IMDB users rank A Clockwork Orange as the best film of 1971 on both of their systems, with that year's Oscar winner, The French Connection, ranked 4th and 8th respectively. I think it is better than any of the (few) other 1971 films that I have seen. I hadn't seen it before, but took advantage of a day last week when I felt too porly even to read (don't worry, not the Big Rona, just a stomach bug that knocked me out) and watched it in bed.
As you're probably aware, it's a brutal film, with two rapes and some nasty physical violence and torture. I won't go into gruesome detail. It's the story of Alex, a youth in the very near future, who likes doing damage to people and property with his friends. He is caught, jailed, and subjected to horrible brainwashing in order to condition him to be repulsed by sex and violence, and also by Beethoven, previously his favourite composer. When he gets out he finds himself a political football, torn between those who have abused him and those he has abused. The film is fantastically made, portraying a totally convincing dystopian environment with an eerie soundtrack combining classics and Moog synthesiser versions of the same. The visuals are striking and memorable.
There are also quite a lot of breasts. The central character is deeply misogynist, living in a sexist society, and though we do in fact see his penis at one point, the topless and naked women and depictions of women are what stick in the mind. Almost all of the sex (apart from the final cowboy scene) is male-dominant missionary, including the threesome with the girls from the record shop. A particularly telling moment is the press conference at the end, in which there are only two women in the crowd of journalists and photographers, both stuck at the back. This may be a film of genius, but it is not exactly a feminist work.
The whole thing is carried by Malcolm McDowell as Alex, combining menace, partial self-awareness, and a weird sort of innocence as the grownups start doing things to him in return for his crimes. I had only seen a few of his later films, but it's clear why he plays such good villains, right from the start of his career.
His gang of droogs, to my surprise, include Warren Clarke, decades before he became a national treasure, second from the left.
On the far left is James Marcus, who had two minor roles in Doctor Who: in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) he was a medieval peasant brought forward to modern times, and in Underworld (1978) he was the nasty security officer Rask. Sorry, not brilliant pictures in either case.
Two other roles that really jumped out at me, from actors who I do not remember seeing before but both seemed to slip into it tremendously comfortably: Anthony Sharp as the evil Minister, and more briefly Barry Cookson as Dr Alcott who admits Alex to the Ludovico Centre.
We have only one returning actor from a past Oscar winner, Michael Bates who is the chief prison guard here after being Monty in last year's Patton.
And we have one returnee from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the previous film to win the Hugo (also by Kubrick) - Margaret Tyzack, who is the unnamed woman conspirator here and was the Russian scientist Elena who Heywood Floyd meets in orbit.:
Apart from John Marcus, there are a number of crossover Doctor Who appearances. Virginia Weatherall is the sexual temptress for Alex's post-treatment test; back in 1963 she was Dyoni in the story now known as The Daleks.
Godfrey Quigley is the prison chaplain here; in the second Peter Cushing movie (1966), he was the disabled scientist Dortmun.
Neil Wilson, who checks Alex into prison, was a hairier Seeley in Spearhead from Space the previous year (1970):
A couple of years later, John J. Carey, one of the policemen who beats Alex up, became Bloodaxe in The Time Warrior (1974), also with a lot more hair.
Further on again, Adrienne Corri, one of the gang's victims, whose face we don't really get a good shot of here, was to be Mena in The Leisure Hive (1980):
Margaret Tyzack's co-conspirator is played by John Savident, who is briefly seen as the Squire in The Visitation (1982) but also had a couple of roles in Blake's 7.
Finally in terms of Who, and with the biggest time gap, future enfant terrible Steven Berkoff is the other policeman who beats Alex up, and four decades later was the evil Shakri in The Power of Three (2012).
A couple of notes from other fandoms. The nurse who is interrupted while having sex when Alex wakes from his coma is none other than Carol Drinkwater, who achieved fame a few years later as Helen Herriot in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. Unfortunately I couldn't get a clip from the film that shows her face as clearly as her breasts, so you'll just have to imagine it. And a rare crossover with the Rocky Horror Picture Show: Gaye Brown, the sophisto woman who sings in the milk bar, is one of the Transylvanians.
I don't think I'll rush to watch this again, but I am very glad to have ticked this box of my cinematic education.
