Judge Ryan Keefer likes his coffee like his timepieces, with all kinds of citrus thrown around them.
Our reviews of A Clockwork Orange (published July 5th, 1999), A Clockwork Orange (Blu-ray) Digibook (published October 27th, 2011), A Clockwork Orange (HD DVD) (published December 13th, 2007), and A Clockwork Orange: Two-Disc Special Edition (published November 12th, 2007) are also available.
"Although a certain amount of hypocrisy exists about it, everyone is fascinated by violence. After all, man is the most remorseless killer who ever stalked the earth."—Stanley Kubrick, in a 1972 interview with Newsweek
The films of Stanley Kubrick have been restored, remastered, and now all out re-released, with this film and several others being given the Special Edition treatment, full of extras, commentaries and perhaps most importantly, widescreen transfers. So with A Clockwork Orange being re-released with many of these same things and doubly available on Blu-ray, is it worth the double-dip?
Facts of the Case
Kubrick adapted the novel from Anthony Burgess to the silver screen. Set in the not too distant future of London, the film tells the tale of Alex (Malcolm McDowell, Caligula), a young man who cavorts around with his friends and looks to engage in violent acts of assault, rape or worse. Betrayed by his friends, he's convicted of a particular crime and sent to prison, where he decides to take part in an experimental program designed to root out any of his bad behavior and mindset, using chemicals designed to sicken him at the thought of any lascivious action and essentially neuter him. Upon his release from prison after his newfound ways have taken hold, he finds it hard to stay on the straight and narrow, in part because of what he's done to others.
What's cool about looking at the Kubrick films again after a gap in time is that I get to consult "The Stanley Kubrick Archives," a massive hardcover book with numerous stills, interview excerpts and the like. And fresh off the heels of his work in 2001, he decided to take a step back and scale down his production, shooting mostly on location and doing a good portion of the work himself. He decided he wanted to prove to people he could shoot a film on a smaller budget and with lower self-expectations, but the way the film was received was more than he could have expected. The resulting work found people claiming that acts of murder were done in the name of the film, and Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from British theaters over concerns for his family's safety. The film was so decidedly violent that people couldn't seem to handle it.
But as another testament to Kubrick's style and ability is how, even after we've seen Jaws, The Exorcist, Poltergeist and countless other "torture porn" theatrical releases, people still talk about A Clockwork Orange the way they do. It's because Kubrick's violence is done realistically and without a flinching or sentimental eye. He goes to the dark place of our imagination in the most direct way possible, so that's why we still talk about Alex and the droogs. The fact that Kubrick was nominated for Writing, Directing and Best Picture Oscars for the film is a sign of how accomplished the way the story is told. Were it not for a small film called The French Connection, this would probably be the film that Kubrick's award legacy would be remembered for.
The story is apparently that Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) had given Kubrick a copy of Burgess' book, but it took some time for Kubrick to understand the source material could be made into a film. However after reading the book, Kubrick had seen McDowell in 1968's If…, and couldn't see anyone else in the role of Alex. McDowell's performance in the film is a brave one. He is charming, but isn't afraid to switch on the ultra-violent tendencies when he has to. We tend to want to see him come out better in the end somehow, though we forget that he did rape a woman, among other things, which makes us feel bad that it was done to begin with, right? The performance he turned in seems to have stigmatized him to some degree, as it's one that was certainly worthy of praise and awards (past Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle in French, not many remember the other Best Actor nominees), but he takes more risks than almost any leading male performance you're likely to see.
Technically I wasn't all that impressed by what the disc had to offer. Sure, the 1.66:1 widescreen presentation was nice to see, but the VC-1 encode on the transfer (as is the norm with Warner releases) doesn't really flesh out a lot of new things to see. The image isn't noticeably sharper or deeper, although colors seem a bit more vivid than expected. The lossless PCM soundtrack was only a little bit better, with the Beethoven music throughout sounding mighty nifty and focused throughout, and an occasional surround effect was noticed when watching the film. At the end of the day this disc is hardly reference worthy.
Previous editions of the film were relatively barebones releases but now, there's some background and value to the supplements, starting with a commentary by McDowell and Nick Redman, who previously contributed to the Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) DVDs that were recently released. McDowell discusses how he got the part and other recollections on set, while Redman provides some more background detail and some production trivia. It's a lively discussion about the film and Kubrick, and McDowell provides some memories of Burgess as well, although it seems like McDowell comes off as slightly arrogant on the track. Or at least he seems not worthy of the adoration his performance as Alex has given him. They seem to run out of steam a little bit halfway through, but it's still somewhat decent. Next up are three featurettes, the first being "Still Tickin': The Return of Clockwork Orange," as various British critics and directors like Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Tony Kaye (American History X) discuss the film, the origins of Burgess' book and the impact the film had on Britain, and those involved with its controversial rating in Britain are even interviewed as well. It also examines the violence and other controversies in the film too, and is an interesting examination on the film. "Great Bolshy Yarblockos!" looks more at the production of the film, with contemporaries like Sydney Pollack (Eyes Wide Shut), William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Steven Spielberg (A.I.) sharing their opinions on Kubrick. Crew members from the film (and Kubrick historians) would recall how he worked on the film. McDowell's performance is discussed, and the "ultraviolent" legacy the film had afterwards is talked about also. It's a decent piece, though not too revelatory. The longest piece is "O Malcolm!," a feature length career retrospect of McDowell, featuring interviews and recollections by the man himself. Peers like Mary Steenburgen (Time After Time) and directors like Robert Altman (The Company) talk about what he is like on set, and family members talk about the personal man. It's full of candor, humor and anecdotes from McDowell, and is much more entertaining than I was expecting. The trailer is the only other goodie here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
People seem to think that this film is violent, but my recollection is that the scene in the record store is far darker in the book, and Alex kills a few more people in Burgess' book too I think, including one that was shot by Kubrick but ultimately omitted from the final cut. So next time you think that Clockwork was horrible, remember it could have been even worse.
Within the context of Kubrick's life, he was fairly close to getting his long desired Napoleon biopic close to realization, but after seeing the cinematic drubbing a similar film (Waterloo) received, he wound up making A Clockwork Orange, and the world is better for it, like it or not. The performances remain as memorable as they did when you first saw them, and the imagery is still haunting. The technical qualities aren't too impressive, but the extras are a significant improvement and are worth double-dipping based on just this. It's nice to see this film get some long-overdue good treatment.
The court will viddy A Clockwork Orange some more whilst and his droogies are free to hang out at the Milkbar.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Malcolm McDowell and Historian Nick Redman
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