Malcolm McDowall’s character in CLOCKWORK ORANGE is known during the film’s middle act as Prisoner 655321, but as he enters prison he gives his name as Alexander De Large, same as in Anthony Burgess’ novel. But when he’s released from the stripy hole, the papers give his name as Alex Burgess. I was just remarking on this evidence of Kubrick’s perfectionism having marked (and strange) limits, when the film cuts to his dad, played by Philip Stone, who suffered a similar gnomic nomenclature in THE SHINING (he’s either Charles or Delbert Grady, depending on who’s talking).

Such peculiar slips aside, this is probably the most seventies sci-fi film of them all, its look playing like a kind of caricature of the fabulous ugliness of British hair, fashion, architecture, interior design and speech in that dark decade. The BLADE RUNNER idea of “retro-fitting” had not been invented yet, so movie visions of the future tended to work on the assumption that our dystopias will consist of all-new clothes and architecture and furniture. Ridley Scott’s team visualised the truth: the future will have all of our crap, only older and more broken-down and badly repaired. (The big exception to old stuff not surviving into movie futures is the Statue of Liberty at the end of PLANET OF THE APES).


Speaking of apes, Fiona pointed out how this image recalls the primordial tribes of 2001. And then the soundtrack album of 2001 turns up in the record store Alex attends to pick up Gillian Hills and friend for a threesome (having presumably seen Hills’ threesome in BLOW-UP.) “Kubrick didn’t go in for in-jokes, did he?” Oh, but he did! Fiona has never seen EYES WIDE SHUT…


I first saw CLOCKWORK ORANGE during the period when Kubrick had withdrawn it in the UK, on a fourth generation VHS dupe, with attendant fuzziness and flaring colours that bled off their subjects in shimmering auras. Then, on a college trip to Paris, I saw it in the cinema that played it non-stop, and it looked a lot better, although a splice robbed it of its final line, which was a real pain. (Terry Southern’s idea, floated in his novel Blue Movie, of a site-specific movie, made by a Kubrick-like master filmmaker, which you would have to travel to see, making it a kind of tourist attraction, had come true, at least for me — my main motivation in visiting Paris was to see this film.)

The film did not inspire me to any acts of criminal behaviour, though I may have tried to talk like Patrick Magee afterwards (“Trrry the WIIIINE.”

Random thoughts —

The novel is short and seems to me FAST, though I guess that depends on your reading speed. Having to look up the nadsat dialect words, or else strain to remember the last time they were used, does slow you down, but I always felt the prose demanded a certain celerity. Kubrick’s pacing is… well, deliberate would be a polite word. It seems to loosen up in the final stretch, somehow — McDowell even seems to be improvising in the scene where he’s psychologically tested with a caption contest, which had Fiona in hysterics. She’d forgotten what a funny film it is, if you can take it.


“Cabbages… knickers… it hasn’t got a… a beak!”

SHOULD you take it? There are multiple issues at stake. Firstly, the written word becomes something quite different when visualised. Even Ken Russell said that the word must be censored by the artist when he films it. Mad Ken was mooted to direct CLOCKWORK ORANGE with Terry Southern on script and the Rolling Stones as stars — if he had, it would probably still be banned. Everywhere.

It’s pretty clear from John Baxter’s flawed but informative Kubrick bio that the director was treating the movie as an opportunity to ogle naked girls. The sexual violence has a role in the story, but is obviously important to the filmmaker for other reasons. Adrienne Corri initially declined the role of Mrs. Alexander because Kubrick was getting applicants to de-bra in his office while he trained a video camera on them. She made it clear that wasn’t on. “But Adrienne, suppose we don’t like the tits?” “Tough.”


(The two became quite friendly. She gave him red socks as a present, her costume when last seen in the film.)

Kubrick also got Cheryl Grunwald to mime being raped as her audition, a fairly pointless exercise that seems more like power-play than legitimate creative process (auditioning for DEATH WISH, Jeff Goldblum had to rape a chair. He got the part). Oh, and the scene Kubrick gave his rapees was very much like the encounter between the girl and the soldiers in FEAR AND DESIRE, suggesting that his violent fantasies were of a long-standing nature and informed earlier work.

If the director’s intentions aren’t pure, does it matter? Pauline Kael thought so. She pointed out that the relatively few alterations to the novel all had the effect of making Alex a more appealing character. She was right, but the matter bears further consideration. Kubrick could clearly have gone further — Alex is, by any reasonable estimation, a monster. But his crimes are photogenic — he beats up ugly people and rapes attractive, nubile women, not the other way around. Kubrick admitted that the character’s frankness with the reader/viewer made him appealing, in the same way that Richard III is appealing — a scheming dissimulator who flatters us by taking us into his confidence.


