Those synth notes that open up Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange are as dirty as the filth and demented contest of anguish featured throughout. An adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ seminal piece was always going to be rough around the edges and edgier at the core, but it is upon rewatching A Clockwork Orange that the mania really settles in. That one can appreciate the stylistic nature Kubrick achieves, the flashes of sheer terror and delight, the inspiring implications of bowler hats and a generation that turned out just too horrible for its own making. Sticking it to the homeless, hounding those with homes, it’s all to play for with Malcolm McDowell’s only incredible work. Well, this and Home Alone: The Holiday Heist.
How mighty they have fallen. But how mighty a fall leading man Alex (McDowell) makes in this feature. That well-spoken thug consolidates the power of new and specific language with classical music and rare forms of torture. A lobotomy not of the brain but the power within it. Sap that out of anyone and they’ll be reduced to nothing or at the very least a shell of their former selves that can’t put up a fight. Whether or not that fight is reasoned and responsible of thuggish and manic is up to the individual, and the individual in A Clockwork Orange goes through such a perceived, monumental change that Kubrick does not need to try all that hard to coax such a performance out of McDowell.
Manic and strange at the best of times, the improvised Singin’ in the Rain performance and the actual adaptation of Burgess’ prose is twisted and intent on reducing these characters to sickened people in need of help. They feel well, well beyond it. Although the droogs that surround Alex are not as fleshed out or fulfilling as they are in the book, they do well to support McDowell’s terrifying performance. Kubrick’s work does that too. Even he seems willing to take a backseat to the usual perfectionism he provides. No waiting for the right clouds to appear. No abuse of Shelley Duvall. Just trust in McDowell and the effective utilisation of simple camerawork. The implication is often stronger and scarier than the act. A Clockwork Orange realises that well.
But what it does with the clarity of its abuse and horrors is impressive and sinister. A Clockwork Orange is not just a great adaptation but a great achievement in how a film can possess the horrors of the written word and display them with vivid, genuine terror. Kubrick crafts a film so beyond the construct of a usual horror that he toys with the audience as harshly as he does with the victims of Alex’s rampage. Great it is to see Burgess’ prose featured so prominently, Kubrick never quite makes it his own as he would with the likes of The Shining or 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is a temperament here removed from the rest of his works. It is the rare reliance Kubrick has on his performers and the willingness he has to stand back and watch it all unfold, side by side with the equally shocked audience.