Warner Bros. // 1971 // 136 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // October 27th, 2011
The adventures of a young man whose principle interests are rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven.
Director Stanley Kubrick's most divisive film, A Clockwork Orange, has been reviled, praised, scorned, and adulated; it's literary source and cinematic technique has been sliced and diced, filleted and pureed, until there remains little to write that hasn't already been written. Consequently, what follows will be a few personal observations and a technical aspects rundown of this 40th Anniversary Blu-ray incarnation.
The movie opens with a scene of Alex (Malcom McDowell, Time After Time) and his trio of fellow thugs (or "droogs" in the movie's futuristic argot) sprawled about in a bar drinking milk spiked with adrenochrome, all in preparation for a night of "a bit of the old ultra-violence." What follows is a free-for-all fight with a rival gang, the vicious beating of an old rummy, and a home invasion in which the husband is hog-tied, kicked, punched, and forced to watch his wife being gang raped. Just another night of fun and games for Alex and his merry band.
Later, Alex attempts to discipline a pair of his fellow gang members by beating them into submission, but his tough love technique is not appreciated. He is set-up by his droogs to take the fall in an attempted robbery that results in the murder of a homeowner. Alex, ever the charming sociopath, quickly adjusts to his incarceration and becomes a model prisoner, but when he learns of the "Ludovico Technique" -- an experimental procedure that purportedly reforms social misfits like himself (and not coincidentally will result in an early release) -- he volunteers for the program. Following his social conditioning, involuntary nausea is triggered as a response to any violent action, which also results in his inability to defend himself. With the tables now turned, Alex finds himself at the mercy of his many former victims.
My first viewing of A Clockwork Orange, on a theater screen in 1971, was a jarring experience. The brutal, stylized rape scene and tightly choreographed, balletic violence -- horrifying yet hypnotic -- was a cognitively dissonant carnival ride. Only three years earlier, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey served up science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarkes' vast, technophilic vision of alien-induced transcendence, an experience that left many of the audience -- filing into the lobby during the intermission, and later exiting the theater -- scratching their pates and arguing over the film's meaning and intent. Yet here was a thoroughly dystopian view of another future, based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, grounded in a blighted, post-Thatcherite Britain (with remarkable prescience, years before Margret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister), that was the polar opposite of Kubrick's earlier film. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey was sterile and austere, set in the interior of spacecrafts and the bleak vacuum of interstellar space, A Clockwork Orange was terrestrial-based, mercilessly violent, and filled with sordid individuals on both sides of the law. A bleak take on humanity, indeed.
A few individuals were apparently so repelled by the film's violence they sent death threats to Stanley Kubrick and his family (unaware of the irony, no doubt). He took the threats seriously enough to leave Ireland during the production of Barry Lyndon, and asked Warner Bros. to end any further showings or distribution of A Clockwork Orange in England. His request was granted by the studio, and the movie was not available for viewing in Britain until after Kubrick's death in 1999. Even the book's author essentially disowned the novel in 1985, saying "The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate...knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation..."
Although the film has such a troubled history and accrued considerable notoriety, what I've discovered upon re-watching it again many years later is that A Clockwork Orange, much to my surprise, is a funny movie. Not only funny, but a hilariously laugh-out-loud, broad comedy. Once the story arc is revealed and the initial shock has dissipated, repeated viewings uncover the black comedy and satirical aspects of the movie. Michael Bates as the Chief Guard pulls faces that would not be out of place in a Monty Python sketch; the dinner scene between Alex and Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee, The Monster Club), is a jewel of comic timing when Magee, who now recognizes Alex as the man who crippled him, loudly enunciates: "Food all right?! Try the wine!" all the while with Alex flanked by the hulking and silent presence of Frank's bodyguard, Julian (David Prowse, soon to wear the armor of Darth Vader in Star Wars); the famous, vaudevillian styled dentures-in-a-drinking glass scene; and many others.
Not to make light of the serious issues of violence addressed throughout the film. Alex, in spite of his charm and his seductive voice-over narration, is a monster. There is nothing at all humorous about his acts of rape and murder, no matter how glossy and stylized they come across on the screen. Still, there is no denying the comic aspects of the movie. Perhaps the uneasy balance between the melodramatic mayhem and the near-slapstick comedy is one of the elements that makes the film so compelling. It's a sly movie that gets under your skin and almost demands repeat viewings.
Technically, A Clockwork Orange (Blu-ray) Digibook is not a go-to disc for showing off your new video display to friends. The color space, as with all HD sourced Blu-rays, is better than standard definition, and this disc does a good job of displaying decent skin tones and well-balanced color. But there are many scenes that are soft, out-of-focus, or downright blurry. Kubrick shot A Clockwork Orange on a low budget, partly just to prove to the studio that he could turn out a first-rate movie without a gargantuan outlay of cash. Consequently, all of the exteriors were filmed on location, and only one or two interior sets were constructed for the movie (the opening shot of the Milk Bar was the most elaborate, built set). Many of the scenes were filmed with hand-held cameras, and the lighting was all "single-source" (Kubrick had numerous specialized, very high voltage bulbs imported from Germany to light the sets). All of these factors contribute to a guerrilla-style type of shooting that results in an often rough appearance. I did read a couple of complaints of instances of macro-blocking and banding; I did not spot those artifacts, though it's possible I missed them. In any case, most of the picture problems are inherent in the elements used for the mastering. More than likely, the movie will never look much better than it does on this Blu-ray transfer.
The fidelity of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is impressive. There is very little surround action, naturally enough for a film that is forty years old. The audio remastering is remarkable, taking into consideration its monophonic source. Dialogue is clear, sound effects are quite good (once again, taking into account natural deficiencies of the original mono track), and the music -- both the symphonic pieces and Wendy (at that time still Walter) Carlos' score have never sounded better.
A Clockwork Orange (Blu-ray) Digibook is stuffed with extras, many of them ported over from previous releases. They are all Dolby Digital 2.0 and in standard definition, except for one feature that is 1080i. Extras on the first disc include:
Turning Like Clockwork (26:19)
A fairly in-depth discussion of the movie's violence, new for the 2011 release.
Malcom McDowell Looks Back (10:30)
A lightweight intro to the movie by McDowell, also new for this release.
Great Bolshy Yarblocks! Making A Clockwork Orange (28:19)
A 2007 featurette that mostly centers around Stanley Kubrick.
Still Tickin': The Return of Clockwork Orange (43:42)
A very good discussion and analysis of the movie and novel.
The second disc contains a pair of extras:
O Lucky Malcom! (1:26:00)
A career profile of Malcom McDowell, with much personal self-commentary, presented in 1080i.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2:22:00)
An excellent documentary by Jan Harlan (brother of Kubrick's widow, Christiane), narrated by Tom Cruise. It portrays Kubrick in a mostly favorable light, but does not shy from a bit of controversy here and there. Many interviews with friends and colleagues of the director, and quite a few archival photographs and film clips of Kubrick as a child make this a fascinating look into his background and working methods.
Both discs are housed in a digibook with 34 pages of full-color photos and commentary on the movie.
The transfer for this edition is identical to the 2007 Blu-ray. Unless you have a hankering for the extra disc containing the Kubrick and McDowell documentaries (or the Digibook packaging), there's no need for a new purchase. If you don't have the earlier Blu-ray or only own the DVD, A Clockwork Orange (Blu-ray) Digibook is a solid visual and audio upgrade, and a must-have for all fans.
Not guilty. Righty-right?
Review content copyright © 2011 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish, Castilian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
* Spanish (Castilian)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R