Let’s look at the changes. Firstly, all the underage girls are now older — the “weepy young devotchka” in the casino is a spectacularly buxom adult, and the girls Alex picks up in the record store may not have been assigned a specific, clearly-identifiable age, but if Kubrick had wanted us to accept them as schoolies he needn’t have cast Gillian Hills, who we might remember from another threesome in BLOW UP, or even further back in BEAT GIRL. Kubrick was probably bit concerned about what he could legally show, a little concerned about getting typecast after LOLITA, keen to avoid making the viewer reflect on how old Malcolm McDowell is supposed to be, and he wanted to photograph spectacularly buxom adults.

I believe Kubrick when he says he cut the prison murder for reasons of length. I think the prison scenes drag a little — the story loses forward momentum until Alex can get into the Ludovico Institute, and the scenes are played very slow indeed — arguably to emphasize the stultifying environment and as a dramatic gear shift after the savage opening. I think Kael is wrong to suggest this omission softens Alex, who has already killed a woman in furtherance of theft on top of all his other crimes. As I recall from reading the book, the additional killing didn’t make me like Alex less — I already despised him on a moral level and enjoyed his voice on an aesthetic one.


Kael gets into the fine detail of it when she points out that Kubes breaks his own rules, departing from the first-person narrative to show the casino devotchka getting stripped by the rival gang BEFORE Alex has arrived on the scene. Kubrick is filming something because he wants to film it, not because it’s a legitimate part of the story. But a defense is quite possible here (although yes, I think Kubrick is salacious). The scene is shot from the vantage point Alex will have when we see him. He introduces the action with voice-over setting the scene. And then he is revealed, stepping from the shadows, having apparently been watching for at least a few seconds.

(Kael doesn’t mention a scene Kubrick invented, showing the Cat Lady phoning the police, another moment not shared by Alex, who isn’t in the building and very importantly does not know the millicents are on their way. This seems to indicate that for all his obcomp meticulousness, Kubes wasn’t that bothered about the purity of the first-person or “closed” narrative.)

I always felt the opening of the casino scene was problematic, though. Or “evil,” might be a better word. The ensuing gang fight is incredibly dynamic in a western brawl way, snazzily cut to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, but the opening, a scene of sexual sadism, interacts with the music in a teasing, smirking way — it’s quite justifiable as a rendering of Alex’s view of this kind of cruelty, but I can’t bring myself to admire it. The music, the voyeurism, the sexually mature victim, can all be explained, but in combination they add up to something exploitative.

The highly fetishized assault on Adrienne Corri is another thing, simultaneously a stunning coup de cinema, an assault on the audience in fact, and a fairly indefensible piece of art-porn/rape-porn. Worth pointing out, though, that just as Burgess identifies himself with the male victim (both are authors of a book called A Clockwork Orange), Kubrick seems to put himself in the place of Alex’s prey. I’m sure Patrick Magee is typing on one of Kubrick’s favourite typewriters. And the cat lady, like Kubrick, lives in a big house full of pets with paintings by Christiane Kubrick on the walls, just like the great Stanley K. Whether the film encourages this kind of reflection isn’t certain: Kubrick deleted the novel’s explanation of the title, which means viewers must accept the phrase as an abstract concept, meaningful for whatever sensations it arouses rather than as a sensible bit of language, and in some ways we may be meant to do the same for the film itself. Kubrick seems divided as to whether the movie is a pure sensory onslaught or a film of ideas, and the tension shows. Which is not to say the tension is a bad thing.


Burgess’s story seems to suggest that a criminal might be forcibly turned off violence by giving them drugs and showing them films (although it’s uncertain if he literally believed this or just used it as an allegorical device to explore free will). It seems to me the drug used is based on apomorphine, which William S. Burroughs took to help him kick his heroin habit, and which was also used in aversion therapy for homosexuals seeking (or being forced to seek) a “cure” for their orientation. Kubrick’s refusal to engage with the media left a disgruntled Burgess to appear on every TV discussion under the sun, arguing that audiences seeing films (and possibly taking drugs) could NOT be accidentally conditioned to become criminals.

(Burgess later admitted he disliked the film, and no wonder — he wrote the book after his wife was gang raped, and to see that turned into a pervy fantasy by the director must have been rather painful. I don’t know what catharsis he achieved by adopting an assailant’s viewpoint in his novel, but he made it enjoyable as a literary stunt, not as sado-smut.)

Kubrick’s suggestion to Michel Ciment that films MIGHT affect audiences, but only in the same way as a dream might, strikes me as sensible. A well-balanced person does not commit a violent act in response to a dream, though C.G Jung reportedly packed in sculpture as a profession and became an analyst after a dream about being in Liverpool. Whereas I have actually been in Liverpool, twice, and did NOT become an analyst — except of movies, I guess.

