In a futuristic Britain, a gang of teenagers go on the rampage every night, beating and raping helpless victims. After one of the boys quells an uprising in the gang, they knock him out and leave him for the police to find. He agrees to try "aversion therapy" to shorten his jail sentence. When he is eventually let out, he hates violence, but the rest of his gang members are still after him.
Strangely, movie masterpieces tend to show their age with greater alacrity than the merely mediocre, particularly if their genius has been relentlessly trumpeted since the day they were unveiled. And it's easy to see why A Clockwork Orange might be more prone to the malaise than most. First of all, since Kubrick effectively banned it from British screens shortly after its release, its notoriety has mushroomed to unmanageable and inevitably injurious proportions.
Ironically though, the slavering cult audience whose anticipation should have reached boiling point over the last thirty odd years hasn't materialised. Until its 1999 rerelease, A Clockwork Orange must have been the most widely available "banned" film of all time. It's not that it doesn't have a cult following, far from it. But A Clockwork Orange's cult following is as old as the film itself. Imagery from the movie and Droog slang (Nadsat) are already so ingrained in popular culture — particularly rock music — that it would be easy to believe this "nasty little shocker" has already said everything it's ever going to say.
Surely it can't be anything more than a museum piece to audiences whose susceptibility to ultra-violence has been dulled by 30 years of riots, terrorism and televised warfare. Even in movie terms, it doesn't compare to the goriest excesses of Tarantino, Scorsese or Abel Ferrara. But that isn't the point and never was.
The up-side of the film's waning shock value is that the clamour of knee-jerk reactionaries is less likely to drown out a discussion of its intrinsically moral stance — it's doubtful whether questions will be asked in Parliament this time round. For the same reason it's also now permissible to admit that it's a screamingly funny film, which should please its star, Malcolm MacDowell, who has always claimed that throughout the shoot he was under the impression they were making a comedy.
Although that may depend on your sense of humour considering MacDowell plays a young man with a liking for Beethoven, cheerfully kicks a tramp senseless; on another he and his Droogs beat the crap out of a left-wing writer and rape his wife; to round things off they torment a middle-aged woman in her apartment before brutally murdering her with a piece of enormous phallic sculpture. Later, after his Droogs (now cops) have betrayed him, Alex is sent to prison where he agrees to undergo a course of aversion therapy known as the Ludovico Treatment. Of all the scenes of violence in the film this, with Alex strapped to a chair and his eyes clamped open, is the most proved right.
Based on the 1959 novel by Anthony Burgess (an earlier version starring the Rolling Stones never materialised), A Clockwork Orange is set in an indeterminate future where society is swaying between totalitarianism and anarchy. Alex and his Droogs (from the Russian for "friends" — Nadsat is a mix of Russian street slang and cockney argot) are a gang of thugs who roam the streets, blitzed on drug-laced milk, looking for kicks of the nastiest kind.
In "curing" him of his violent tendencies the authorities effectively rob him of his humanity, and this is the crux of the film. For individual freedom to exist in a society it must be accepted that certain individuals will choose violence as their means of expression — freedom, it's suggested, encompasses the right to choose between good and evil. Not a comfortable notion, but them's the breaks with democracy.
What so horrified original audiences about the violence in A Clockwork Orange was not that it is overtly graphic, but that it is conducted with such unrepentant glee. At a time when burgeoning youth cults and football hooligans were seen as a very real threat to the social order, that did not go down well. But had it not been, the brutality of the authorities' retaliation wouldn't have driven the point home. In a 1972 interview, Kubrick emphasised this with a reference to "the old Hollywood anti-lynching westerns which," he said, "always nullified their theme by lynching an innocent person. Of course no-one will disagree that you shouldn't lynch an innocent person — but will they agree that it's just as bad to lynch a guilty person, perhaps even someone guilty of a horrible crime? And so it is with conditioning Alex."
Ethical screed aside, what does A Clockwork Orange have to offer beyond its curiosity value and a crash course in humanism? Well, for a start there's Kubrick's dazzling visual style which, rather in the manner that Trainspotting did 25 years later, translates the substance of an "unfilmable" book into the language of cinema. And at the dramatic core of the film is a simply astonishing performance by Malcolm MacDowell as Alex. It also features an orgy sequence that would have had Von Stroheim laughing his jackboots off — you'll certainly never listen to the William Tell Overture in quite the same way again. And as for Singin' In The Rain...
A Clockwork Orange isn't about violence, it's about the fragility of individual freedom in the face of state repression. And as a subject, that's just as valid today as it was in 1971.