I must have seen it for the first time on HBO. When it was released in 1971 it was rated X (a rating that has since been usurped by the adult film industry), and I only knew it from the MAD Magazine parody, “A Crockwork Lemon.” I remember seeing it again, I think for the only time in a theater, my first week of college. I think I was buzzed.
Buzzed or not, the film is an artistic masterpiece. Opening with a screen of nothing but red, with Walter Carlos’ mesmerizing electronic music, it then focuses on the face of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, wearing the iconic costume of bowler, white shirt, pants and suspenders, black combat boots, and a bloodied eyeball cuff link. He is also wearing one false eyelash. (All of this is thanks to costume designer Mila Canonero–this was not his costume in Burgess’ novel). The camera pulls back to reveal there are three other similarly dressed young men, slouched and drinking glasses of milk. They are in the Korova Milk Bar, and as the camera continues to pull back we see that the tables are plastic sculptures of naked women. The milk is, of course, full of drugs.
Burgess’ book was a satire on the psychology of good and evil, and the eternal struggle of whether criminals should be punished or rehabilitated. Kubrick’s film is even more of a comedy, even though it is brutally violent, so violent that it earned that X rating. Today the violence is fairly tame given what we normally see, but it is still shocking because it so sexual. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the home invasion scene, where a man is brutally beaten and his wife raped, while Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain.” Or when another woman is bludgeoned to death with a large statue of a penis.
The film is pretty faithful to the book. Alex and his “droogs” roam the city, eager to commit “ultra-violence” and the “old in-out, in-out.” The night after the home invasion, his other droogs try to seize power from him, but he puts them straight–with violence. They want to commit higher-earning crimes, so he agrees to burglarize the home of a posh woman, the one who gets bonked with a plaster cock. But his fellows set him up, and Alex is arrested and imprisoned for murder.
While in prison he becomes assistant to the chaplain, and reads the Bible, but fantasizes about being one of the Romans who whips Christ. Eventually he undergoes an experimental treatment to rid himself of violent impulses. The government is keen on this, since it is hoped it will reduce crime and free up the prison space. The chaplain is aghast, because he thinks goodness has to come from with in, and this way offers Alex no choice of being good. “When a man loses his choice,” the chaplain says, “he ceases to be a man.”
Alex undergoes the treatment, which involves nausea-inducing drugs while watching films of violence. One of the most iconic scenes of the film is when Alex is bound in a straitjacket, a gizmo holding his eyes open, an aide dropping water into his eyes to keep them moist. The treatment works, too well, for Alex can not function in society (his room at home has been rented out), and his love of Beethoven has been ruined forever because it was on the score of the films.
He then becomes a political football, taken in by the very man he had beaten, who sees him as a chance to defeat the government in the next election. This man, played humorously over the top by Patrick Magee, doesn’t realize who Alex is until he overhears him singing “Singin’ in the Rain.”
As I said, though violent, and too disturbing for some, this is a comedy of rich layers. For one thing, McDowell gives a great performance, kind of like a vicious Eddie Haskell–completely polite on one hand, but also thoroughly reprehensible. The film has made him older (he started at 15 in the book), and something of a bon vivant. The scene that has him wandering through the record store, wearing an Edwardian coat, and then picking up two teenage girls for sex (sped up, and set to the William Tell Overture) is pure comedy (in the book the girls were ten and they were drugged and raped).
Also, the performance by Michael Bates as an extremely officious jailer is hysterical, particularly the facial expressions he shows when a cured Alex is tempted by a naked woman. Or the scene in which Magee, now aware of Alex’s identity, serves him a meal while staring at him with undisguised contempt.
Kubrick, a filmmaker who appeals to the intellect rather than the emotions, doesn’t really take a stand in this film. Alex survives, triumphant, reverted back to his violent past, a poster boy for the cynical governmental official. The issues are glided over and not really addressed fully, instead Kubrick approaches the themes stylistically. For instance, there is a great deal of time in this film spent to filling out paperwork. I hadn’t noticed this before, but a good five minutes is spent with this, and it’s completely unnecessary to the story. I can only imagine that this is Kubrick’s commentary on bureaucracy. There’s a long scene when Alex is interred into the prison, including an inventory of his pockets and Bates shining a penlight into his rectum looking for contraband.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (it didn’t win any), and I think is Kubrick’s strongest work, along with Dr. Strangelove. It appeals to my sense of humor, in that the comedy is black as pitch. This, even though the film, as with the book, paints a depressing view of the near future. The architecture chosen for the film, outside of the Korova Milk Bar, that is, is bleak and ugly. Alex lives in a flat in a section of the city named by number, with trash in the hallways. His former droogs become policemen (who almost kill him) giving life to the old saw that the line between a criminal and a cop is a very thin one.
One other note–playing a small part of a bodyguard is David Prowse, who six years later would put on the flowing back robes and helmet of a certain Darth Vader.