January 2000

A Clockwork Orange: Stanley Kubrick Collection
Reviewed by Greg Weaver
DVD Format

Overall Enjoyment: ****
Picture Quality: ****
Sound Quality: **1/2
Packaged Extras: *

Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Miriam Karlin, Adrienne Corri, Michael Bates, John Clive

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Theatrical Release: 1971
DVD Release: 1999
Dolby Digital 5.1

So much could and has been said about this dark masterpiece that I feel the best place for me to begin is with a personal experience. When I went to see the opening of this film in the fall of 1971 with a core of close friends, I had just turned 16 years old. To say that it completely revolutionized the film going experience for me would not be an overstatement in any way, shape or form.

From the moment that its larger than life images illuminated the screen, my senses were overwhelmed. The stark lighting and intense color, the creative use of camera technique, the placement and tracking, and the unorthodox treatment of great classical music, combined with the then shocking content left no doubt in my mind that I was in the presence of a staggering, if not somewhat disturbing work. While the violence in this film may seem ho-hum by today’s cinema standards, that was not the case nearly thirty years ago.

Although stereo for films was over a decade away, the power of the soundtrack cannot be disputed. The then famous electronic music pioneer, Walter Carlos, created much of the film’s soundtrack (before the transference to Wendy) on a device called a Moog Synthesizer. Music is, in fact, crucial to the subject of the film.

Set in the near future, the film follows the ultra-violent exploits of one Alexander DeLarge (Malcom McDowell's first staring role) and his "droogs" as they attack, rape and murder their way through the evenings. They start off each evening’s adventures with a stop by the local "Milk Bar," where they drink their favorite additive to prepare for the evening. They then go off, beating old drunks lying along side the road, getting into brawls with local gangs and stealing cars. They finally invade a writer’s home and violently rape his wife while he is forced to watch, powerless to do anything to prevent the attack. All the while Alex renders the show tune, "Singing in the Rain."

We learn that our unlikely protagonist has a penchant for music, classical music in particular. For all you audiophiles out there (you know who you are!), one scene in his bedroom shows the now famous J. A. Michelle Saturn Transcriptor turntable, which is still on display in the Museum of Modern Art. When Alex becomes too overbearing for even his droogs to put up with, they leave him beaten and blinded at one of their particularly brutal crime scenes. The police arrive and since Alex has had a checkered past with the long arm of the law, he ends up spending some serious time in prison. While in prison, little Alex learns of a new experimental technique guaranteed to rehabilitate even the most hardened of criminals. Anxious to reclaim his freedom, Alex manages to get himself chosen for the treatment.

The technique involves being strapped to a theater seat with his eyes clamped wide open while viewing ultra violent films, a seating which takes place after the injection of a serum which induces violent physical illness. The process works by conditioning the subject’s body to associate the illness with the violence he is witnessing. Ironically, the score for these horrific films is classical music, specifically Beethoven’s Ninth, Alex’s favorite. Eventually, the mere thought of violence or the playing of Beethoven’s Ninth causes him to have violent fits of illness. After the new ministry shows off the effectiveness of their technique through a display of Alex’s inability to commit even a simple act of self-defense, he is a considered cured and is therefore freed.

In the classic tragical form, his parents have rented out his room. He runs into the old man he and his droogs beat senseless. The man recognizes him and calls his group of old cronies to attack Alex who, as we know, is unable even to raise a hand to protect himself. When the police arrive to break up the ruckus, they turn out to be two of his old droogs. After being beaten up and left for dead in the countryside, Alex stumbles onto the home of the writer whose wife they had raped (and inadvertently killed) so many years earlier. The writer, now living with a manservant (played by David Prose -- the body in the Darth Vader costume in the Star Wars trilogy) recognizes Alex. However, it is not from the old incident, but rather from the government propaganda that appeared in the paper about the rehabilitation procedure and its new technique for ending crime.

As it turns out, the writer is a political activist who opposes the current government. He spares no time in calling his friends to meet and see if they can find a way to use Alex to their own political ends. While Alex is cleaning up in the bathtub he starts singing "Singing in the Rain" and the writer finally makes the connection. The man locks Alex in the attic and cruelly plays Beethoven’s Ninth at an ear splitting volume until Alex is driven to attempt suicide by jumping out of the window.

Though badly broken and bruised, Alex survives his death plunge. He wakes up with a dream-like memory of doctors "playing around" with his brain. During his recovering he receives a pre-frontal lobotomy and our "humble narrator" is pretty much restored to the way he used to be. His parents want to make up for their poor treatment of him after his release from prison. The minister of the current government is now in a jam with all the bad press over Alex and decides to make friends with him. He offers him a nice cushy government job! The last line of the film, quoted while Alex is frolicking with a naked woman in a field of snow, is simply "I was cured alright."

This film was rated X when it was first released and it has the distinction of being the first such film to be nominated for an Oscar, which it did not receive. However, the New York Film Critics gave it Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Though perhaps seemingly mild by today’s graphic cinematic violence, it is full of beatings, nudity and rape and is definitely not a film for children!

The film transfer is quite good. The starkness of the lighting and the vivid detail transfer quite well. Although this is supposedly a Special Edition, neither the widescreen nor the letterboxed setting was effective on my monitor. This is unacceptable in my opinion.

For a collection edition the special features are next to non-existent, offering only the theatrical trailer and the awards list. This is also unacceptable. As for the soundtrack, although it is seemingly faithful to what I heard in 1971, it leaves much to be desired for a state of the art home theater. If you are a fan of films that tax your 5.1 audio system to its limits, be prepared to be disappointed.

Brilliantly lit, superbly shot and stunningly effective, it is truly one of the late Stanley Kubrick’s best efforts, and it is a shining example of film making at its best. If you are looking for one of the most controversial, well-filmed movies ever created by one of cinema’s most inventive directors, this is a hands down winner. Though I love the film for its visual impact and historic relevance, I cannot recommend the DVD. You’ve been warned!

Addendum: The most common question I get is, "Where the hell did they come up with the title A Clockwork Orange?" If you’ve never read Anthony Burgess’ novel, then you’ll have no idea. It was the title of the novel the man was writing when Alex and his droogs broke into his house and attacked him and his wife.

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