When Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ seminal dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange, was unleashed upon the public forty years ago, it ignited a firestorm of controversy, especially in the American ex-pat director’s adopted home of England. Despite being recognized as an important cinematic work, and being passed wholly uncut by the notorious British Board of Film Certification, Kubrick decided to ask Warner Brothers to withdraw his film from cinemas across the United Kingdom, thus effectively banning his own film from being sold or shown in the U.K. up until his death in 1999.
While there was certainly political pressure, as well as an abundance of “copycat” crimes whose instigators claimed were inspired by the onscreen antics of the film’s anti-hero, Alex DeLarge, many questioned as to why Kubrick – who was supposedly concerned for his family’s safety - only withdrew his film from the U.K. and not the entire world. To some – including author, Burgess, as well as the film’s star, Malcolm McDowell - the move seemed disingenuous at best, and was viewed as a sort of marketing ploy to make A Clockwork Orange seem that much more controversial, and give it a bit of an edge over many equally violent and divisive films of the period. Despite Kubrick’s “best efforts”, the film became an underground sensation in England, especially in the early 1980’s, where shoddily duplicated versions were sold under the counter at local video shops, while others (expensively) imported their copies from neighboring countries. Here, nearly a decade after its release, A Clockwork Orange’s reputation had grown to a quasi-mythical status , which is what many consider to have been Kubrick’s intention all along. Was his banning of the film in the United Kingdom an (unprecedented) example of social responsibility, or was it simply a grand social experiment conducted by a notorious eccentric?
Whatever Kubrick’s intentions, A Clockwork Orange went on to become one of his most storied works, earning an Academy Award nomination for best motion picture, and firmly establishing itself as a bonafide cult phenomenon that still resonates to this day. From film and art to music, one can still see the influence of Kubrick’s visionary approach on Burgess’ nightmare future, while Burgess’ book has usurped Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as rite of passage reading for burgeoning anarchists the world wide (as well as making the film’s fictional language, Nadsat, second only to Klingon in its use amongst the geek elite). Now Warner Brothers celebrates this important piece of cinematic history with a 40th Anniversary Blu-ray set that not only presents the film with astonishing audio/visual acuity, but with a comprehensive set of extras that no fan of the film should be without.
Alex DeLarge is a brilliant-yet-sociopathic teenager with a fondness for lovely Ludwig Van, ultra-violence, a bit of the old in-out, and general anarchy. Alex is the leader of a gang of droogs –Dim, George, and Pete – who sheepishly follow him in his endeavors night after brutal night. When we’re introduced to Alex and his droogies, they’re imbibing Moloko (milk laced with drugs) at the Korova milk bar, readying themselves for yet another evening of mayhem that includes the beating of an old drunkard, a melee with a rival gang, joyriding in a stolen sports car, and a violent home invasion. For Alex, this is as good as life gets. If he wants something, he just takes it, and, as leader of his gang, his take is that much more substantial. However, when Georgie, Dim, and Pete express their dissatisfaction with his leadership, and tell him how they’d like to go on to bigger and better things, Alex chooses to quash their rebellion, resulting in his droogs turning their backs on Alex when the law finally catches up to him.
Arrested for murder and sentenced to forty years in prison, young Alex is chosen to participate in the Ludovidico experiment; a brainwashing technique that promises to quell the criminal instinct and, in a matter of weeks, transform hardened offenders into model citizens. Deemed a success, Alex is set free, but is soon revisited by the many ghosts of his past, eager to take advantage of the now helpless man who once victimized them.
A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick at his socially satirical best. The film takes swipes at everything from classicism and totalitarianism to medical hubris and pop psychology. It’s a film that’s as humorous as it is horrifying, and one that features a genuinely likeable anti-hero unlike any seen before or since. Alex is a merciless thug; an opportunistic and calculating piece of human garbage who sees what he wants and takes it – be it your wallet, your car, your wife, or your life. In any other movie, Alex DeLarge is a villain, but, thanks to a brilliant and gregarious performance by Malcolm McDowell and Kubrick’s shrewd use of music throughout the film, we come to think of Alex as something of a friend (something he reminds of repeatedly throughout his narration). Like the book, the film is presented in the first person, and, with Alex’s voice guiding us, we become implicit in his deeds, invested in his fate, and, ultimately, thrilled to see our “hero” emerge unscathed. In the original release of Burgess’ novel, Alex is given a final redemptive chapter in which he changes his wicked ways and embraces the prospects of adulthood, even going so far as to express concern as to the sort of people his offspring would become. Kubrick, however, eschews such feel-good platitudes and, instead, embraces the cynical and dour ending of the U.S. version of the book. It speaks volumes of Kubrick’s skill as a director as well as McDowell’s prowess as an actor that a character as despicable as Alex DeLarge would go on to become a cult hero. It also shows just how powerful a tool music – a central theme of both the film and book – can be in not only setting the mood of a film, but in shaping the audience’s perceptions of it. Layered over Kubrick’s mesmerizing imagery, it’s as perfect a marriage of music and film as one will ever see.
Warner Brothers’ 40th Anniversary edition of A Clockwork Orange is a truly deluxe set, featuring two discs worth of material presented in a nifty digi-pack replete with 40 page color booklet, and hours worth of bonus features.
A note: This is NOT the restored edition of the film that recently played at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the same transfer that was previously released by Warner Brothers 2007 Blu-ray release. That being said, the film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and looks marvelous. Colors are rich and vibrant, image definition is sharp and crisp, and the level of detail is extraordinary. Yes, there are some moments of softness, flickering, and the occasional bit of wear, but, to these eyes, this is the best the film has ever looked. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix offers robust bass, most evident in the film’s throbbing synth score, but lacks punch in terms of dialogue and sound effects. The narration is very crisp and clear, but I found that the dialogue in the film proper was a bit on the tinny side, albeit still quite audible.
Extras are abundant and, in addition to scads of new material, also include two feature-length documentaries – Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (SD), and the all-new Malcolm McDowell retrospective, O Lucky Malcolm! (HD). We also get a highly engaging commentary track featuring McDowell and Nick Redman , and several featurettes, including:
• Still Tickin': The Return of Clockwork Orange (SD): A really neat retrospective that looks back at the controversy and legacy of the film. Featuring loads of interviews with various directors, journalists, and actors, as well as vintage interviews with Anthony Burgess, this is essential viewing for all Clockwork fans.
• Great Bolshy Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange (SD): More analysis of the film, as well as some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. Interviews include William Friedkin, El Spielbergo, and more.
• Turning Like Clockwork (HD): Hosted by McDowell, this newly made retrospective offers a more current look back at the film and those its influenced.
• Malcolm McDowell Looks Back (HD): McDowell returns with some insight into the making of the film from his perspective, as well as the dirt on his relationship Kubrick, Burgess, and Alex DeLarge.
Rounding out the extras is a theatrical trailer for the film (SD).
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most influential and important films of its era, as well as one of its most divisive. This 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray set from Warner Brothers gives viewers a chance to see the film in its best possible presentation (at least until the inevitable release of the newly restored version), and then delve further into its turbulent history through a bounty of comprehensive extras that are, alone, worth the price of admission, and earn this set my highest possible recommendation.