Eye For Film >> Movies >> A Clockwork Orange (1971) Film Review
A Clockwork Orange
Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson
Released in cinemas in a 4K restoration for its 50th anniversary, A Clockwork Orange is and remains a film that cannot be talked about within the UK without reference to its complex history of screenings and notional censorship.
For most cineastes of a certain age, the film was a work whose inaccessibility gave it a cachet that it might not have deserved. It was talked about in reverent tones by people who had never seen it, or who had acquired NTSC VHS copies or seen it by some accident somewhere else. On initial release it was in cinemas for more than a year. When withdrawn its screenings were troublesome enough that one did for one of the iterations of La Scala.
I'd read the book in a rampage across the lurid adjacencies of British science fiction of the era, fuelled less by drencrom than proximity to multitudinous purveyors of secondhand paperbacks. Burgess had the air of literary polish too. I still recall an English teacher explaining that they had thought the catamite pulled closer in the cold in the first few pages of The End Of The World News was a form of blanket. I was of the wrong age and in the wrong country to see the 1990 musical, or follow the wrangling in '93 that saw an injunction on Channel 4 screening clips.
Seeing it returned to the big screen is an odd one. To be tediously technical, there are still artifacts of origin - lens flare aside, there are moments of focus that might not be from camera but print. In its original cinematic return there were reports that prints were returned and checked and cycled back out to ensure that there weren't cuts, but what that means in terms of regrading and the like I don't know. Other things remain unchanged, Wendy Carlos' credit has not been updated and the opening and closing titles are the same. With every passing takeover 'Warner Bros: A Kinney Company' feels like another layer of peeling paint, and the river south of Fulham and Chelsea does not look like that now in the future.
I saw details I had not before. Things I had not twigged. Police officers carry pistols, the Ludovico Institute has two demonstration rooms, it's a Wisden on the Warden's desk which suggests that even in dystopia there is cricket. In Alex's cell, beyond the biblical bloodshed, the paired portraits of Ludwig Van, a copy of SCH Davis' Great British Drivers. The camera so close that each blemish and squint, each blotch and drop of sweat is visible. In the priest I had ever seen peroration, here for the first time perspiration. The bands in the Top Ten at the Bootik include The Heaven 17, well known, moonrise of 2001 is not as large as it was when not a long playing limited pressing, and I spotted 'The Sparks' but at the time the brothers were playing under the name Halfnelson.
It had also been clear that there were oddities between dear Alex and his M and P but that she was 37 years older (and he just 19) is more visible gazing up rather than across. Those landscapes, those bottlecaps, that red kroovy. I viddied in a way I had not before on this uncounted viddy of the doings-in and goings-on how much in cinema it is of the cinema. The technique itself, but the rumble in the casino, that stage-bound demonstration, the fateful singing in the rain. The lights spring from a box with four staggered windows, reflections of a millimetric soul. There's space enough to talk about how Singing In The Rain is a song from the 1929 Hollywood Revue that itself inspired a film about the transition to the talkies, but this was 1971, there were men on the moon and whirling about overhead, and yet not a television in sight.
Do the costumes in those films viddy the same to anyone but Alex, the audience? Do the cynicisms of the politics feel different five decades on? Do I wonder if Bronski and Ludovico are the homophonous referents when the Minister hopes the polls (or Poles?) are right? The prop newspapers have tiny details, an edition number suggests one started perhaps in the 1850s (The Daily Telegraph?) and in most young Alex's surname is given as Burgess, not (as invented for the film) DeLarge. Does that matter?
It is still a meditation on adulthood, on free will, on violence. It is still difficult to watch, but overwhelming, overshadowed in the seat, it is something else entirely. The red looks more artificial now than anything else, less real in hand and fresh from heart than canned in corridors from elemental elevators. It still sounds incredible, Carlo's jaunty electronica and the stirring strings of the 9th, though I'm not sure I'd ever noticed that the doorbell (letter 'V'?) is probably the fifth.
It is a place of the male gaze. The brooding catsuited custodians of the milk bar are as tightly clad as the lady in lycra. The looming David Prowse is shown to be strong, an overwhelming physique in a land of bumps and curves. Nakedness abounds, but often and repeatedly artificial. The matching glitter merkins of the milk bar's mannequins, the painted gardens of earthly delights with snake at the door. The bright lights of home and its consumptions, institutionalised tea and toast, starched collars and stiff upper lips. Architecture of authority from concrete to cufflink, signature to scaffold.
It's still a film where its protagonist is a rapist and a murderer, a monster of the modern age. 'Jet' and 'Space' are both at least as distant as this. Paul Farrel (the Tramp) from further still, perhaps the oldest in the cast with a birthday in 1893. The Karsino and The Old Leather Bottle are long since rubble but the film remains.
The Milk Bar is alien, the Duke of New York is gone, the assaults sexual and physical are no less numerous and no less discomfiting. It is likely to ever remain an 18. The BBFC have form with it, not for language but for replicability perhaps. To talk about how vision corrupts and condemns it becomes inescapable to talk about how it has corrupted, condemned. Never outright banned, just withheld from distribution, not unclassified, just not submitted for classification. Across the four versions submitted for streaming and home media are some five and a half minutes not in cinemas. This big screen release has 5 seconds not there when it was X rated in the way back when.
I will leave it to others to split hairs and cuts and plumb the gutters of detail for each nook and cranny of variance. Instead to try and consider it for a moment a film independent of the business of film. A picture without the touch of Kubrick. A movie, rich with kroovy, read as a thing itself. The author is not dead here, but we can do them some violence.
McDowell's charisma, that leering litso, lights up the screen. There is a physicality, but everywhere. From sweep to quaver, step to savour. The camera recoils, responds, rolls in and ever closer with culpability.
This was Kubrick's third in colour, yet another of his adaptations. Critically successful, chaotically so. As with some versions of Blade Runner not clear which form some have seen, or when, or even how, and anchored in a voiceover. Alex nods to what that means for our understanding and his jeopardy. The unresolved differences between the ending of the film and the book are still there. That moral question too.
The hoi polloi are manipulated variously, and over and under it all are shadows of other boots. Not stamping on a face forever, too crude. Invited in, polished. Playing by the rules, even when they are making them. Those prop papers support more than just the government, that jump from text to screen speaks of different direction. Some words are synonymous with 'attempt' in part because of headline writers, and their audiences will do as they are bid. "An inquiry will place the responsibility where it belongs" and dissonance and dissidents be damned.
Kubrick's canvas is best enjoyed large, right at the front. He saw it in his mind and with the eye right against the lens, I did not need straitjacket nor drops to keep my focus forward but size does matter. The colour and precision of this film deserve it, reward it, enthrall and envelop. It is not alone in that. Akira is a film I have known and loved for years, but the restoration, 4Kira if you will, gave it an immediacy that I had not felt even sat too close to my parents' television.
Alex and Tetsuo both have favourite songs to play from their staggering modernities, microcassette and a generation later a compact disc. Each with gangs of toughs as a window into those who not only run but name the streets. Motoring and machinations, masculinity and manipulation. One a triumph of VHS, one a martyr to video nasties. Even recordings deserve the best reproduction, and film belongs in the cinema. I could not tell you how much I had seen and read about this before I had the chance to see it, but on seeing it what I had seen and read made sense. Another Wilde young man said it was better to be talked about, but he only had one Oscar to watch. This is a portrait of a young man that has not aged, and in its state gives us a new story. Viddy it well.Reviewed on: 24 Sep 2021