When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I was immediately enthralled by this subversive gem so ahead of its time in 1971 that it still feels modern today. The opportunity to see it return to the big screen was an easy draw, particularly as it turned out Malcolm McDowell would be in town to discuss the film. I wrote after my first viewing that, “The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat.” I was fascinated to hear more about how Alex DeLarge came about.
DeLarger than life
As a young Shakespearean stage actor, McDowell claims not to have felt intimidated by Kubrick despite his reputation and success. Rather, he saw the project as a collaboration. That is quite something for an actor who has only just entered the world of film with If…., an allegorical story about revolution at an English private school. That first feature, perhaps because of its anarchic sensibilities, led directly to his selection for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s widow recently recalled that the director had screened the film at home, repeating McDowell’s first scene five times, before turning to her and saying, “we’ve found our Alex.”
“Stanley wasn’t interested in the actor’s problem at all,” McDowell explains of the struggle to find a way to perform Alex. That became liberating, giving him the confidence to improvise — particularly with physicality, such as Alex’s exaggerated chewing whilst confined to a hospital bed, which emerged largely as a reaction to Kubrick’s evident boredom with the scene’s dialogue. The actor summarises his brief as being to “play a rapist murderer who people like”. The fact Alex has some culture in his love for Beethoven helped but ultimately McDowell imbued him with a love for life, something that one has to admire on some level. Yet that is what drew such ire from many audiences, the New York Times calling Kubrick a fascist for making Alex likeable.
Although the film makers played for humour, it didn’t take shape until they started filming. By modern standards the black comedy is self-evident, but McDowell recalls a New York audience watching in complete silence, whilst London offered only the occasional laugh — such was its uniqueness at the time. The home invasion sequence in particular could not have been done naturalistically, McDowell considers, “It would kill the film.” They spent five days shooting nothing, trying to work out how to create it. Kubrick eventually asked whether McDowell could dance, in response to which he launched into a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain, replete with timed kicks. Kubrick was crying with laughter and, as McDowell tells it, immediately jumped into his car and drove home to purchase the rights to the song; it took them a further seven days to film the scene
Asked whether it was difficult to shoot the Ludovico technique, in which Alex is forced to watch a deluge of horrific footage with his eyes clamped open with ophthalmic forceps, McDowell responds enigmatically, “But I am Alex. If Alex is feeling pain then so was Malcolm,” before admitting candidly, “It was fucking horrible.” His eyes were anaesthetised for the shoot, meaning that he did not realise he had badly scratched his corneas until it wore off as he was driving home, in the worst pain he has ever felt. And then there were the reshoots…
Myth conceived notions
It is easy to forget that the film existed before punk, with a look that perhaps began to usher it in. The fashion was as improvisational as the acting, using cricket whites that McDowell had in his car, a protector that Kubrick suggested he wear on the outside as a codpiece, and a bowler as “a fuck you to the city”. The fake eyelashes began as a gag gift McDowell purchased for Kubrick, but after some experimentation they found the asymmetrical look of a single eye was suitably sinister.
McDowell recalls Anthony Burgess’ reason for writing the book, whilst noting in the same breath that the man was a pathological liar, making it impossible to know what was true. The story is that a Welsh doctor had told Burgess he had only nine months to live. Wanting to provide for his wife, Burgess rushed to write five books in that time. As publication approached and he was still alive, he realised he could not release them all simultaneously under his own name, so used pseudonyms instead. At the time he also worked as a newspaper literary critic and, as the books were not in his own name, they landed on his desk. He gave himself glowing reviews, before being fired once found out.
Addressing the mythology around the film’s limited availability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death, McDowell explains that A Clockwork Orange was never actually banned. A year after its release, as a result of several crimes allegedly copying elements of the movie, Kubrick and his family began receiving threats. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK market, a decision respected by the distributor until after his death. Invariably the lack of availability meant that people wanted it more.
He describes Kubrick as having paranoid tendencies, recalling visiting him at home to find the man sat by a stereo, intently listening to something through headphones. He silenced McDowell, who waited expectantly, imagining that he was probably listening to Beethoven for inspiration. Eventually Kubrick removed the cans and shook his head, “Another near miss at Heathrow.” He had been listening to air traffic control.
By the time the film was withdrawn, McDowell had moved to the USA, though he was disappointed that its cultural impact would not be experienced in the UK. American students embraced A Clockwork Orange for its style as well as the statement hidden beneath about freedom of choice. Although McDowell feels Burgess made things difficult for the audience by using an immoral man who makes bad choices, his own anti-establishment feelings ring out loudly in response to the film’s alternative of State control, “We know what happens when the State gets involved in anything. It’s a complete fuck up.” Here, its particular cruelty lay in stripping Alex of his pleasures, not just the antisocial ones but his love of music.
In closing, McDowell praises Kubrick’s genius as a film maker and waxed lyrical about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I consider overrated despite its visual majesty. McDowell highlights its propulsion of science fiction beyond contemporary cardboard sets, describing it as the best cinematic experience one can have on the big screen. In fact, I do not disagree at all with his final assessment: “I don’t know what it’s about. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s 45 minutes before anyone speaks. But it’s genius.”