My 20 Favourite Films #13: A Clockwork Orange

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey


It is hard for me to pick a favourite filmmaker of all time since so many of the ones I like bring various types of films to the cinematic table. But, if someone was to put a gun to my head and demanded that I pick one I would say Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was a visual artist who made films with images so vivid that they stick in the viewer’s memory forever.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey we see breathtaking shots of space that take time in delivering the art to the viewer and every shot in Barry Lyndon looks like a Victorian or 18th century painting come to life onscreen. There is not a Kubrick film that isn’t beautiful and selecting which is my favourite is no easy task. 2001: A Space Odyssey could have easily stolen this #13 spot depending on my mood, but as it happens A Clockwork Orange won out.

Despite its subject matter, A Clockwork Orange is no different than any other Kubrick film in that it is beautifully and artistically shot. Much of the imagery such as Alex DeLarge and his droogs in the milk-bar, the joyriding down English roads, the eerily lit sequences involving Alex’s conditioning, and even the bizarre and unnerving scenes involving rape indelibly leave a mark in the viewer’s visual memory that cannot be forgotten. Kubrick was a meticulous man who made sure every shot played its role in making a film be what it was. He was never lazy and often made his actors take several takes just to get the perfect shot for his piece. And I say piece because that is exactly what it is. It is a piece of art-work or a composition. Kubrick didn’t make blockbusters; he made visually artistic works that could be taken as seriously as a critic may take a famous painting by Da Vinci or a classical composition by Chopin. And despite its controversy, A Clockwork Orange is no different.

The film is about a young delinquent named Alex DeLarge who has a taste for violence. He and his gang of thugs whom he calls affectionately his “droogies” delight in killing, maiming, and raping helpless victims for their amusement. Alex is very much a connoisseur of finer pleasurable pursuits such as Beethoven and collecting weird artwork for his bedroom (including some disturbing anatomically correct sculptures of religious icons); and he owns a pet snake that he loves as much as a common man would love a dog or cat. The “old ultraviolence” is just another passionate pursuit among his taste in music, food, or fine art. He has an unconvicted nonchalance about everything he does. He just as casually will break into a home to rape a woman as he will pick up a couple ladies at a shop to have a threesome. He is amoral, lacking any sense of decency nor cares or sympathises with those he harms. He lives a satisfied life outside of morality while he may or may not be aware that his actions are evil, he doesn’t put a great deal of thought on it in any case.

After an attempted burglary goes wrong in which he kills a resident and his companions betray him he is captured by authorities and taken to a brutal prison for juvenile delinquents where he agrees to shorten jail time by undergoing an experimental conditioning for hardened criminals. The conditioning would, if successful, cause Alex to no longer be able to commit acts of violence. The conditioning which involved drug therapy combined with being forced to watch several films and reels depicting sex and violence eventually lead Alex to becoming sick every time he is faced with sexuality or acts of aggression. The success of the experiment is demonstrated in front of a board of psychologists and “social reformers” by having Alex put on a stage where he is confronted with a nude woman and a man abusing him. Both confrontations tempt him to becoming aroused or seek retaliation respectively which he can no longer fulfill because he comes sick to the point of retching when he tries. As a result of this he is declared cured and released.
When he heads home he finds his parents have moved on, his beloved snake is dead, and his room is occupied by a tenant who having heard about Alex from his parents takes no liking to him at all. Alex finds himself alone on the streets where he encounters a bum whom he once assaulted who tries to kill him for revenge, but escapes with the “help” of two cops who turn out to be his former droogs who decide to relish the opportunity to beat poor Alex before leaving him to battered in the countryside. After a series of harsh abuses on the streets Alex attempts suicide but is revived and hospitalised where his parents find him and take pity on him offering his room back. Furthermore the psychologists behind his conditioning are blamed and ostracised for their role in his current troubles and they are shut down by the government which feels guilty over Alex’s plight and ,thus, sets him up for life.

The ending, to say the least, is disturbing and bizarre. After committing horrible acts of murder, assault, rape, and theft he is exonerated on the grounds that he was treated too harshly by the authorities. This would seem laughable if only the real world didn’t actually do this. However, we have seen too often that murderers and rapists are, in our society, pitied by would-be reformers with good intentions who complain about abuses in the prison system. I am, by no means, saying prison abuse is a good thing; but I will argue that pitying killers and rapists because they are “misunderstood” is absurdity.
It is my interpretation of A Clockwork Orange that Alex left that hospital cured of his conditioning, but went on to do worse things than ever before. Society in criticising the system failed to see that Alex was still guilty of the crimes he committed. He was still evil even if he was treated wrongly. Being exonerated over a technicality that fails to deny that someone committed the crimes he was guilty of is ridiculous and will not stop recidivism outside of the prison walls.

It is to be noted that there is not a single character in A Clockwork Orange who is innocent. The Good and Bad people are just a divide between Self-righteous, self-deceptive prigs and immoral villains. Alex and his droogs were anarchist thieves, murderers, and rapists. Alex’s parents were apathetic cowards who made bad choices at every turn in dealing with Alex. The police and prison officials were mindless brutes with no sympathy or desire to see their prisoners reformed or cared for. The psychologists were suppressors of freedom with an agenda to silence men rather than help them. Even Alex’s former victims were unforgiving and harsh. The bum Alex once assaulted tried to kill him even though Alex just gave him some money. And the husband of one of his former rape victims who became an activist for troubled and wayward youth hypocritically tortures Alex after he discovers who he is. And finally society and the government sooth their own guilty conscience by making him rich and comfortable for the rest of his days.

A Clockwork Orange is a remarkable look at society’s hypocrisy and foolish, lazy attempts at reformation while ignoring the heart of its problems. Corrupted individuals like Alex are spat out every day by society with its ignorance, hypocrisy, stupidity, cruelty, and unfairness. Society’s attempts to fix these corrupted youth often fail because they approach reform with the same ignorance, hypocrisy, stupidity, cruelty, and unfairness that birthed them in the first place.

I highly recommend A Clockwork Orange for audiences with strong stomachs since it is not a film that is easy to view. Despite its R-rating now it was originally released with an X-rating due to its content. As a result I rarely recommend it for this reason although I hold this film in high regard. But if you have a taste for Kubrick’s artistry or simply want to see a good film about juvenile delinquency and society’s role in it see A Clockwork Orange.


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