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Clockwork Orange, A (Warner 1971, Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee)

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Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange is one of the most notorious films ever made. In 1973, after a 61 week run in cinemas, the film suddenly disappeared from British screens. Only in 1979, when the NFT was refused permission to show the movie, did it become clear that Kubrick himself (with Warner Brothers’ backing) had effectively banned the film in Britain. It seems that a hysterical media and political reaction, copycat crimes and death threats to the director’s family had taken their toll. Finally, however, a new generation can see one of cinema’s classic films.

In a roughly contemporary, dystopian Britain, psychotic Beethoven fan, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and his gang of teenage mates (‘droogs’) head into an urban wasteland for ”a bit of the old ultraviolence”. After putting the boot into a tramp and another gang, Alex, Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus) and Pete (Michael Tarn) break into the house of writer Mr Alexander (Patrick Magee). They assault him and gang-rape his wife (Adrienne Corri) to the strains of Singing in the Rain .

On a later rampage, Alex batters an art collector, ‘Cat Lady’ (Miriam Karlin), to death with a giant phallus. But mutinous Dim has tipped off the police. Alex is arrested, imprisoned and becomes a guinea-pig for a government experiment in aversion therapy. He is brainwashed so that violent thought and the music of his beloved Beethoven make him nauseous. The treatment is so successful that he becomes a cause celebre for the government’s new law and order policy. On his release, however, Alex is targeted by the parliamentary opposition who use him to campaign against the government’s inhumane methods. With public pressure mounting, Alex is de-programmed, and the violent thoughts come flooding back.

Kubrick’s action to withdraw the film was understandable but deeply ironic. Burgess’s essentially moral story is precisely an argument for the right to make our own choices – good or evil. Kubrick’s interpretation, a luxuriant, timelessly stylised, comic-horror fantasy of balletic brutality, brilliantly carried this thesis into the media/violence causality debate. But in effect it was the director’s own skill that proved the film’s undoing. He (and McDowell’s performance) perfectly captured Burgess’s understanding of the electric thrill of tribal violence that has fuelled so many of Britain’s post-War youth cults, from mods to punks to terrace hooligans. So, while there have been more violent films, as Tony Parsons wrote in the Times , ‘there is not one equal to its inflammatory power’.

Which is why, along with Kubrick’s magnificent technical achievement, A Clockwork Orange is still as prescient and powerful as it ever was. As Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian on the film’s recent re-release, ‘So far from being dated, it seems, in many respects, breathtakingly in advance of almost anything else around in its torsions and its longueurs , its magnificent coups du cinema , its narrative scope and sweep, and its moments of sheer, bizarre offensiveness… A Clockwork Orange deserves to be called a work of raddled genius’.

production details
UK | Warner | 136 minutes | 1971
Writer and Director: Stanley Kubrick (based on the novel by Anthony Burgess)

cast
Malcolm McDowell as Alexander DeLarge
Patrick Magee as Mr. Alexander
Adrienne Corri as Mrs. Alexander
Michael Bates as Chief Guard
Warren Clarke as Dim
James Marcus as Georgie
Michael Tarn as Pete
Carl Duering as Dr. Brodsky
Paul Farrell as Tramp
Miriam Karlin as Catlady
Sheila Raynor as Mum
Aubrey Morris as Mr. P. R. Deltoid
Godfrey Quigley as Prison Chaplain
Clive Francis as Lodger
Richard Connaught as Billy Boy (gang leader)
Pauline Taylor as Psychiatrist
Philip Stone as Dad
David Prowse as Bodyguard
Michael Gover as Prison Governor
Anthony Sharp as Minister
Margaret Tyzack as Conspirator
Gillian Hills as Sonietta
Carol Drinkwater as Nurse Feeley
Virginia Wetherell as Stage Actress
Katya Wyeth as Girl in Ascot Fantasy
George Coulouris as Professor (uncredited)

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