Content warning: sexual assault and rape
This month, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the director’s death, Stanley Kubrick’s scintillating, surreal masterpiece A Clockwork Orange is being re-released in cinemas across the UK. Adapted in 1971 from Anthony Burgess’ novel, it tells the story of Alex, a teenage criminal who leads his gang of droogs (more on the film’s unique vernacular later) in acts of shocking violence and depravity. Set in a dystopian near-future Britain, at once alien and scarily immediate, Kubrick’s film is visually striking and thematically provocative, dealing with ideas of morality and free will. However, if A Clockwork Orange remains in our shared cultural consciousness, it is largely down to its then-controversial depiction of violence and subsequent ‘banning.’ Really, it was Kubrick who chose to have the film removed from circulation in Britain, but its legacy as a censored work persists.
Though much of A Clockwork Orange’s brutality is suggested rather than explicitly shown, it remains disturbing, particularly a section where Alex beats a writer half to death and then sexually assaults his wife, all whilst warbling the lyrics to ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ The combination of upbeat music and on-screen sadism has inspired innumerable directors, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, in the ensuing years. It is an unforgettable scene, macabre and repellent in the way we find ourselves enjoying the company of a murderous rapist.
Alex is a seductive figure in Burgess’s novel, but the odiously magnetic performance of Malcolm McDowell elevates him to something greater, each cocky smirk and swaggering step countered by moments where we truly sympathise with him. This sympathy derives from his treatment at the hands of abstract, terrifyingly bureaucratic authorities following his arrest for the murder of an elderly woman. Forced to undergo the experimental ‘Ludovico Technique’ to rid him of his criminal tendencies, Alex becomes the titular ‘clockwork orange,’ organic on the exterior but ultimately mechanical within. The central question posed by Burgess’s story was whether it is better to have free will, and be capable of choosing evil, or to be stripped of this freedom in favour of working productively within society. Kubrick’s genius was to omit Burgess’s redemptive, anticlimactic final chapter in favour of a more disturbing ending. As the film closes, we see Alex about to return to his old, destructive ways.
A Clockwork Orange is a first-person film, as we see events through Alex’s eyes and, vitally, through the prism of his language. The young characters in the piece communicate via an argot known as Nadsat, Burgess’s zany concoction of cod-Russian, cockney rhyming slang and pure nonsense. As we listen to the protagonist’s words, we are forced to translate and therefore visualise his horrific urges, involving us in the action. The word ‘iconic’ has been debased in recent decades by misuse and hyperbole, but it is no exaggeration to say that the fashion adopted by Alex and his droogs has taken on iconic significance. From their all-white outfits and black bowler hats to Alex’s false eyelash, the style of A Clockwork Orange continues to influence and fascinate, almost fifty years on. It is this, the look of the film, its singular, distinctly Kubrick-esque presentation, which makes it essential viewing for a new generation.
Image: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.