28 Responses to “655321”

  1. Really insightful post. Thanks for posting. I saw the film before I read the book and the subtle differences change the tone completely. Either way, it’s a horrific tale and alarming that so many copycat crimes popped up after the film was released.

  2. I’ve never read a really sober examination of the copycats — I tend to be skeptical of such things and even an instance of somebody dressed as a droog committing a crime wouldn’t necessarily convince me that the crime, or one just like it, wouldn’t have happened anyway, just in different clothes…

  3. Yes very true. One film won’t change people’s outlooks unless they’re forced to watch it on repeat over and over again as some kind of psychological rewiring of the brain.

  4. I did see ACO on its original release, at the outset of my senior year in college after having read the book the previous summer. I was grievously disappointed in the movie, and in spite of repeated attempts over the decades, I’ve never managed to warm to it. The book is very funny, for one thing, and a good deal of the hilarity comes from the lightning pace. Kubrick, never in a hurry to tell his stories, apparently felt he had to slow down even more to make the NADSAT comprehensible. It doesn’t work, and is entirely lacking in Burgess’ crackle.

  5. Can’t remember whether I saw this on screen or on video; somehow I remember a laugh when Alex finds something other than spirituality in the Bible. Also remember the book with Alex’s description of apartment blocks with the sickly glow of a TV in every window.

    Creepy to learn the director was into the rapes. I thought the whole point was that pleasure had been stripped out of sex along with every other interaction, leaving only an instinct for violence. Anyway, it’s on my list of films that I’m glade I saw once but don’t need to see again, along with “Gone With the Wind” and Peter Cook’s “Hound of the Baskervilles.”

    Permanently intertwined with my memories of the movie is a long-ago episode of “The Goodies”, which briefly came to American educational television in the wake of Monty Python. The short bearded guy was stalking the streets Alex-like in a rabbit costume with a derby, accompanied by a mock-threatening song “I’m a Bunny.” He and his rabbit friends were taken down by Her Majesty’s Own Royal Highland Ferrets, a bunch of guys in ferret suits.

  6. Yes, DBenson! The Goodies managed to combine 2001 AND space bunnies. Typically demented satire for them. Their Rollerball parody is worth mentioning in 70s Sci-Fi Week too — it climaxes with a pitched battle between a rollerball team and the MCC cricket club, with atomic bomb as coup de grace.

    After the bomb, only the chirpy cricket(er)s are left alive…

    There are definitely laughs to be had in CO, and they come as rather delightful surprises after Kubrick has stretched so many of the dialogue scenes to breaking point. His sense of humour is a little crude but, as in Lolita and Strangelove, its outrageousness is its strength. Most of the laughs come from McDowell’s breaking through the slow, ritualized performance style with bursts of spontaneity.

    As in Eyes Wide Shut, SK’s clinical stylisation works as a barrier against eroticism, which is probably a good thing here.

  7. A brilliant read.
    A possible rival for seventies-est sci-fi flick? https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/brainwashed/
    Although, as one who was barely there, both call to my mind more fag-end-of-the-sixties.

  8. I think The Final Programme and Clockwork Orange are simultaneously sixties fag-end and proto-punk — which is what the seventies WAS, really.

  9. If I had a nickel for every CO parody / pastiche I had to sit through as an NYU film student between 1973 and 1977 (all of them substituting a different titular fruit or vegetable), I would… I would have about 35 cents, I guess, but my god. What’s the Jeeves story set at a talent show in the slums, where one performer after another obliviously launches into “Sonny Boy,” until the audience erupts into a full scale, rotten-vegetable fueled riot? It was like that, except it went on for four years and there was no ready access to rotten vegetables.

  10. This whole notion of “Kubrick The Ultimate Control Freak” has got to stop. Yes his films are specifically structured and he tends to make dramatic “points” with a sledgehammer. But he improvised as well and was open to suggestion. We had a “Malcolm McDowell Day” over at Dennis Cooper’s the day and someone mention that singing “Singin’ in the Rain” during the attack/rape scene was Malcolm’s idea. Stanley Donen was on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival and Malcolm had learned that Stanley’s vote broke what would have been a tie — and so he sang it in tribute.

    Very interested to hear what Fiona has to say about Eyes Wide Shut. Nobody talks about the actual film anymore, just about how by putting his lead through so man takes Stanley destroyed their marriage. I don’t believe tat for a moment but it’s arguably true that he had come to mistake “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” for mise en scene. It all works for me save for that silly masked orgy. Moreover it would have worked better as a period-set adaptation of the Schnitzler, IMO.

