Filmsite Movie Review
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971) is producer-director-screenwriter Stanley Kubrick's randomly ultra-violent, over-indulgent, graphically-stylized film of the near future. It was a terrifying, gaudy film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 satiric, futuristic novel of the same name. This was Kubrick's ninth feature film, appearing between 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Barry Lyndon (1975).

The luridly-colorful set designs by John Barry, costume design by Milena Canonero, the synthesized electronic score by Wendy Carlos [sometimes credited as Walter Carlos - her birth name until undergoing a sex-change operation in 1972 to became Wendy], the colorful and innovative cinematography by John Alcott, and the hybrid, jargonistic, pun-filled language of Burgess' novel (called Nadsat - an onomatopoetic, expressive combination of English, Russian, and slang), produce a striking, unforgettable film. Some words are decipherable in their contextual use, or as anglicized, portmanteau, rhymed, or clever transformations or amputations of words. Originally, the rock group The Rolling Stones were considered for the main cast roles of Alex and his droogs, until Kubrick joined the production.

The controversial film's title and other names in the film have meaning. The title alludes to:

  • a clockwork (mechanical, artificial, robotic) human being (orange - similar to orang-utan, a hairy ape-like creature), and
  • the Cockney phrase from East London, "as queer as a clockwork orange" - indicating something bizarre internally, but appearing natural, human, and normal on the surface

The film's poster and tagline advertised its themes of violence in a police state, teen delinquency, technological control, and dehumanization:

Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.

Originally rated X, A Clockwork Orange was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Screenplay, but was defeated in each category by William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971). It was one of only two movies rated X on its original release (the other was Midnight Cowboy (1969)) that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.

To underline the assaultive nature of the film's content, much of its camera work is deliberately in-out, with few pans or much lateral/horizontal movement. Because of the copy-cat violence that the film was blamed for, Kubrick withdrew it from circulation in Britain about a year after its release. [Shortly after the ban was instituted, a 17-year old Dutch girl was raped in 1973 in Lancashire, at the hands of men singing Singing in the Rain. And a 16-year-old boy had beaten a younger child while wearing Alex's uniform of white overalls, black bowler hat and combat boots. Both were considered 'proof', after the fact, that the film had an influential effect on violence in society.] In preparation for a new 1972 release for US audiences, Kubrick replaced about 30 seconds of footage to get an R-rating, as opposed to the X-rating that the MPAA initially assigned to it. (The replacement footage was for two scenes: the high-speed orgy scene in Alex's bedroom, and the rape scene projected at the Ludovico Medical Center.) In the spring of 2000, an uncut version of the film was re-released to British screens.

The frightening, chilling and tantalizing film (a morality play) raised many thematic questions and presented a thought-provoking parable: How can evil be eradicated in modern society? If the state can deprive an individual of his free will, making him 'a clockwork orange,' what does this say about the nightmarish, behavioral modification technologies of punishment and crime? Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the free-will choice between good and evil?

Plot Synopsis

The title of the film plays upon an orange-shaded background. The setting of the film is England in the near future [later in the film, the police wear an emblem of Elizabeth II on their lapels]. In the background, gothic-sounding organ plays Purcell's 'Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary' - a funereal dirge. [The music was played on an electronic organ by pioneering synthesist Wendy (or Walter) Carlos.]

The opening memorable image is an intimate closeup of the blue staring eyes and smirking face of ebullient young punker Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell), wearing a bowler hat and with one false eyelash (upper and lower) adorning his right eye. His cufflinks and suspenders are ornamentally decorated with a bloody, ripped-out eyeball.

[Note: This menacing closeup is known as the 'Kubrick' stare, with the head tilted down and slightly to the side, with penetrating eyes staring forward from behind the eyebrow line. The same stare was also prominently found in Kubrick's works: Dr. Strangelove, Or: (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).]

