by Dilys Powell
Violence, Anthony Burgess implies in a coda to his novel, is a mark of adolescence; you may grow out of it. Violence, Stanley Kubrick maintains in the film which, with the omission of the coda, he has drawn from the novel, is persistent; governments find it comes in handy. Violence is everybody’s topic nowadays.
One must not be conned by one’s admiration into soft-soaping Mr Kubrick’s film. A Clockwork Orange has passages savage to the point of nausea. It is far more savage than Straw Dogs. The violence is not Peckinpah’s revolting mixture of realism and melodrama; it is cold, sometimes amused, sometimes delighted -amused or delighted by the appalling skill of its own portrayal. The film opens with menace. Nothing on the screen but the huge close-up of a face, ill-boding, the hair bunching from a wide bowler, the eyes, one of them fringed with false lashes, watching from under the downward tilt of the head. The camera draws back to show Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the teenage horror-hero and his bully-gang drinking themselves high on milk-and-dope in a futuristic cafe sexed up with tables in the shape of chalk-white rainbow-wigged nudes. Then we are off on an evening of ferocity – an assault on a tramp, a battle with a rival gang, a murderous drive in a stolen car, a horrible rape.
It is completely merciless. You have been warned.
Merciless but not pointless. Without the horrors the counter-horror, the manipulation of the human mind, won’t work. Come fresh to it without reading the book first, and A Clockwork Orange gives you from start to finish a frightening surprise. All the same it shows a logical development from Kubrick’s earlier work. Young Alex kills, is jailed, and to escape from jail volunteers to undergo what turns out to be aversion treatment. Painfully he is turned off violence, turned off sex, turned off – but let’s hot give everything away. Let’s say that the treatment gives a weapon not only to those authorities who plan to use him for political ends but to those individuals who want to revenge themselves on him. Malcolm McDowell’s extraordinary performance slides with astonishing conviction from phase to phase: the pitiless delinquent becomes a pitiable automaton. And in the helplessness of the human creature caught in the trap of science one sees also the predicament of the innocents (comic innocents, but still) of Dr Strangelove and the rudderless journey of the last cosmonaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick is not an optimist about the human race.
Like the characters in Dr Strangelove the boy is a pawn. He is useful first to the Government, then to the Opposition, then, with fresh and cynical manipulation, to the Government again. Kubrick has taken what is essentially a fable and strengthened its attack on the duplicity of politics. A Clockwork. Change becomes a satire, a kind of spiv’s Modest Proposal. And when the satire is recognised as satire it is easy to accept other elements in the film.
Anthony Burgess, writing his novel as the personal narrative of the boy, invented for him a teenager’s slang. James Joyce only much, much easier. Kubrick drops most of the esoteric language. He omits a few though not many of the scenes of violence. Then he sharpens the action.
No hanging on to the tail of movement; every scene snaps to an end at the exact moment when its usefulness is exhausted. The density of Mr Burgess’ argot is replaced by a density of visual and aural detail; murder is committed with a giant white plastic phallus, a victim getting his own back (Patrick Magee in a masterly and terrifying display of vengefulness) speaks in a sudden shout which makes you start. The violence shows itself as fantasy violence, stylised, played out to the strict accompaniment of music which is sometimes classical and sometimes 1950s popular.
The cast is all you could hope for, and Kubrick handles his medium with a confidence almost insolent. For the rest – the flashes of farce, the variations on distance and distortion and dream-imagery – he has given us the most audacious of horror-films. And the most inhuman.
The Sunday Times, January 1972
Republished in Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen: Fifty Years at the Films