Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) is one of those rare films—like Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)—that manages to retain the controversy surrounding its original release despite the passage of time. That might seem a small accomplishment, but really what is generally more old hat than last week’s controversy? Yet, here we have a film that has managed to keep the controversy going for 37 years and still counting. We might be past the shock of the originally X-rated film snagging a Best Picture nomination from the Oscar folks, but you can go to the IMDb message boards this very minute and find people still fighting over whether or not A Clockwork Orange is a work of art or merely an exercise in stylized violence and ugliness.
For that matter, the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), his crimes against society, his imprisonment, his radical “cure,” the vengeance exacted on him by someone he wronged and his ultimate re-empowerment is one that took me years to come to terms with. It was at a showing—easily the sixth or seventh time I’d seen the film—in the late 1970s when the film came into focus for me. The volume was turned way up (as I believe it ought to be with this film) and suddenly things that seemed awkward and overstated fell into place, and I realized that much of the film is meant to be taken as pitch-black—even heartless—comedy. That’s only part of the film, of course, but it’s essential to understanding the movie’s operatic nature and thematic points about freewill, the inherent insanity (and duplicity) of either end of the political spectrum and, very significantly, that we get out of great art pretty much only what we bring to it.
Technically, the film is a marvel. It’s easily Kubrick’s best and boldest work, which may have something to do with the fact that he didn’t overcook it, making it for a relatively small budget in a comparatively short amount of time (a year from the start of shooting to release). The lighting, the camerawork, the matching of music to image all come together to provide a cinematic kick that still resonates.