The next entry in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection is the second Stanley Kubrick offering in the set: A Clockwork Orange. Yet, despite the unmistakably ambitious nature of the film, I found it had more in common thematically with the non-Kubrick Cool Hand Luke than it did 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Cool Hand Luke is, on one level, a backward-looking but contemporary analysis of the nature of prisons and rehabilitation—posing the question of whether penal institutions do more harm than good from the perspective of that rehabilitation.
Likewise, A Clockwork Orange is, among other things, a commentary on rehabilitation, and whether a cure can be worse than the “disease” of inherent sociopathy. In particular, it ponders whether aversion therapy of the kind depicted in the film (even when—no, especially when—effective) is moral. The story mulls this question both in terms of a denial of free will (the prison clergyman makes this part abundantly clear), but also from the perspective of whether the government can be trusted to wield this power in the first place.
We get hints of this idea throughout, with throwaway lines about political prisoners and so forth serving to underscore that the dystopian nature of A Clockwork Orange’s setting extends beyond violence and chaos and into the well-worn ground of soul-crushing totalitarianism.
In the midst of that, there’s Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, a charismatic sociopath who slips easily from setting to setting, behaving in whatever manner has the greatest chance of producing the outcome that will service his depravity. He maneuvers through a society steeped in hedonism and violent crime carried out by gangs of youth speaking in a bizarre type of future slang anchored in pigeon-Russian and Cockney rhymes, and McDowell plays him with transcendent precision every step of the way.
In Kubrick’s uniquely skilled hands, the movie becomes a visual and auditory masterpiece, akin to, but very different from, 2001. His deft use of a classical score, paired with futuristic Moog synth music, is brilliant. Also memorable is the use of slow-motion and fast-motion, the artistic value of which in Clockwork Orange is apparent even to a layman like myself.
Like many of the other films in this collection, Clockwork Orange is also based on a book. One thing I loved about this movie, though, is that it avoids the pitfall into which so many other novel-to-film translations stumble: it feels neither rushed nor as if it’s “missing” critical elements. Kubrick is able to manage the pace and density of the story perfectly.
The irony is that Kubrick, who also wrote the screenplay, based his script on the American edition of the Anthony Burgess book. That meant that version Kubrick read omitted the final, redemptive chapter (and we don’t see it reflected onscreen).
Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter. The strange, acrobatically stylized violence of the world Kubrick creates is perfectly illustrated, and Alex’s resilient and ultimately victorious trajectory soars and dips before the viewer’s eyes in a way that is as satisfying as it is, at times, disturbing.