Warner Bros. // 1971 // 137 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 13th, 2007
"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."
Pornographic violence, art, or both? A Clockwork Orange has been the subject of controversy since before its release. A brilliant satire on violence in the media as well as a scathing critique of the conformist elements of society, Warner Bros. gives us a two-disc HD DVD presentation of this controversial classic.
Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell, If...) and his droogs, who own the night with their brand of "the old ultraviolence." When Alex is betrayed by his companions, he is sent to prison. To get out early, he subjects himself to the Ludovico treatment, a procedure designed as aversion therapy for violent offenders. Neutered, he is released, and his crimes come back to haunt him.
A Clockwork Orange is, as someone comments in the extras, the kind of book or film that gets passed around under school desks. I saw the film before I could vote, and loved the irony and black humor. The film was also a mirror that reflected my own belief that society often commits horrible crimes (like high school) in the name of producing model, conforming citizens. I revisited the film again as a freshman in college, and was surprised to learn that a number of my fellow students were also fans of the film. However, instead of my appreciation for the film's black humor, I noted that most of them seemed to actively admire the film's protagonist, Alex, the violent sociopath, aping uncritically his vocabulary and posture. They seemed to have missed the implicit critique of Alex, instead latching on to the hatred for the society he inhabits, which looks not unlike our own. I began to wonder if I had read too much into the film, seeing more irony than there actually was, and consequently I had avoided the film for several years. Upon watching the film again for this review, I was happy to discover that, no, I was not wrong in seeing the black humor, and Alex, while framed sympathetically in the film, is not to be emulated.
Although I hadn't sat through all of the film since my early days in college, I did encounter a portion of the film in graduate school. During a class on the musical, the professor screened the "Singin' in the Rain" scene during a discussion of the impact of the musical form on other genres. Fully half of the small class had never seen the film before, and they found the scene very disturbing. I found it slightly less so, having seen the film, because I knew that by this moment in the film's story, the audience's sympathy has been aligned with Alex and his droogs, mostly through Malcolm McDowell's masterful narration. Without this sympathetic padding, Alex's violence becomes even more disturbing than it is in the context of the film. This incident reminded me that, while the film's violence may be acceptable in the context of its overall achievement, the film is still a violent and disturbing experience.
Perhaps my favorite moment in re-watching A Clockwork Orange is the moment where the audience gets to see what Alex fantasizes while reading The Bible, and it's the most subtle moment in a loud and bombastic film. Its message is simple: the human race has been violent for all of history. There is nothing new about the violence in contemporary society, even after the introduction of film and the ubiquity of television. With this message in mind, Kubrick spends the entire film interrogating our reaction to violence, just as the doctors test Alex's reaction to violence as well. Kubrick uses every technique in his considerable arsenal to ensure that we identify with a violent sociopath, and then he tortures him, evoking our sympathy. The film features unflinching, disgusting violence, but it does so in an attempt to make us question our unthinking responses to the products of our culture, especially the visual ones. It's an ugly film in many respects, but a film that is not ugly for its own sake, but ugly to teach the audience a lesson.
Kubrick's interrogation could not have accomplished nearly so much without Malcolm McDowell as his protagonist. Indeed, according to the extras, Kubrick would not have made the film if he couldn't get McDowell. His performance is truly one of the most fearless ever put on film, as he jumps from confident bully to scared test-subject. I can only think to compare him to De Niro's Travis Bickle in terms of an actor embodying, committing fully, to a character. McDowell, however, is not alone, as the film is populated by excellent actors who are willing to go to some very dark places to bring Kubrick's vision to life.
Prior to this release, I made do with grainy, washed-out versions of the film. I recall the first version I saw, before the advent of DVD, and the film looked flat and lifeless, even for VHS, and Warner's 2000 remaster didn't look that great either. All that is forgotten with this disc. The film has a depth previously absent, and detail is significantly improved over previous DVD editions. That being said, the presentation is not perfect. The film looks a little softer than I would like, and there are a few scenes with poorly reproduced grain that looks too much like noise. The film's dialogue and all-important musical score were reproduced adequately, but I wanted them, the music especially, to pop a little bit more.
The extras are a worthy addition to the film. The documentary "Still Tickin': Making A Clockwork Orange" consists mainly of interview segments with critics and artists who, while they have little direct connection with the making of the film, offer interesting insights into the impact of the film on our culture. With highlights including comments by critic Alexander Walker and director Sam Mendes, I found this to be the most engaging of the extras on the set. The second documentary, "Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: Making A Clockwork Orange," offers more interview segments, this time primarily with people connected to the production, like the costume designer and producer, interspered with comments from other famous drictors, like Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, William Friedkin, and Sydney Pollack. Lots of info gets repeated between these segments, especially the lore surrounding injuries to McDowell. The final documentary focuses on Malcolm McDowell, offering interviews with him, as well as his family and co-workers. As a feature-length piece, it feels a bit long (the first two-and-a-half minutes are nothing but clips from his films), but McDowell is a charismatic storyteller and is worth watching. His charisma also comes through on the commentary he does with Nick Redman. The two were recorded together, and there's a good mix between personal anecdotes and production details. As a whole, the extras round out the set well, providing info for those who are new to the film, as well as interesting anecdotes for those already familiar with the production.
The film earned its rating: nudity, violence, and foul language abound. While I can't find too much fault with the presentation of the film, the faint of heart are warned that this film pulls no punches.
As a film, A Clockwork Orange tackles themes which are still very relevant, presenting them in a way that is still shocking over thirty years later. It's not a film to put on when you desire an evening's entertainment, but it is a film that is worth watching at least once. This HD DVD is an excellent way to experience the film for the first time, or again.
This movie makes me think we're all a little guilty, but Warner Bros. is acquitted for its presentation of Kubrick's film.
Review content copyright © 2007 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Malcolm McDowell and Historian Nick Redman
* "Still Tickin': Making A Clockwork Orange" Documentary
* "Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: Making A Clockwork Orange" Featurette
* "O Lucky Malcolm" Career Profile
* Theatrical Trailer
* Review - Two-Disc Special Edition
* Review - Blu-ray Version