to accumulate a further load of misunderstanding as soon as he gets another opportunity.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

“Actions speak louder than.” The phrase is one of Kubrick’s favourites from Clockwork Orange, and the film could almost have been constructed around it. Movement is a vital part of each scene, a torrential, dancing flow that makes 2001 seem in retrospect to have approached the glutinous.

The superb fight sequence quickly establishes the mood: in the derelict opera house, lit by huge shafts of light across its rubbish-strewn floor, two gangs confront each other gleefully and plunge into a ballet of dazzling violence, hurling each other through furniture and windows with slapstick enthusiasm. Urged on by, and often synchronised with, the thundering music of Rossini, their exhilaration then bursts out into the car-ride headlong through the night, scattering other traffic in wild panic and yelling with the sheer joy of speed.

If there is any direct inheritance of the lessons learned during the shooting of 2001, it lies in Kubrick’s spectacular use of music in Clockwork Orange, where the soundtrack is as stirring as the photography: the William Tell Overture to accompany an orgy (20 minutes rushing past in 40 hilarious seconds), The Thieving Magpie to accompany a killing, and lovely, lovely Ludwig Van (beautifully arranged by Walter Carlos) to punctuate each phase of Alex’s unsteady rise to certain power. There is even Singin’ in the Rain, used rather as Kubrick used Try a Little Tenderness and Auf Wiedersehen in Strangelove to provide an ironic counterpoint to the events on the screen. With its connotations of betrayal, the song is the only indication at the end of Clockwork Orange that Alex’s next series of outrages (attractively prefaced by the fantasy glimpse of his nude romp with a debutante beneath the approving gaze of Ascot racegoers) might have any conceivable limitation. 

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

Finally, Clockwork Orange is a return to the Kubrick tradition of outstanding acting performances by his cast (necessarily somewhat muted in 2001). Malcolm McDowell is ideal as Alex, whether required to fling his recalcitrant gang into the river in slow motion, cringe resentfully from authority, or face in growing horror the realisation that everything he values most in life is going to turn his stomach over from now on. His tortured face, encompassed by straps and wires, his eyelids held open by vicious clamps, is one of the most haunting sights the cinema has provided since the space wheel in 2001 or the brooding close-ups of Sterling Hayden in Strangelove.

The film is stolen, however, by Patrick Magee, playing what is in effect Alex’s alter ego, the writer whose home is invaded and wife raped by Alex and his droogs. Magee’s brand of intensity is familiar enough on the screen, but it is revitalised in Clockwork Orange: his abrupt cries at the table as he offers food to his increasingly nervous guest are as baroque and baleful as the involuntary shudders of the original Dr. Strangelove. As Magee enjoys his revenge, Beethoven blares out to swamp Alex’s mind, and Kubrick’s camera pulls back along a billiard table to reveal a whole contemplative, mellow scene of torture, one concludes, happily, that Kubrick justly deserves his reputation as the cinema’s greatest perfectionist.



In the March 2019 issue of Sight & Sound

The last detail

Stanley Kubrick made it his business to learn about every area of visual craft, and paid unusually close attention to the design of the title sequences and publicity materials for his films, wresting increasing control over the process as his career progressed. By Rick Poynor.


Fear and desire

From the sturdy prizefighters of his early shorts to the slaves of Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick was fascinated by the physical dimensions of masculinity – providing a treasure trove of Freudian imagery, from Dr Strangelove’s cigars to Barry Lyndon’s pistols and bayonets. By Christina Newland.

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