Oct. 6, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Grade: 86/100

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Warren Clarke, Michael Bates

What it's about. This futuristic and surreal crime drama stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, a young man leading a double life. By day, he is the polite son of addlepated Sheila Raynor and Philip Stone. By night, he is a local terror committing rapes, assaults, and burglaries. His "droog" accomplices are big and stupid Dim (Warren Clarke) and the less interesting Georgie (James Marcus) and Pete (Michael Tarn).

The victims of Alex's spree include drunkard Paul Farrell, mad writer Patrick Magee and his comely wife Adrienne Corri, cat-lover Miriam Karlin, and various members of Billy's gang. Despite the warnings of eccentric Aubrey Morris, Alex continues his rampage until he is betrayed by his droogs and imprisoned for murder.

In prison, Alex maintains his day personality, and even pretends to become a born-again Christian in order to secure his release. He volunteers as the subject of a brainwashing experiment to reform incorrigible convicts, and is freed as a hapless man unable to act upon his omnipresent violent or sexual urges.

But Alex has the bad luck of constantly encountering his former victims, each of which manages to wreak his bit of revenge. But don't worry, a happy ending is in the works.

How others will see it. This controversial film received an 'X' rating in England. It was accused of spawning copycat crimes, and Kubrick soon pulled the film from British theaters. The ban continued until after Kubrick's death, when money talked and overcame any remaining Puritan resistance.

A Clockwork Orange was immediately a cult sensation, and further contributed to the notoriety of Stanley Kubrick, already legendary for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove.

Critical praise followed. Both the Oscars and BAFTA nominated Kubrick in the critical categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Interestly, the film did not actually win in any category, nor was Malcolm McDowell or any other actor nominated.

McDowell likely deserved a nod, if not for his performance, then for the physical punishment he endured during its production. His cornea was scratched by the metal devices that held his eyes open during the cinema scenes. He also purportedly cracked ribs when he assaulted by the Art Garfunkel look-alike, and it couldn't have been much fun when he was pushed face-down into a trough for minutes at a time.

Today, the film remains a classic, and at imdb.com, it has received an amazing 234K user ratings. It ranks fairly high in that website's Top 250. There is a noticeable decline in the user ratings with increasing age (9.1 under 18 to 8.1 over 45), and a gender gap is apparent among women over 45, who give it "only" a 7.2. The same demographic, remember, awards The Big Parade (1925) a 9.6.

How I felt about it. The movie was fairly faithful to its source Anthony Burgess novel, but the film is nonetheless shocking. The protagonist is a sadistic psychopath who cares only about himself and, perhaps, his pet snake. Other youths are equally selfish and disaffected. The parents are milquetoasts. The government comes off poorly, using Alex as a pawn in their chess game of power, and even the opposing liberal movement is eager to torture "little Alex" for their selfish political ends.

Not everyone is depicted badly. The prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) may be misguided, but he believes his own sermons. The chief guard (Michael Bates), my favorite character in the film, is also committed to his mission, which is keeping the hardened criminals in check.

Is A Clockwork Orange a comedy? Should we be amused by the outrageous antics of "little Alex"? I suspect so. The best proof that the film is a comedy is the scene where Alex learns that a hostile lodger (Clive Francis) has effectively usurped his place in his family. Alex is told that his snake had died, and sad music plays in the background.

If that scene brings out a smirk in the viewer, it's because malicious pleasure is taken in the comeuppance of "little Alex." At best, this follows the Biblical maxim about "an eye for an eye." At worst, it proves that we the viewer have a sadistic dark side just like Alex, although fortunately less violent.