… finds possibilities in fantasy and cinema that no other film has touched.
by Dale Winogura
Stanley Kubrick has topped a masterpiece with a masterpiece. A Clockwork Orange is not the best Anglo-Saxon language film of 1971, it is the best film of 1971, and there are so many masterful things in it that I hardly know where to begin.
To begin at the beginning, it is an original, erotic, powerful, multi-faceted, disturbing. uplifting, terrifying, satirical, and upsetting film. If this makes me sound like Rex Reed, I apologize. A Clockwork Orange finds possibilities in fantasy and cinema that no other film has touched, not even Kubrick’s own 2001. It is a blend of literacy and cinematics so totally organic and deftly combined that Kubrick’s vision extends beyond any of his other works into a nightmare world of sex, violence, disorder, corruption, manipulation, and insanity. Where Ken Russell’s insanity in The Devils is masterfully horrifying, Kubrick’s is almost Lewis Carroll-like.
This is no 1984 that Kubrick is visualizing (as in Michael Anderson’s terribly awkward, inept, and ludicrous film of Orwell’s classic novel), or an optimistic view of mankind’s persistent struggle to triumph over odds (as in William Cameron Menzies’ superlatively imaginative Things to Come). Yet neither is this a philosophical allegory like 2001 —maybe, but not quite. It is probably closest to Dr. Strangelove than anything else he’s made–yet again, not exactly. A Clockwork Orange is totally, recognizably Kubrick, but differently and originally so, as are all his films, really. It’s probably maddening for the narrowminded auteurs to seek some outside or inward references to Kubrick because the links are so subtle and infinitesimal that they are capable of breaking at any moment.
Once again, the story is at once incredibly simple and, because of its simplicity, also possesses many far-reaching implications. In some immediate future, the leader of a small group of violent toughs accidentally kills a woman with an erotic statue. He is sent to prison and, as a method of releasing him sooner, consents to be used as a guinea-pig in a film-manipulation experiment for behavioral reform. Upon release into the world, he is met with several forms of violence, which he cannot resist because of his brutal, extremely effective conditioning, and he attempts suicide to get away from it. As in all Kubrick films, the ending Is oblique, open-ended, and full of possible interpretation, yet as humorous, though not as black, as in Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, it’s not all that simple on the surface, but Kubrick is one of the few directors who can make a film at once incredibly basic, yet rich in complexity and insight. His performers especially bring this point to light, and in this case they are the solid personages of Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee, who nut only reflect the simplicity and complexity of Kubrick’s art, but create a special kind of insanity vital to the theme. The former portrays Alex, the center of the action, with strong internal-external impact in evoking the extroverted sadist who becomes an introverted masochist. As Mr. Alexander, Magee reflects the other side, a more extreme, vengeful kind of Introverted insanity that makes their similarity in name quite uncoincidental.
Music is an exceptionally important facet to Kubrick’s vision, and here his amusing usage of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” in an hilariously speeded-up orgy, the disturbing application of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” in the early fight scenes, and the terrifying significance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony are indispensable to the emotional flux of the film.
The most obvious similarities in the film could be made with Ralph Nelson’s Charly since it also concerns a man whose personality changes through experimentation, but the similarity ends there. Nelson’s work was an effectively sustained drama, sentimental and efficiently made, but Kubrick’s work is a devastating, virtually unrelenting combination of trenchant pyrotechnics and gut-level personality.
Anthony Burgess’ novel is a perfect starting point, filled with seemingly, foreign concocted futuristic slang; a multitude of loosely related episodes; and vivid characters, but Kubrick gives it the unseen dimension through the very intrinsic power of his visual and verbal austerity. Much more than just originality and cleverness of production detail, he lends A Clockwork Orange a quality of fable, eerie satire, and impressionistic intensity that never touches the book. It is a film by Stanley Kubrick, every frame, and Burgess’ albeit brilliant vision is underemphasized to the point of obscurity.
As with Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange was made to be experienced, not read about. It demands to be seen and felt with alive sensibilities, keen intellects, and fresh emotions. It is a work of incomparable, insurmountable greatness.
Cinefantastique, Vol. 2 n. 2, Summer 1972; p. 42