'A Clockwork Orange' Strikes 40

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation remains influential—but not for all the reasons we expect.

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>Warner Bros

On Saturday, the New York Times ran an opinion piece about the concept of a morality pill, a theoretical-but-apparently-not-implausible panacea for humankind's ethical shortcomings. Think Chicken Soup for the Absent Soul. Of all the possible meditations on free will and human reform, the one cultural allusion the authors made in the article was to A Clockwork Orange, referencing both the novel by Anthony Burgess and the film by Stanley Kubrick.

The article explained that Kubrick's film, which was released in America 40 years ago today, had set off a debate at the time over whether it would ever be virtuous or permissible to use science to deprive someone violent of free will. It's not surprise fact that this debate hasn't gone away, given that A Clockwork Orange has never gone away. The film's legacy has been chewed over plenty, and at 40, it remains many things: a cultural touchstone, a blueprint for artistic emulation and fashionable imitation. Decades later, the diffusion of the film's iconography through pop culture continues unrelentingly; its images have been copped and borrowed by everyone from David Bowie and Led Zeppelin to Madonna, Lady Gaga, The Simpsons, Usher, and Metallica.

And yet A Clockwork Orange remains in some ways misunderstood, and some of its innovations still haven't been given enough due: its strength as a genre-less film, its insurgent marketing plan, its stylized violence, and its unprecedented use of music, all of which shaped both film and pop culture as well as influenced society at-large for decades to come.

We can get a glimpse of the film's prismatic legacy in the rankings from American Film Institute, which, while not to be taken too seriously, speak to a broader misrepresentation of the film over time. For example: despite sharing very few traits with many of the action flicks or tense, slow-simmered classics that gum up the AFI Top 100 Thrills list, the film is ranked No. 21 on the list. And despite not being (by any acclamation) a science-fiction film, A Clockwork Orange is ranked No. 4 on the AFI Best Sci-Fi List.

Mike Kaplan, who was Kubrick's aide-de-camp and the film's promotional master—"before 'marketing' had entered the industry vernacular" he explains—takes umbrage at the designation of the film in any category.

"He [Kubrick] was incapable of making a pure genre movie—too smart—though many were mistakenly promoted that way," Kaplan says. " Clockwork doesn't fit into the traditional 'science fiction' or 'violent' category, which was attempted to expand the audience after its successful initial campaign. Everyone wanted to fit Stanley and the film in a pigeonhole."

Well, almost everyone. At the time of its release, critic Pauline Kael scathingly dubbed the film "a porno-violent sci-fi comedy." She was criticizing the movie, but she was right to recognize it belonged to no single genre. Its varying themes and social satire, its portrayal of government, politicians of both the left and right, church, family, friendship, and many other instruments of society as broken or impotent, went beyond the normal bounds of most films of its era. The use of Nadsat, the slang Burgess invented for the novel and Kubrick later adapted, kept the film from being moored to the time period of its release (although many other stylistic cracks allow some light through). The film's violence garnered it an X-rating and, following a surge of protests and copycat crimes, Kubrick withdrew the film in the United Kingdom, a ban that lasted just beyond until his death in 1999, lending it its cultish aura.

When A Clockwork Orange was released, it reached audiences in a way that no film had ever before. Eschewing the standard practice of having a studio sales executive select cinemas for the film's release, Kubrick—whose meticulous nature was legend—worked assiduously with Kaplan to hand-pick the best venues for the film's rollout. In order to do so, they needed to find out how comparable films from other studios grossed in certain cinemas, information that was closely guarded at the time.

To see how The Wild Bunch or the also X-rated Midnight Cowboy scored in places like Louisville and Columbus, Kubrick and his team compiled the data was charted each week from the back issues ofVariety to decipher which cinemas would serve A Clockwork Orange best. Kubrick's office painstakingly assembled ledgers filled with the numbers from each cinema in each city and made their choices. Kubrick then unraveled a city-by-city release strategy that dumbfounded even the executives of Warner Bros. After word got out, their coup spawned the modern box-office report.


Perhaps the most infuriating AFI designation is of Alex, the film's famous main character played by Malcolm McDowell, as No. 12 on the AFI Top 50 villains list, one spot ahead of Kubrick's Hal 9000 from2001: A Space Odyssey and just behind Michael Corleone from The Godfather Part II. (For those seeking connected bits of trivia to scare away potential mates at bars, David Prowse, who plays the minor character Julian in A Clockwork Orange, was also the body of Darth Vader,the #3 villain on the list.) While the Alex of Burgess's novel is a cruel sadist, many would dispute that Kubrick's Alex, in an irredeemable society with no other likable characters, is a villain at all.

Stuart McDougal, a retired professor and the editor of a book of essays about the film, argues, argues that as Kubrick presents Alex from the first person point-of-view, a bond is forged between the character and the audience. Costumes and wide-angle lenses act as physical distortions, making the violence highly stylized and more distant for a viewer.

"Kubrick always forces us to experience things a different way," McDougal adds.

Using a Moog synthesizer (a new technology at the time), famous pieces of classical music from the likes of Beethoven and Rossini become addled as they sound out during scenes that feature Nazi propaganda footage and choreographed gang violence. This tactic of defamiliarization creates one of film's most memorable moments:

"Consider the scene in which Alex and his crew beat up the writer Alexander and rape his wife, set to the tune of 'Singing in the Rain,'" says Liel Leibovitz, a visiting assistant professor of communications at New York University. "The scene, with its dancing and acrobatics, looks every bit like a big show-stopping number from a classic Hollywood musical, the sole difference being the unspeakable nature of the acts committed in front of our eyes."

Between the humor, the aestheticized violence, and the innovative use of music, A Clockwork Orange offered up a host of techniques that have been plundered ever since. But despite so many gruesome acts, Kubrick makes it possible to see Alex's impulses in a way that's less reflective of Hannibal Lecter (No. 1 in AFI evil) than the villains who were villains because of their very nature: the Shark in Jaws (No. 18), the Martians in War of the Worlds (No. 27), and a personal favorite, Man in Bambi (No. 20). As brutally unfamiliar as Alex's world was made to seem, somehow it still cosmically linked to ours.