Warner Bros. // 1971 // 137 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // November 12th, 2007
"No time for the old in-out, love. I've just come to read the meter."
In 1971, Stanley Kubrick's gleefully sadistic A Clockwork Orange sent shockwaves through an industry that was still trying to regain its balance after films like Straw Dogs and Ken Russell's The Devils. It was considered pornographic by British censors and banned before moving on to mostly critical acclaim from American critics (Roger Ebert was one of the film's few detractors) and an Oscar nom for best picture.
Even though the film industry was roaring into a decade of bold, groundbreaking pictures, it's easy to understand the public skirmish that surrounded Clockwork. It's a youth film on crack, and variations on Kubrick's themes and visuals have reverberated in American cinema ever since. One of its more recognizable distant cousins, Fight Club, is like crack on steroids, but odds are Alex de Large could still kick Tyler Durden's ass, and with style.
Time has not diminished the power of this disturbingly funny, brilliantly imagined film.
In 1995 England, teenage sociopath Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell) and his "droogs" live on a diet of narcotic-tainted milk, Beethoven and "a little of the old ultraviolence."
Alex is apprehended by the police one night during a botched burglary that ends in murder, and he is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Two years into his sentence, he is offered the chance to be cured and released back into society.
In Still Tickin', the meatiest of three documentaries included on Warner Bros.' comprehensive two-disc special edition of Kubrick's masterpiece, American Psycho director Mary Herron tags A Clockwork Orange as a "dangerous work of art," a film that seduces viewers into its violent world and implicates them in its protagonist's crimes. It's an acute observation, and an accurate one. Clockwork is a relentless depiction of anarchy, immorality, and social disregard that is as ugly as it is intoxicating and that is still knocking viewers' senses into a tailspin several decades after its initial release.
Kubrick's film -- his response to new work from young hotshot directors -- was a fable, not the vision of things to come that many critics believed it to be. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, Kubrick's Clockwork veers wildly from its source and takes on a life of its own. Gone from Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel of the same name is the overriding theme about man's capacity to improve. In its place is a sobering indictment of a society that lobotomizes -- excuse me, cures -- its criminals. What emerges from Kubrick's grim thesis is a story so harsh and, if you'll pardon the hyperbole, evil that it's possible to overlook how elegantly structured the film is.
It wasn't until the final credits rolled that I realized just how carefully Kubrick thought out his screenplay. Every scene has purpose, and many will be referenced later in the film. For instance, take how Clockwork opens with a string of seemingly random acts of violence (the beating of a homeless man, the rape of a woman while her crippled husband watches helplessly), only to later return to the crime scenes for some swift dispensation of justice. Notice too the darkly funny flourishes that amplify the horror -- and indict us for laughing at it. "Singin' in the Rain" would never again be just a blissful anthem to head-over-heels love, and the use of a giant ceramic phallus as a murder weapon would have feminists the world over crying foul. Clockwork is sleek, cold filmmaking, but also an undeniably potent and dazzling work of art.
Steven Spielberg, in the new making-of featurette "Great Bolshy Yarblockos!," observes how no Kubrick film is alike. Well, yes and no. They have their thematic differences, but they're connected by similar creative tissue. Watch any of Kubrick's films back to back and they play like an extended fever-induced dream. Clockwork is one of the director's trademark exercises in controlled chaos, a work scored largely by classical composers (Beethoven picking up where 2001's Strauss left off) and filled with gorgeous, symmetrical compositions shattered by occasional bursts of violence and nudity. Most of Kubrick's images have been permanently ingrained into our cinematic vernacular, none more so than Alex's "rehabilitation" through the Ludovico technique, a nightmare on celluloid. And the Korova Milk Bar -- so erotic, so sterile -- is alone worthy of a closetful of set design awards.
The drum major in Kubrick's demented parade is Malcolm McDowell, whose unorthodox career has been defined by his cool, Mephistophelian Alex. The codpiece, bowler hat, and eyelashes are iconic, but it's the actor's hard, mocking voice and Cockney accent that give the film its wickedly sardonic punch. Alex and his droogs speak in the "nadsat" language introduced by Burgess in his novel, a language that has thankfully been toned down in the film to appeal to mainstream audiences. According to film historian Nick Redman in the excellent commentary included with this edition, Kubrick said he would refuse to film Burgess' novel without McDowell. That's a sharp instinct from a master craftsman playing at the top of his game.
Warner Bros.' latest edition of A Clockwork Orange may well be the final word where quality of presentation is concerned. The film is presented in 1.66.1 widescreen (its original theatrical aspect ratio) with an anamorphic transfer. Colors are true and the image has been beautifully scrubbed of all scratches and artifacts. No noticeable edge enhancement is present. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound (in both English and French) provides a nicely balanced sound mix. Dialogue is crystal clear, and the music makes good use of the rear speakers. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The generous supplemental features provided precisely what I was hoping for: a candid, well-balanced discussion of one of the most controversial films ever produced by a major studio. Between McDowell's and Redman's commentary track and the almost 45-minute Still Tickin': The Return of Clockwork Orange, you'll learn everything there is to know about the film's genesis, production, and critical response. Thanks to the passage of time, sources speak frankly about the film ("Clockwork Orange spoke for people who were apostles of violence," says writer/critic Alexander Walker). The documentary also openly addresses the fallout that occurred between Kubrick and Burgess following the film's release. In his fast-paced, engaging commentary track, McDowell recalls scratching his cornea during the infamous Ludovico sequence and nearly being drowned by his droogs. His stories are harrowing even more than thirty-five years later, and they're a delicious treat for movie buffs.
The almost 30-minute Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: Making a Clockwork Orange is a glossier but less satisfying doc fleshed out with comments from Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Peter Hyams, and William Friedkin. Much better is director Jan Harlan's O Lucky Malcolm!, a magnificent feature-length (nearly 90 minutes) profile of McDowell and his fascinating, uneven career.
Finally, the package includes the film's original theatrical trailer.
This special edition is included with Warner Bros.' Stanley Kubrick Director Series set. Even if you opt out of the set, A Clockwork Orange is an essential entry in your film library. And forget the previous editions. With its clean presentation and comprehensive bonus features, this package is the one to own.
Alex and his droogs are hereby given three consecutive life sentences, but
all charges brought against Kubrick and Warner Bros. are dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Malcolm McDowell and Nick Redman
* "Still Tickin': The Return of the Clockwork Orange"
* "Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: Making A Clockwork Orange"
* "O Lucky Malcolm!" Career Profile
* Theatrical Trailer