The book is very short, but the paragraphs are long; here is the second one from the third chapter:
We got out at Center and walked slow back to the Korova Milkbar, all going yawwwww a malenky bit and exhibiting to moon and star and lamplight our back fillings, because we were still only growing malchicks and had school in the daytime, and when we got into the Korova we found it fuller than when we’d left earlier on. But the chelloveck that had been burbling away, in the land, on white and synthemesc or whatever, was still on at it, going: ‘Urchins of deadcast in the way-ho-hay glill platonic time weatherborn.’ It was probable that this was his third or fourth lot that evening, for he had that pale inhuman look, like he’d become a thing, and like his litso was really a piece of chalk carved. Really, if he wanted to spend so long in the land, he should have gone into one of the private cubies at the back and not stayed in the big mesto, because here some of the malchickies would filly about with him a malenky bit, though not too much because there were powerful bruiseboys hidden away in the old Korova who could stop any riot. Anyway, Dim squeezed in next to this veck and, with his big clown’s yawp that showed his hanging grape, he stabbed this veck’s foot with his own large filthy sabog. But the veck, my brothers, heard nought, being now all above the body.When I first read it in 2006, I wrote:
I was complaining a few days ago about authors who make you work hard to read their fiction, and how I expect to be adequately rewarded. With A Clockwork Orange I do feel adequately rewarded. It's a very short novel about the violence of youth, based a little I guess on the famous battles between mods and rockers of the 1960s. But Burgess manages to lift it into the realm of the universal by two straightforward but brilliantly executed gimmicks.Kubrick did not realise that there was a last chapter, so the film ends on a less upbeat note than the book (which has Alex achieving at least a partial redemption). Apart from that, it really does the book justice - some details are changed to make a more coherent screenplay, but in fact the three sections of the book each are treated in about a third of the film's length. Sometimes the movie can do a book favours by cutting bits out (eg Oliver!), but with a short intense book like A Clockwork Orange, it made sense to take what was there and lift almost all of it into a new dimension.
The first of these, of course, is the nadsat used by Alex and his friends. Rather than use contemporary teenage slang, Burgess invented his own. My Russian is pretty vestigial but sufficient to get through most of the book without worrying too much - in particular I think he's managed to catch a few genuine Russian nuances and insert them subversively into English, like chelloveck, which basically means "chap", from человек. Another good bit of wordcrafting is tolchock, which is originally толчок, the Russian noun for "shove", but in Burgess becomes either a sustained push or a sudden blow, as when Alex and friends are disposing of a stolen car in the canal: "we got out and, the brakes off, all four tolchocked it to the edge of the filthy water that was like treacle mixed with human hole products, then one good horrorshow tolchock and in she went." I've heard people in Ireland used the word "feck" as a verb with similar meaning. And horrorshow (ie хорошо) for "good" is a lovely riff on "wicked". (There were a lot of other nice touches; I'll just mention oddy-knocky for одинокий, "lonesome".)
The second is his choice of classical music as Alex's personal fixation. Actually I rather get the impression that Alex is unusual even among his peers in his preference. The two girls he lures home are much more into "pathetic pop-discs", and he doesn't listen to music with his friends. (No mention of going to actual live musical performances at all - though there are "worldcasts" where everyone gets to watch the same entertainment around the world, closer to Edward Bellamy than Bob Geldof I think.) However, the fact that the music Alex listens to is (mostly) already known by the general reader helps us to get through the barrier created by the language, and his description of why he likes Beethoven's Ninth is something anyone else who likes it can relate to.
After all that, the book itself? Plot is easy to summarise: Alex is a very nasty and violent boy; he is imprisoned and subjected to mind control which removes his ability to do evil; after public protest the process is reversed; but he finds that he is growing up anyway. The use of nadsat slang actually makes the descriptions of violence in the early part of the book more bearable than it would be if graphically expressed in standard English. The violence of youth is, of course, universal.
Libertarians may jump with glee on the sinister role of the State in all this, the brutal millicents/милиции, but I think the involvement of the State is almost incidental; Burgess' point is about redemption, and that it must come from within, cannot be imposed from outside. In the last chapter Alex realises this for himself, bumping into his old friend Pete who is now married, and reflecting that "I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like groweth up, yes." According to Blake Morrison in the introduction of my Penguin edition, the last chapter was actually deleted from the first American version of the book as the publishers felt it was too upbeat (!). Bizarre.
Anyway, a fascinating, horrible and well-constructed book.
You can get the film here and the book here. Next film on my list is The French Connection, which won the Oscar for this year; the next Hugo winner is Slaughterhouse-Five.