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A Clockwork Orange

Review Written by: Bill Slocum
Film: A-
What the MPAA Rating should be: NC-17 (for violence, language, nudity and disturbing images)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick
Based on the book by: Anthony Burgess
Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Warren Clarke, Aubrey Morris
Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures

People sometimes call A Clockwork Orange their favorite Stanley Kubrick film. Me too, except higher praise in my book is that it's my favorite Malcolm McDowell film. McDowell's portrayal of a vicious young hood up against a system every bit as cruel is what draws me in, and keeps drawing me in, time and again. McDowell is a young fellow named Alex, who in a vaguely futuristic society goes gallivanting off on assorted crimes with his equally nasty mates until he finds himself in the hands of justice. To get out of prison, Alex volunteers for a new mind-altering technique designed to rid him of his antisocial impulses. But is the cure worse than the crime?

One of only two X-rated films ever to be Oscar-nominated for best picture, Clockwork Orange has lost none of its ability to shock in the more than 30 years since its release. It still attracts hard-core fans while offending others. I used to be a bigger fan, back when I was a college boy. I even took a first date to see this. Needless to say, there wasn't a second date, though it's not only for that Clockwork Orange hasn't aged for me as well as some other films I can mention.

It's a very good film all the same. Kubrick's perversity and his structured style of storytelling are well tailored to an Anthony Burgess novel that operates like a boomerang cuckoo clock. The music by Walter Carlos, re-fangled classical melodies served up electronically, works very well with the slightly putrid color scheme and odd lighting to create a sense of prevailing unease throughout. In his other works, Kubrick too often tended to elicit either mechanical or hyper-emotional performances from his actors, but with the exception of Patrick Magee's embarrassing turn as one of Alex's victims, the approach actually works here because the film itself is something of a satire, boldly comical even in depicting brutal crimes like the murder of a cat-loving woman with a giant ceramic, um, sculpture.

But what makes Clockwork Orange worth repeat viewings, more than Kubrick's cleverness, is McDowell's lead performance. Though we get an education right at the beginning just how terrible a person little Alex is, McDowell invests him with such charisma, wit and even grace that we kind of gravitate to him despite ourselves. "Don't sing that song in the bathtub, Alex!" "Watch out for that milk bottle!" There's no reason we shouldn't wish Alex his instant karma, yet the lively McDowell gives us someone to perversely root for. His narration, like Richard III's, is a marvel of mordant sympathy-stealing.

While the film raises questions about the necessity of being able to choose good or evil in order to be human and how society casually corrupts the individual, I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of people gravitate to this film because it serves up generous helpings of nudity and ultra violence under a decorous umbrella of deep thought and even a vague spiritual dimension courtesy of the prison charlie. Kubrick knew how to make a trip in the gutter seem elevating.

However absorbing it is in all its parts, Clockwork Orange is a one-man show and for me that man is Malcolm McDowell. The way he smiles so menacingly yet with real allure, wipes a smear of spit off his face, screams out how he's seen the light while undergoing the Ludovico treatment and maintains his weird bond with us the viewer is a marvel of morality-warping brilliance. McDowell had other great roles, but Alex is one for the ages. Is there anyone else who could make corruption seem so refreshing?

Alex commiting one of his acts of violence in A Clockwork Orange.
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