Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

“If you need Pretty Polly — you take it.”

In a dystopian British future, an ultra-violent thug (Malcolm McDowell) who has committed a series of heinous crimes with his “droogs” (James Marcus, Michael Tarn, and Warren Clarke) is arrested and sent to prison, where he undergoes a new conversion therapy known as the “Ludovico Technique”. Upon release, Alex (McDowell) feels ill at the thought of violence or sex — but what future lies ahead for this reformed delinquent?


Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel — written after Burgess endured the brutal beating and rape of his wife by AWOL GI’s during a WWII blackout raid — remains a “visually brilliant [yet] thematically reprehensible” film. Peary asserts that “because Alex is meant to embody our savage, anarchic impulses, Kubrick figured we’d identify with him”, and “manipulates us into accepting Alex in relation to the world”. He notes that as “played by McDowell… Alex is energetic, handsome, witty, and more clever, honest, intelligent, and interesting than any of the adults in the cruel world” — and that “without exception, Kubrick makes Alex’s victims more obnoxious than they are in the book [and] their abuse at Alex’s hands more palatable by making them grotesque, mannered, snobbish figures”. Peary points out how many “distancing devices” Kubrick uses, including “extreme wide angles, slow motion, fast motion, surreal backgrounds, [and] songs that counterpoint the violence” — which, by the way, is all “very stylized” when Alex perpetrates it, “but when it comes time for him to endure violence… is much more realistic”. We’re led to pity Alex, who is “like an alley cat declawed before being returned to the streets”.

Peary’s no-holds-barred reviews of A Clockwork Orange in GFTFF (and his Cult Movies 2 book) are incisive, compelling, and worth quoting at greater length. He notes that Burgess stated, “If we are going to love mankind, we will have to love Alex as a not unrepresentative member of it; it is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness — violence chosen as an act of will — than a world conditioned to be good or harmless.” However, Peary points out that “the mankind Kubrick shows us is totally alien to us and not worthy of our love. And even before he undergoes the Ludovico treatment, Alex’s violent acts don’t seem to be made through free choice, but are reflexive, conditioned by past violence — he is already a clockwork orange (human on the outside, mechanized on the inside).” Ultimately, the “film’s strong, gratuitous violence is objectionable (as is the comical atmosphere when violence is being perpetrated), but the major reason the film can be termed fascistic is Kubrick’s heartless, super-intellectual, super-orderly, anti-septic, anti-human, anti-female, anti-sensual, anti-passion, anti-erotic treatment of its subject”, with “all emotional stimuli… lumped together as being harmful”, and “all art… pornographic”.

In Cult Movies 2, Peary adds that “the film is like a Sunday sermon where the fellow up on the pulpit suddenly realizes there is no moral lesson that applies to his listeners… Kubrick [simply] teaches paranoid individuals… that you can’t cure the habitual thrill criminal”. He concludes his essay in this book by noting that “once Alex is arrested and the look of the film shifts away from dreamlike pop art, the picture becomes excruciatingly dull”. I’m essentially in agreement with Peary: I’ve avoided a re-watch of A Clockwork Orange for years, and don’t plan to revisit it again — but it’s infamous (and beloved) enough to warrant one-time viewing by film fanatics. (Meanwhile, the cinematography and sets are indeed memorable, as is Wendy Carlos’s synthesized score.) Be forewarned that some scenes are almost unbearably misogynistic and/or brutalizing; if our world is actually headed in this direction, we have reason to be very scared indeed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Malcolm McDowell as Alex
  • John Alcott’s cinematography
  • Many hideously memorable sequences

  • Effectively stylized, futuristic sets and visual design

  • Wendy Carlos’s memorable synthesized score

Must See?
Yes, once, as a dark cult classic.


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


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