A Testament to the Power of the Orange


When I went to see a midnight showing of Paranormal Activity last week, I showed up at 11:10 p.m. only to find a line of at least 500 people that started in front of the theater and wrapped all the way around the block.  Suffice it to say I didn’t get to see the movie that night.  Before I left, however, I took a look at the movies the theater was showing and was surprised to see that on Friday and Saturday night at midnight, A Clockwork Orange would be playing.  Clockwork is perhaps my favorite movie of all time, so I made a quick mental note to try my best and see it on the big screen.  I’ve seen it at least 20 times, but never in a movie theater.  When I showed up that Saturday for a midnight showing, I found out that I wasn’t the only one who thought so fondly of this movie.


Clockwork was released in 1972 and now, 37 years later, the theater was crowded with people wishing to see it on the big screen.  Aside from a few cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I don’t think many films – especially ones released in the 70s – could draw a crowd at a midnight theater showing like Clockwork.  What is it about this movie that people love so much?  After all this time, what would compel fans to see a midnight showing on a Saturday night?  Of course, there’s no one answer, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: A Clockwork Orange combines relevant social issues, surreal visuals, an incredible score, biting humor, and one of the most memorable protagonists in movie history, all while employing the brilliant use of language as conceived in Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name.  It’s a movie experience unlike any other.

In short, Clockwork is the story of a young hoodlum named Alex who spends his days skipping school and his nights getting wasted and raising hell.  We’re never really told just when the events of the film take place, but it seems to be in the near future, in a time when crime has gotten out of control and the nights are absent of law and order.  Alex and his fellow droogs aren’t the only ones out terrorizing people at night; many gangs roam the streets looking for trouble.  Eventually, Alex gets caught and, as part of his “rehabilitation,” undergoes an experimental procedure that causes him to feel like he’s dying if he attempts to commit an act of evil.  After trying to kill himself, however, the procedure is reversed, and Alex is back to the way he was at the beginning of the film.


It’s a fairly straightforward story, I suppose, but Kubrick’s direction makes the movie unique, embedding itself into the viewer’s subconscious.  Visually, everything is surreal – the costumes, the wigs worn by women, and the different sets, especially the Korova Milk Bar, the spot where Alex and his droogs drink drug-laced milk to sharpen themselves up for the old “ultraviolent.”  Part of the reason, I think, that everything appears so bizarre is because otherwise, the violence and destruction seen on screen would be too much to bear.  Only by dressing Alex up in a ridiculous costume and setting up the world around him to match could Kubrick show such violence without forcing his audience to turn away in disgust.  The film becomes a comedy of sorts, and even the most horrific acts of violence – such as the infamous rape scene early in the film – can elicit a laugh or two.

Of course, Alex’s character contributes a great deal to the movie’s tone, too.  Despite being a teenager who manipulates, attacks, robs, and rapes people, Alex is as charming a character as you will find.  He speaks in an almost Shakespearean manner, and it’s clear that he’s much more intelligent than his fellow gang members.  His love of Beethoven gives him a sort of depth, and it’s somewhat jarring to attribute sophistication to such a violent young man.  It’s Alex’s narration, though – his direct communication with the audience – that makes him so endearing.  Despite all the damage and suffering he’s caused, Alex confides in the audience and explains that he is the one who has suffered.  We don’t necessarily sympathize with him, but his attempts to manipulate us, the audience, as he does nearly everyone else he comes across bring us into his world.  Because he seems to value his “friendship” with us, we’re not quite willing to label Alex as a bad guy, regardless of all the horrific things we’ve witnessed him do.


Underneath his smiling exterior, though, lies something very sinister and calculating.  When his droogs question his authority, Alex responds with quick, harsh violence, putting them back in their places immediately.  “Sheep, thought I.”  When imprisoned, Alex follows the rules and studies the Bible so as to curry favor with the prison authorities.  And when the Minister of the Interior arrives at the prison to select a candidate to undergo the experimental rehabilitation procedure, Alex takes the initiative and makes himself known in a successful attempt to be chosen.

Switching gears to the broader picture, the main theme of A Clockwork Orange is society’s response to crime.  Not only does the film ask the question as to what should be done with criminals who have harmed society, it proposes some answers to that question, as well.  Should they be punished, rehabilitated, or both?  Many of the prison workers in Clockwork argue that if a criminal harms society, society should “hit back,” so to speak.  The Minister of the Interior argues, however, that prison serves only to make criminals even better criminals, and so a new, drastic form of rehabilitation is necessary.  And perhaps most poignant of all, the Prison Chaplain points out that a man who is “good” as the result of a medical procedure is not really “good” at all.  Good comes from within; it is a choice to be made.  If a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.  Instead, like Alex, he becomes “a clockwork orange.”


From the opening shot of Alex’s terrifying, psychotic stare to the closing shot of Alex’s deranged fantasy of ultraviolent rape, A Clockwork Orange is a cinematic marvel.  The film deals with complex themes and questions about society, but also offers up a dark kind of humor and, as stated earlier, one of the most memorable and celebrated protagonists to ever appear on screen.  I truly love this movie, and based on the crowd that showed up for the midnight showing, I was delighted to see that its place in cinema history is as relevant today as it has ever been.

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  1. This is also one of my favorite movies of all time, but I seriously hope you have read the book. In the novel, you can’t hear all the Beethoven that Alex talks about which is one edge the flim has over the book. But while the film is able to use music/scene matchups to it’s advantage, the novel has stronger religious tones that question it’s place in society as well.

  2. @ illeaturfamily

    Yes, I have read the book, and it’s one of my favorites. Alex is actually MUCH worse in the book, too, and it lacks the humor Kubrick added to the film. Well, except for one part:

    As you know, Mr. Deltoid says “yes?” after many of his statements. Later in the book, Alex does the same and realizes he must have picked it up from Mr. Deltoid.

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