As the camera zoom pulls back, the anti-hero character with the malevolent, cold stare is shown sitting amidst his kingly court of teenaged gang of "droogs" - Georgie (James Marcus), Dim (Warren Clarke), and Pete (Michael Tarn). The young hoodlums wear oversized, protective cod-pieces to flaunt their sexuality, over their all-white combat suits. [Their names are symbolic: Alex represents the heroic and majestic leader Alexander the Great, but in this case "A-lex" - a man without law or 'a law unto himself.' A-lex literally means 'without law.' The droogs have Russian names, e.g., Dim is probably a shortened version of Dimitri.]

In front of them and also forming a corridor on either side of the camera are grotesque forms of art work in a mood of futuristic nihilism - sculpted, sleek, hygienic white-fiber glass nude furniture and statues of submissive women either kneeling or in a back-bending position on all fours as tables. Colors are absent except for the artificial orlon wigs and pubic hair.

The visually-brilliant film is narrated by Alex, the film's main hero/protagonist:

Alex (voice-over): There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

In the Korova Milkbar, spiked, hallucinogenic drink concoctions (called "milk-plus") served from the nippled breasts of the coin-operated mannequins are automatically laced with drugs to alter their minds and get them ready for entertainment - a bit of "the old ultra-violence." They are looking forward to a night of sado-sexual escapades (beatings, pillaging, mayhem, break-ins and rape). The teen-aged boys, wearing zoned-out, pathological expressions on their faces and assuming arrogant poses, are preparing to go on a rampage led by Alex.

Visually, they are harshly backlit and project elongated shadows ahead of them as they walk through the darkened streets with billyclubs, wearing white trousers and white suspenders to match, black combat boots and derbies. Every night, they commit stylized but meaningless acts of terrorism including rape ("the old in-out, in-out"), robbery, and mugging.

The youth gang beat up a drunken bum (Paul Farrell) who has sought refuge in a gutter under a pedestrian underpass, while singing "Molly Malone." The "filthy, dirty old drunkie" taunts them and is severely beaten after masochistically bemoaning the state of affairs in the present society - "a stinking world" where the young show no respect for the elderly:

Alex (voice-over): One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy, dirty old drunkie, howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blerp, blerp in between, as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking rotten guts. I could never stand to see anyone like that, whatever his age might be, but more especially when he was real old like this one was. (The boys stop and applaud the Tramp's singing)
Tramp: Can you spare some cutter, me brothers? (Alex rams his club into the tramp's stomach) Go on, do me in, you bastard cowards. I don't want to live anyway...not in a stinking world like this.
Alex: Oh...and what's so stinking about it?
Tramp: It's a stinking world because there's no law and order any more. It's a stinking world because it lets the young get onto the old, like you done.'s no world for an old man any longer. What sort of a world is it at all? Men on the moon, and men spinning around the earth, and there's not no attention paid to earthly law and order no more.

On the soundtrack, a balletic overture of violins and woodwinds plays, as the camera pans down from a gilded proscenium above the stage of a derelict, abandoned opera house/casino, a symbol of collapsed civilization. Operatic screams and waltztime music are heard as a young woman struggles during an acrobatically-delivered molestation. On stage, the buxom rape victim or 'devotchka' (Shirley Jaffe) has her clothes torn off by five other mad-faced delinquents from a rival gang. The leader, Billyboy (Richard Connaught) and his gang of droogs wear remnants of old Nazi uniforms:

Alex (in voice-over): It was around by the derelict casino that we came across Billyboy and his four droogs. They were getting ready to perform a little of the old in-out, in-out on a weepy young devotchka they had there.

From the shadows, Alex and his gang observe the preparation for the rape, and then - preferring violence to sex, challenge them to a fight on the rubbish-strewn floor with a youthful, sexual insult: "How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap, stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunich jelly thou." The old-fashioned, stylized rumble, a quick-edited succession of violent images performed as a balletic dance, is dazzling - synchronized with the building music from Rossini's The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra). In slap-stick style, the adolescent gangs flash switchblades, hurl each other through furniture and plate glass windows, and use judo to smash each other about. Bodies fly through the air, leap and somersault; chairs smash heads.

