Many films have the capacity to shock and outrage on their initial release, but few are able to retain their power decades later, when shifting tastes and cultural values often make what was once challenging or offensive merely irrelevant. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, however, is a film that sparked controversy almost immediately upon its release and still manages to disturb 40 years later, largely because the questions it asks about violence and human nature are still unresolved. Whereas the sex and gore in some exploitation films seem tame as soon as the audience becomes desensitized by ever increasing quantities, Kubrick’s images retain their ability to horrify, thanks to the ideas that drive them — mindless sensationalism can be brushed off, but the combination of philosophical inquiry, savage black comedy and hideous tragedy A Clockwork Orange presents is tough to brush off.
The movie, adapted from a novel by Anthony Burgess, tells the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a teenager in a slightly futuristic world who enjoys committing acts of “ultraviolence” with his friends. These friends are referred to as “droogs” in one of the film’s many examples of dialogue spoken in a language invented by Burgess, a language often impenetrable on the page but which gains clarity in Kubrick’s precise visual interpretation. As Alex and his friends rape, murder and steal, Kubrick creates an uneasy tension between identification and repulsion for the viewer; the characters’ freedom and enthusiasm are infectious, but their actions are appalling.
The question of whether a man like Alex can be redeemed, and by what methods, becomes an organizing principle of later sections of the film, which introduce but never fully resolve issues relating to the state and its role in controlling the minds and bodies of its citizens. By making the “hero” a despicable rapist and the politicians and doctors who “treat” him a parade of opportunistic sadists, Kubrick and Burgess complicate the audience’s response, shifting identification from one relatively repellent figure to another. It is a movie that asks the viewer to look into the dark side of his or her soul, yet the tone is often jaunty and upbeat. Upon reflection, one remembers exuberant images such as a funny, fast-motion sex scene as much as the more horrific sequences of violence and oppression.
To visualize the stark but often beautiful futuristic world of Clockwork (which, like Godard’s sci-fi classic Alphaville, was shot, ironically, almost entirely on location in a contemporary urban environment), Kubrick called upon cinematographer John Alcott, BSC. Remarkably, this was Alcott’s first sole credit as lighting cameraman, but it was to be the beginning of an astonishingly fruitful creative partnership. Alcott was a camera assistant to Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC, on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and when Unsworth had to leave that picture for another assignment, Alcott took over to shoot additional photography. His work impressed Kubrick to the extent that he promoted Alcott to shoot A Clockwork Orange, and, together, the filmmakers would create two more masterpieces: Barry Lyndon, for which Alcott won the Oscar; and The Shining, a horror film that took ghosts and demons out of the shadows and put them under harsh, unforgiving daylight.
The transfer on the 40th-anniversary Blu-ray of A Clockwork Orange appears identical to the solid but slightly uneven 2007 edition: Alcott’s saturated, aggressive palette is vividly preserved with dynamic primary colors and accurate flesh tones, yet minor inconsistencies abound from shot to shot. The 5.1 sound mix has been upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio but is basically the same as the surround mix on the 2007 release, with excellent clarity in the dialogue tracks (a must, given the convoluted “droog” language) and subtle use of the surround channels. The fact this year’s Cannes Film Festival presented a new restoration indicates this probably is not the last we have seen of A Clockwork Orange in high-def, so buyer beware — one imagines a new and improved disc taken from the latest restoration is probably on the way in the next year or two.
That said, this is the best-looking and best-sounding version of Clockwork currently available on home video, and the abundance of extra features makes it worthy of consideration. The first featurette new to this edition is “Malcolm McDowell Looks Back,” a 10-minute interview with McDowell that provides stories from the set, both enlightening and amusing. The second new supplement is “Turning Like Clockwork,” a fine, 26-minute documentary in which a variety of filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Paul Greengrass, James Mangold) and Kubrick scholars (John Baxter, Paul Duncan) reflect on the film’s influence.
The rest of the special features are carried over from previous DVD incarnations: an insightful, often hilarious, commentary track by McDowell and critic Nick Redman; the 43-minute documentary “Still Tickin’: The Return of A Clockwork Orange” and “Great Bolshy Yarblockos!: Making A Clockwork Orange,” a half-hour featurette in which several filmmakers who knew Kubrick (including Sydney Pollack and Steven Spielberg) comment on his process. A theatrical trailer rounds out the first disc, and a second Blu-ray includes two excellent feature-length documentaries by Kubrick’s collaborator and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan: Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, and O Lucky Malcolm. Collectively, the supplements contain a wealth of information about this provocative and still timely Kubrick classic.