  11. I’m curious about this 1969 TV version of the Schnitzler. Much more of a straight adaptation, it seems.

    As McDowell said, “Poor Stanley. He could make the perfect film if it weren’t fot the human element.”

    As for Clockwork Orange parodies, the difficulty is it’s already a kind of comedy, so what satirical point is being made? And the spoofs rarely engage with what the film is about.

  12. I first saw Clockwork Orange in university, and all I remember is the mostly male audience being delighted by the scenes of rape and violence. Especially the ‘Singing in the Rain’ beating.

  13. I’m interested too. Gluck appeared in the original German-language version of Haneke’s Funny Games (Haneke prefers his U.S. remake) Plus Gluck’s film stars Karlheinz Boem.

  14. Forgot to mention: that was the 1968 Cannes Film Festival in which If. . . won because of Stanley Donen.

  15. All of them were based on mechanical reversals– droogs break in and get beat up by old folks, droogs are having a tea party and violent old people break in, etc. Lots of dirty jock straps worn outside the pants. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven, but if you were stuck in the sophomore Sight & Sound class when one of these atrocities came on the screen, kee-rist! (indelible intertitle circa 1974: “That was me, Alex, and my three droogs, Georgie, Petey, and Shemp”)

  16. McDowell also said that he was trying to show Alex’s exhilaration and Gene Kelly’s dance was the best evocation of that emotion anyone had ever filmed.

  17. I’m fascinated by the change imposed by Burgess’s US publishers: in the US, the book ends when Alex is “cured, all right”, as in the film. In the UK, there’s another segment (beginning, as all of them do, with “So what’s it going to be?”) in which Alex and his droogs are a bit older, a lot calmer, and settling down with wives and kiddies. In the US version, the ultra-violence seems attributed to society (which provides no alternatives or controls), in the UK to biology (a stage young males go through).

    Other BIG changes from book to film: in the film, Alex is specifically conditioned against “sex and violence”; in the book, simply against violence. The fact that he can’t conceive of sex as other than violent is his problem (there’s a funny bit where he invents chivalric love to avoid throwing up). The implied killjoy puritanism spelled out in that change continues, it seems to me, in the casting of grotesques to enunciate the quite reasonable objections to the Ludovico technique, usually as they grope poor toothsome Alex.

  18. Kubrick was clear he wanted the prison chaplain to be both a satiric caricature and the voice of the film.

    “Sex and violence” is the rallying cry of the pro-censorship lobby, more worried about media representations than actual behaviour. Which seems ironic, given the film’s eventual role as political football in this debate.

    On the one hand, the narrative seems to accept this equation of sex with violence, on the other, there’s the disturbing attitude evinced in Terry Southern’s novel Blue Movie. The lead character, based on Kubrick, devises an arty porn film called Faces of Love, which will be an anthology exploring different kinds of sex. There will be a lesbian scene, but no gay male scene, and there will be a rape scene, as if that were just another variant.

    Kubrick never showed any interest in filming Blue Movie, but Ringo Starr bought the rights, and Mike Nichols and Julie Andrews expressed enthusiasm. Percentage points, rather than moral scruples, eventually nixed the deal.

  19. As regards the newsprint name-change for Alex, I always took that to mean that the prime minister, Frederick, having convince Alex to come onside, had Alex’s former identity altered to the newsprint name. That way starting an era of new-found friendship with a good job and good pay working within the protection of the government, as their hospital visit scene makes quite clear.

  20. To be fair to the Kubrick character (and the Southern character) in Blue Movie, they briefly CONSIDER a gay male scene, before rejecting it on the grounds it would be kind of gross (“hairy backs…”) and moving on to the incest, sadism, etc.

  21. And here’s Julie’s “Blue Movie” in S.O.B.

  22. Also attached to direct ACO in the late 60s was Tinto Brass. Some of the artwork that ended up in Kubrick’s film appeared earlier in Dropout – a Brass film with Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero.

    Lots about it all here: http://rjbuffalo.com/tinto1a.html

  23. Thanks! I knew a little about this I supplied a copy of L’Urlo to a London curator who was putting on a show about one of the artists concerned. But I forgot all about it.

  24. […] has been spending the week diving into 70s science fiction, with highlights including this look at A Clockwork Orange and this one at The Dead Mountaineers’ Hotel, a  film I hadn’t heard of at all, based […]

  25. Stanley must have been a keen fan of Winner’s leering rape porn DEATH WISH trilogy. He cast creepy rapist Stomper (Kevyn Major Howard, see below with Morpheus) from 2 and The Giggler (Kirk Taylor) from 3 as Payback and Rafterman respectively in FULL METAL JACKET.

  26. Makes a grim kind of sense. But its’ a shame, because he could have had Jeff Goldblum and Alex WInter, both of whom played early perv roles for Winner.

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