When a police siren alerts them to the arrival of police, Alex and his gang escape - crammed into a stolen sports car - a Durango-95. [The car's model, aka Probe 16, was a concept car produced in the year 1970. Is this an anachronism or not? Does it imply that the film's setting was approximately the same as the time of the film's release? Note: the 95 in the car's title refers to the car's model number - it doesn't refer to the year 1995.] The vehicle is a low-slung, fast, phallic-shaped car headed into the black night of the countryside. Driving at reckless speed in a rush toward the camera (with the sides of the road receding behind them), they play "chicken" with other vehicles, exhilarated by the panic and excitement of forcing other cars and drivers off the road:

Alex (voice-over): The Durango-95 purred away real horrorshow - a nice, warm, vibraty feeling all through your guttiwuts. Soon, it was trees and dark, my brothers, with real country dark. We fillied around for a while with other travellers of the night, playing hogs of the road. Then we headed west, what we were after now was the old surprise visit. That was a real kick and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultra-violence.

At an opulent residence welcomingly marked with a lit "HOME" panel sign, the four sneak up toward the door of the ultra-modern home, a monstrosity of futuristic architectural design. The home is the residence of the Alexanders. The elderly husband Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), a left-leaning writer, taps away at his IBM typewriter in a book-shelved section of the home. His wife Mrs. Alexander (Adrienne Corri), wearing a red pajama suit, reads in a white plastic chair. When the doorbell rings (to the chimed tune of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony!) and she answers, Alex pleads and claims that there has been "a terrible accident" and he must use their phone to call an ambulance: "It's a matter of life and death." She hesitates to let him in, suspicious of night callers. But Mr. Alexander acquiesces to the passionate request and permits entry.

When she unlatches the door, the gang bursts in to bring a nightmarish form of entertainment - they are wearing bizarre comical masks. Alex has a grotesque, phallic-nosed face mask. Dim slings Mrs. Alexander over his shoulder and fondles her. Mr. Alexander is assaulted and kicked on the floor by Alex who ironically punctuates his rhythmic, soft-shoe kick-dance with the lyrics of "Singin' in the Rain." The scene is one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, with its juxtaposition of the familiar lyrics of playful music from a classic film with slapstick comedy, brutality and horrible ultra-violence:

I'm singin' in the rain, Just singin' in the rain...
What a glorious feeling, I'm happy again..
I'm laughing at clouds, so dark up above..
The sun's in my heart, and I'm ready for love.
Let the stormy clouds chase, Everyone from the place
Come on with the rain, I've a smile on my face.
I'll walk down the lane, With a happy refrain
And I'm singin', just singin' in the rain.

The appearance of mirrors in the hallway implies that the rape is metaphorically executed over and over again, and also reflects the mental/psychological state of the victim. Both victims were bound and gagged, with a rubber ball painfully inserted into their mouths and wrapped with long strips of Scotch tape around their heads. Alex overturns the writer's desk, typewriter, and bookshelves. Mr. Alexander is forced to helplessly watch the ugly disrobing and choreographed rape of his own wife. A grown-up 'child,' Alex begins by first attacking her breasts - he first snips off two circles of jumpsuit cloth around them to expose them. In the mode of 'Jack the Ripper', he then slits her entire suit off from her pant leg upward. After unzipping and pulling his own pants down prior to her rape, he mocks the husband: "Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well."

After a long night of "energy expenditure," the group returns to the Korova Milkbar where they are seen sprawling against its black walls:

Alex (voice-over): We were all feeling a bit shagged and fagged and fashed, it having been an evening of some small energy expenditure, O my brothers. So we got rid of the auto and stopped off at the Korova for a nightcap.

At a nearby table where "some sophistos from the TV studios" are "laughing and govoreeting," the woman in the group suddenly has a "burst of singing" with a short section of Schiller's Ode to Joy chorale movement from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. For Alex, it is a moment of pure ecstasy:

Alex (voice-over): And it was like for a moment, O my brothers, some great bird had flown into the milkbar and I felt all the malenky little hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again. Because I knew what she sang. It was a bit from the glorious Ninth, by Ludwig van.

