I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.
A Clockwork Orange
List Appearances: 7/10
Average Rank: 57
Highest Rank: 35, on Hollywood Reporter
Total Final Score: 4242
I have never watched A Clockwork Orange before. As a child, I was not allowed to watch it, and as an adult, I just never quite got around to it. I knew it was an important film, because it was iconic, was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and was 46th on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies list. I thought I had seen so much of the movie before ever viewing it that I was certain I knew exactly what would happen.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 by the amazing director Stanley Kubrick and based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess. At the time, it was rated X, and it’s not hard to see why, knowing 70s sensibilities towards sex (and to a lesser extent violence). The movie follows and is narrated by Alex DeLarge, a teen criminal. He leads his group of “Droogs”, three other teen hooligans, as they savagely commit violence against innocents. When an older woman is accidentally murdered, Alex is sentenced to prison for fourteen years, two of which he serves and then undergoes a procedure to “correct” him.
The first hour of the film focuses on their “ultraviolence.” The opening title sequence cuts straight to the zoomed in face of Alex and his one fake eyelash, his face turned downwards, eyes only just visible from under his bowler hat, and a glowering look that shows his calculating nature. The Korova Milkbar (a bar which serves milk laced with narcotics) is his location, and as the focus zooms out, you can see his gang and the milkbar filled with patrons and creepy tables and statues of aroused female forms. The image made me uncomfortable from the beginning (I’ll admit I’m a massive prude), but it certainly helped prime me for the movie I was about to watch.
Alex and his “droogs” are pure villains. They revel in beating a poor defenseless homeless man as much as they do men of their ilk. They drive down in the middle of a country road, forcing unsuspecting motorists off the road. When they come upon a house with a glowing “home” at the front gate, they stop their car to commit more atrocities, this time on a writer and his wife. They beat him within an inch of his life and gang rape his wife, all while Alex dances and bashes and kicks while singing “Singin’ in the Rain,” clearly bastardizing the heart-warming song.
Now I have to admit. I’m still struggling to decide if I loved this movie or not. I know I never have to watch it again, putting myself through the uncomfortable first hour to get to the morality tale is a hard ask. I felt physically ill in parts. Images (and suggestions) of gang rape and cutting clothes off women made me writhe in my seat. But for all of his ultraviolence and overt sexuality, there was an inherent message that was not lost on me. I am supposed to be opposed to the first half because if I wasn’t, I would be a sociopath like Alex.
Midway through the movie Alex talks to the prison chaplain about a new procedure, called the Ludovico technique. He’s interested in the rehabilitation therapy as it means a reduced sentence. The chaplain rightly tells him that being good is a choice, and that the procedure itself removes that choice altogether. Alex catches the eye of the Minister of the Interior’s and is signed up for the procedure. It is an experimental aversion therapy that rehabilitates criminals by making them incapable of committing violence. Alex is forced to watch images of sex and violence, eyes grotesquely kept open while eye drops are dropped into his eyes every second he’s watching. Soon, Alex becomes physically ill at the suggestion of violence, sex, and the most tragic, the 9th Symphony by Beethoven.
These are painful scenes to watch, knowing that Malcolm McDowell did actually end up with a sliced cornea from these scenes, causing Kubrick (notorious for being an obsessive perfectionist) to cut the section short.
When Alex is finally finished with his procedure, he is released back to the world, defenseless to protect himself from harm, unable to perform sex, and incapable of listening to Beethoven. The film pulls no punches to show this either. The question of right and wrong is blurred, as you start to sympathize with Alex after seeing him beaten by his previous victims, and the ongoing subject of social acceptance is explored in a great scene towards the end when he returns home.
As I write this, I can absolutely accept its placement on this list. It is a hard watch, and one I will likely never forget.
This week, as I wanted to really wrap my head around A Clockwork Orange, I decided that I would only watch and write one review. But next week, I plan to write three reviews, two for movies I have also never seen (The Lives of Others and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one for a movie I have seen so much I can quote it in my sleep (Star Wars: A New Hope).