A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Stanley Kubrick directed only sixteen movies in his lifetime. I unreservedly admired two of them – Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), the rest I could take or leave. I remain at a loss, however, to understand the critical acclaim heaped on his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. It is not a good movie! It originally ran for over four hours until wiser heads prevailed and it was mercifully cut down to 137 minutes! The speeded up orgy scene was originally filmed in a continuous 28-minute sequence. Incidentally, the title of both Anthony Burgess’ book and the movie may have come from East London slang and was possibly derived from the expression, ‘as queer as a clockwork orange.’ This is one explanation, but one only.
When Alex (Malcolm McDowell) performed ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ as he attacked the writer and his wife, it was not scripted. After four days of experimentation Kubrick asked the actor if he could dance. They tried the scene again and McDowell danced and sang the only song he could remember. Kubrick was impressed and immediately purchased the rights to the tune for $10,000. When Malcolm met Gene Kelly at a party years later, the older actor walked away from him in disgust. Kelly was upset that his iconic song had been used in that way. Although the Alex character was only 15 years old (later 17) at the film’s start, McDowell was twenty-seven at the time of filming!
Tragically, two copycat crimes were committed in the United Kingdom soon after the film’s completion. In 1973, a Dutch girl was raped in Lancashire by men who sang ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. And a sixteen year-old boy beat a younger child whilst wearing Alex’s uniform of white overalls, a black bowler hat and combat boots. These attacks, coupled with his family receiving several death threats, prompted Kubrick to have the picture withdrawn in the UK in 1973. It was not publicly released there until after his death in 1999. In 2000 it was finally released in the UK and Australia.
When McDowell recorded the narration he would often feel the need to stretch his legs. Whenever that happened, Kubrick would challenge him to a game of table tennis. They played numerous games over the course of filming but the director was never able to win. Not even once. Malcolm was quite a skilled player. He was later irritated to find that his salary had been docked for the hours spent playing the game! Kubrick was known to adopt a similar tactic with actors who could play chess. He was a good chess player and seldom lost against George C. Scott and others.
One of several aspects of this film that proved aggravating to some cinema-goers was the language spoken by Alex and his ‘droogs’. It was an invented dialogue called ‘Nadsat’ by the writer, Burgess; a mixture of English, Russian and slang. And there was simply too much of it in the movie. After the first edition of the novel a glossary appendix was added to subsequent editions. Even Kubrick was concerned that too much of it would harm his picture. Burgess originally sold the movie rights to Mick Jagger for $500 when he needed quick cash. Mick had plans to make it with the Rolling Stones as the ‘droogs’, but then re-sold the rights for a much larger amount.
The actress originally cast for the rape scene found the demands of the shoot too difficult and quit. She was replaced by Adrienne Corri who quickly became infuriated at the large number of takes Kubrick insisted upon. She felt it could have been done far more swiftly. McDowell recalled her saying to him at one point that the endless takes would ensure he would soon get to see she was ‘a natural redhead.’ At her audition Adrienne (who was forty at the time) was instructed by Kubrick to remove all her clothing. This she was prepared to do if she got the part, but not for the audition. ‘Suppose we don’t like your tits?’ said the director. ‘Then you pay me and then you send me back, Stanley, but you pay me’, was her response. So he agreed. The rape sequence that featured her took ten days to film!
Kubrick’s overuse of naked and semi-naked women throughout this picture is unnecessary and clearly exploitive. As he would do in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), he did take after take after take of those scenes, yet they account for very little actual screen time. There is even a scene in which McDowell is seen in full frontal nakedness when he plays the scene in prison in which his rectum is examined by a guard with a pencil torchlight. Surely, that scene was completely irrelevant to the story. When a rival gang attempts to rape a young woman, the camera cuts to them earlier than the narrative indicates. Consequently, the audience gets to see the girl getting stripped by her assailants. There was no need to do this. There are also several phallic symbols and references used: The snake crawling between the legs of the woman in the poster; the popsicles being licked and sucked by the girls in the record store; the tip of Alex’s walking stick and the male genitalia object he uses to kill the cat woman.
McDowell has said that Kubrick personally conducted screen tests of actresses for the nude scenes. He would have them read Shakespeare as the camera operator zoomed in for close-ups of their breasts. Kubrick would then have prints made of those close-ups so he could flip through them in his office. Malcolm was quick to claim that the director realized that the unintended consequence of adopting this method was that he was unable to identify the actresses he wanted! In a 1990s interview, Virginia Wetherell, the actress who appeared topless and makes the ‘reformed’ Alex sick on stage, made the mistake of asking Kubrick what colour and kind of panties she should wear for the scene. He asked her to model a few pairs which she did while topless. Then he had her go to the department store and pick up a few dozen more pairs of panties. And she duly modelled all of them. Over and over. She assumed he was the perfectionist she had read about, but a friend told her later that Kubrick obviously just liked seeing her naked.
McDowell claimed that he had negotiated a salary of $100,000 plus 2.5% of the picture’s profits, but Kubrick had told him to just take the $100,000 because Warner Brothers would never agree to the percentage deal as well. Much later, Malcolm bumped into a Warners executive who casually commented that the 2.5% must be keeping his bank manager happy. Kubrick had kept the percentage for himself.
Your article is very entertaining — an enjoyable read. I saw A Clockwork Orange on its theatrical release (It was a “must see.”) and again a few months ago, and in all that time my opinion hasn’t changed — it is boring drivel. But the movie is not Kubrick’s worst; that honor goes to 2001: A Space Odessey. It is the most overhyped, slow, dull, boring, tedious, sleep-inducing (Have I covered it all?) movie I ever sat through. Again, I saw it on its theatrical release and about a year ago. I have read comments on it where the writer (in the worst film school babble) asserts that people who do not appreciate the greatness of the movie are intellectually deficient. Oh, brother! Several other Kubrick dogs are Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. For me, his two best are Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove (Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden are great.)