Set in Britain in the near future, A Clockwork Orange relates the adventures of a working-class teenage delinquent whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Ludwig Van (Beethoven). Horrorshow fun for all the family, oh my brothers!
It was the one unmissable (but unseeable in the UK – director Stanley Kubrick withdrew the film in 1974 and refused permission to screen the film in Britain until his death) and Glammest of seventies movies, which managed to combine music, sex and horror. On its release in 1971, there were legions of baggy-trousered teens queuing at Odeon’s around the country for a chance to view this film.
When you consider some of the atrocities that have been committed on screen in the name of art, it makes sense that a great number of people were scared to see A Clockwork Orange. The film was a post-skinhead orgy of ultra-violence and sex, set bizarrely to a classical score.
Many of the scenes that were considered too risqué at the time of its release would hardly cause viewers to blink an eyelid these days, and it is nowhere as disturbing in nature as films such as Salo or Le Grande Bouffe.
The leading role, Beethoven-loving teen thug Alex, was played by Malcolm McDowell – the criminally under-celebrated king of seventies film – who managed somehow to remain vulnerable, even likeable, while at the same time clearly a monster.
McDowell’s Alex immediately affected British street fashion – Black bowler and bovver boots, white shirt and trousers, tastefully topped off with an eye-catching, fortified codpiece – even at one point causing skinhead gangs to wear comic false noses as disguises when engaging in ‘unlawful activity’
Alex and his gang of ‘droogies’ begin a night out with a few drinks at the Korova Milkbar – “trying to make up our razudoks what to do with the evening” – before going on to ‘tolchock’ a drunken tramp (kick him to a pulp), indulge in a spot of ultra-violence with a rival gang and play “road hogs” in a stolen car.
Having warmed up, they break into the country house of a successful author and take turns raping his wife, making very sure that the elderly writer – bound and gagged – gets a birds-eye view of her lengthy ordeal. “Viddy well,” Alex says, “Take a good look”.
Back at the bar, “feeling a bit shagged and fagged and fashed” they chill out with a “Moloko Plus” (milk with something psychogenic added) before heading “bedways”.
In contrast to his droogs, (Pete, Georgie and Dim) – who expect to pick up some booty on their raids – Alex has little interest in money. To show them who is “Master and Leader” he beats them up, which turns out to be a fateful difference of opinion.
Later, when Alex inadvertently kills a woman with an objet d’art (a giant phallus), his disgruntled and mutinous droogies smash a bottle in his face and leave him to be captured by the police.
He is sentenced to 14 years in prison and submits to an experimental new socialisation program and a revolutionary therapeutic technique – a form of aversion therapy that is almost as sadistic as the acts he has himself committed.
Rendered to a state whereby violence makes him physically and violently sick (ie: “cured”) he is granted early release and sent back into society – where he becomes himself a victim of his friends, as well as his previous enemies and those he has wronged.
The only solution seems to be to reverse the aversion therapy so that he may relapse into his old ways.
Widely hailed as Stanley Kubrick’s most daring film, it is indeed a brave venture.
As much a political statement as it is a prediction of the future, it was based on Anthony Burgess’s controversial 1962 novel about a morally bankrupt teenager who is “reprogrammed” by government officials after his rampage of ultra-violence brings him to their attention.
The ‘language’ (“Nadsat”) fabricated by Burgess in the novel – a mixture of Russian, near-Elizabethan eloquence and baby talk – is more or less faithfully followed and does much to give the film its edge.
Shot in a circus-like style, it is still an unnerving film to look at. The violence is disturbing more for the manner in which it is served – without any judgment. Indeed, the real scandal of the film is the way in which viewers catch themselves looking forward with excitement to whatever is going to come next.
Alex lives in Municipal Flat Block, Linear North, in the film. The striking brutalist architecture on screen is actually Thamesmead South, an imposing housing estate on the fringes of south-east London, while the scene in which the droogs attack the homeless man is set in a tunnel in Wandsworth.
A Clockwork Orange‘s bizarre soundtrack album, featuring a good deal of synthesized Beethoven, took its place alongside Alice Cooper‘s Killer and David Bowie‘s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in the record racks for a while.
McDowell earned himself a healthy (or perhaps that’s unhealthy) cult following as Clockwork Orange fans flocked to his later release O Lucky Man! (1973) – which was a sequel to Lindsay Anderson’s satirical If… (1968).
Walter Carlos who scored the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, later became a woman known as Wendy and underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972.
Contrary to popular belief, the scene where Alex beats the Cat Lady to death with a large plaster penis (pictured below) was never in the book.
Mr DeLarge (“P”)
Mrs DeLarge (“M”)
P R Deltoid
Cat Lady (Mrs Weatherly)
Joe The Lodger
Chief Guard Barnes