After Dim blows a raspberry at the singer, Alex smashes him across the legs with his cane for lack of respect ("for being a bastard with no manners") for his favorite, beloved composer. The oafish Dim whines and whimpers and shows dissatisfaction and discontent with Alex's leadership: "I don't like you should do what you done. And I'm not your brother no more and wouldn't want to be...Yarbles, great bolshy yarblockos to you. I'll meet you with chain or nozh or britva any time. Not having you aiming tolchocks at me reasonless. It stands to reason, I won't have it." But Dim backs down and declines to fight and Alex lets the challenge go, for the moment.

He returns home to Municipal Flatblock 18a Linear North, where he lives with his "dadda and mum." In the ground-floor, trashed lobby of the depressing, unkempt building, a huge mural depicting the dignity of labor and noble citizens is defaced with obscene sexual graffiti. The elevator door is broken and Alex must take the stairs. The wall inside his room is decorated with an erotic, spread-eagled female image on one side, and a poster of Beethoven on the other. He puts his loot from the evening into a drawer already filled with stolen watches and wallets. In a second drawer, he checks his pet python. As "the perfect ending" to the "wonderful evening," Alex switches on a cassette tape of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. While musically appreciating his favorite composer and classical piece, he lies back on his bed. His pet python phallically explores the exposed crotch area of the female figure on the wall.

During the drugged reverie of listening to Beethoven in his combination-locked bedroom, Alex moans orgiastically: "Oh bliss, bliss and heaven. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a space ship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied I knew such lovely pictures." Spaced-out pictures from Alex's hallucinogenic, sado-masochistic dreams are flashed in images on-screen [as Alex allegedly masturbates - just out of the viewable frame]:

  • Quick-cuts of four plastic, tap-dancing bleeding, crucifix Jesuses
  • A white-dressed woman dropping through the trap-door floor as she is hung by the neck and viewed by leering men from above
  • A close-up of Alex's face as he laughs maniacally and bares bloody fangs
  • Exploding rocks or a volcanic eruption
  • A fiery explosion
  • A rockslide avalanche crushing primitive Neanderthal men

The next morning, his financially hard-pressed, working-class parents Pee (Philip Stone) and violet-haired Em (Sheila Raynor) are confused, apologetic, and apparently frightened by their son's devious behavior. Costumed in garish, mod outfits and drinking their morning coffee, they speak about him in the kitchenette of their ugly, knick-nack filled flat:

Pee (father): I wonder, where exactly is it he goes to work of evenings?
Em (mother): Well, like he says, it's mostly odd things he does, helping like, here and there as it might be.

After finally getting up, but feeling "a pain in the gulliver" and missing school, Alex plods around in his underwear and is surprised to discover his middle-aged, pudgy, social worker/probation officer ("Post Corrective Adviser") Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) in the apartment (he was given the key by Alex's mother on the way to work). A sexually-deviant adult, Deltoid is happy to have found the young boy before he has had a chance to get dressed. After having Alex sit on the bed next to him, he affectionately puts his arm around Alex's bare shoulders and speaks to him in the Nadsat lingo of youth: watch out, little Alex, because next time it's not going to be the Corrective School anymore. Next time, it's going to be the barry place and all my work ruined. If you've no respect for your horrible self, you at least might have some for me who's sweated over you. A big black mark, I tell you, for every one we don't reclaim. A confession of failure for every one of you who ends up in the stripy hole.

As the rapacious and monstrous Deltoid shamelessly paws at Alex, and even makes a forceful grab at Alex's crotch, he informs Alex that he suspects the boy's involvement in the "nastiness" of the previous evening and demands reform:

Deltoid: There was a bit of a nastiness last night, yes. Some very extreme nastiness, yes. A few of a certain Billyboy's friends were ambulanced off late, yes? Your name was mentioned, the word has got thru to me by the usual channels. Certain friends of yours were named also. Oh, nobody can prove anything about anybody as usual, but I'm warning you, little Alex, being a good friend to you as always, the one man in this sore and sick community who wants to save you from yourself. (He forcefully grabs at Alex's crotch. Alex doubles over in pain, squirms away and rises. He drinks from a bedside glass of water, not noticing the pair of false-teeth floating within.) What gets into you all? We study the problem. We've been studying it for damn well near a century, yes, but we get no further with our studies. You've got a good home here, good loving parents, you've got not too bad of a brain. Is it some devil that crawls inside of you?
Alex: Nobody's got anything on me, brother, sir. I've been out of the rookers of the millicents for a long time now.
Deltoid: That's just what worries me. A bit too long to be safe. You're about due now by my reckoning. That's why I'm warning you, little Alex, to keep your handsome young proboscis out of the dirt. Do I make myself clear?
Alex: As an unmuddied lake, sir. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.

In a flashy, mirrored, musical boutique, two teeny-boppers (brunette Marty (uncredited Barbara Scott) and redhead Sonietta (Gillian Hills)) lick phallic-shaped (but droopy) icy lollipops. To the synthesized sounds of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the stylishly-dressed Alex is filmed in an elaborate, 360 degree tracking shot as he struts through the record store [the soundtrack of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is on display at one of the counters, clearly an inside joke] and scrutinizes young females. After hunting around and inquiring about an order, he asks the pop-sucking little sisters: "A bit cold and pointless, isn't it, my lovely?" and then invites the two young boppers back to his room to listen to music on his elaborate hi-fi system:

What you got back home, little sister, to play your fuzzy warbles on? I bet you got little save pitiful portable picnic players. Come with uncle and hear all proper. Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited.

After getting them back to his room, a creatively-filmed high-speed, slapstick orgy scene occurs. The frenetically-paced orgy is staged to the tempo of the "William Tell Overture." Before sexual hijinks, he sprays underarm deodorant at them, and then they frolic in group sex upon his bed. Both teen nymphets undress, dress and undress again. [The scene was shot at twelve times normal film speed (at 2 frames per second). It took an actual 28 minutes to film, but lasts only 40 seconds on screen.]

Alex's mutinous droog gang are waiting for him in the squalid lobby of the apartment building when he comes downstairs. After grumbling about his "giving orders and discipline" and confronting him with his dictatorial treatment, they demand a "mansize crast" to go after the "big, big money":

Alex: Let's get things nice and sparkling clear. This sarcasm, if I may call it such, does not become you, O my little brothers. As I am your droog and leader, I am entitled to know what goes on, eh? Now then, Dim, what does that great big horsy gape of a grin portend?
Georgie: All right, no more picking on Dim, brother. That's part of the new way.
Alex: New way? What's this about a new way? There's been some very large talk behind my sleeping back, and no error.
Georgie: Well, if you must have it, have it then. We go around, shop crasting and the like, coming out with a pitiful rookerful of money each.
Dim: Pitiful rookerful.
Georgie: And there's Will the English, in the Muscleman coffee mesto, saying he can fence anything that any malchick tries to crast. The shiny stuff, the ice, the big, big, big money is available, is what Will the English says.
Dim: Big, big money.
Alex: And what will you do with the big, big, big money? Have you not everything you need? Have you not everything you need? If you need a motor car, you pluck it from the trees. If you need pretty polly, you take it.
Georgie: Brother, you think and talk sometimes like a little child.

To appease the dissidents' bitter disaffection, Alex offers to reconcile with them and suggests first buying them a round of drinks ("moloko-plus") at the Korova milkbar. They walk along the flatblock marina to the bar, in graceful slow-motion (in striking contrast to the high-speed orgy scene previously):

Alex (voice-over): As we walked along the flatblock marina, I was calm on the outside but thinking all the time. So now it was to be Georgie the General, saying what we should do, and what not to do, and Dim as his mindless, grinning bulldog. But, suddenly, I viddied that thinking was for the gloopy ones, and that the oomny ones used like inspiration and what Bog sends. For now it was lovely music that came to my aid. There was a window open, with a stereo on, and I viddied right at once what to do.

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