Warner Bros. gives Stanley Kubrick’s still controversial “A Clockwork Orange” a must-see 4K upgrade
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
In a career-defining performance, Malcolm McDowell plays Alex, the leader of a gang of remorseless thugs who play by their own rules in a dystopian England in the not-too-distant future.
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“A CLOCKWORK ORANGE”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1971; R for extreme violence, including rape, and graphic nudity; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K) Best extra: An insightful, wide-ranging commentary with star Malcolm McDowell and historian Nick Redman
REVIEWING Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” back in the day, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “a tour-de-force of extraordinary images, music, words and feelings.” Rex Reed, writing in the New York Daily News, said it “is one of the few perfect movies I have seen in my lifetime.” Roger Ebert didn’t see it that way. The film, he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, is “an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning.” Calling it “talky and boring,” he asked, “What is Kubrick up to here?” Fifty years on, “Clockwork” is as divisive as ever.
One review of this new 4K Ultra HD disc said it’s “one of the greatest, and most violent, anti-violence movies ever made ... a very cool movie based on a very cool book.” Slant magazine echoed Ebert’s criticism, saying it lacks “a much-needed ideological backbone.” The writer also slammed its absence of context. “How did this society come into being? How could Alex (more on him in a bit) get to where he is today? How is this state of affairs allowed to perpetuate?”
(1-3) After sharpening up at the Korova Milkbar, Alex and his droogs savagely beat a vagrant (Paul Farrell) who asks them for spare change.
For the record, those questions are invalid. The movie still stirs debate because it’s not neatly wrapped and topped with a bow. Instead, viewers, as much as some may resent it, have to draw their own conclusions. Anyway, “A Clockwork Orange” was banned in the U.K. Iceland, Brazil and other countries. It also received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Kubrick) and editing, and won the New York Film Critics’ awards for picture and director. While there will probably never be a consensus on its considerable merits, those of us who’ve read Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, set in a dystopian England in the not-too-distant future, will surely agree that it’s an absolutely brilliant adaptation. Before embarking on a night of “the old ultra-violence,” Alex (Malcolm McDowell, in a career-defining role) and his “droogs” Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus) and Pete (Michael Tarn) amp up on drug-laced milk at the Korova Milkbar. In the opening reels, they savagely beat a vagrant who asks for spare change, pummel a rival gang (a near-ballet of violence set to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”), steal a car and, as Alex breaks into a chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain,” attack a writer (Patrick Magee) and gang-rape his wife (Adrienne Corri), who later dies. Alex’s other passion is music, in particular, Beethoven. He caps the night back at the flat he shares with Dad (Philip Stone) and Mum (Sheila Raynor) in the throes of the mighty Ninth Symphony.
(1&2) The hooligans steal a sports car then break into a home where they attack a writer and gang-rape his wife (Adrienne Corri). (3&4) At night’s end, Alex, whose passion for violence is only rivaled by his love for Beethoven, cues up the towering Ninth Symphony and, the following day, propositions two young women who are shopping for music.
His idyll ends the next night after he murders a woman in her home and his mates turn on him. This is where the debate really gets heated. Sent to prison for 14 years, Alex is assigned to the chapel, where he makes do fantasizing about the sex and violence in the Bible. When he gets wind of a radical new procedure called the Ludovico Technique that will get him out early, he asks to undergo it. But there are consequences. Alex is given Serum 114, put in a straitjacket, has his eyes forced open and is made to watch hours of footage of sexual assaults and Nazi atrocities, with Beethoven’s Ninth serving as the soundtrack. When he’s released, Alex is incapable of making a choice – he wretches and collapses at the thought of sex and violence. In a true Pavlovian twist, Beethoven has the same effect. In a letter to readers included in early editions of his book, Burgess said when man ceases to have free will, he is no longer a man, “just a clockwork orange,” a shiny, appealing toy to be wound up by God, the Devil or the State. The film comes full circle as Alex’s victims get their retribution (Dim and Georgie are now police officers), but when he tries to commit suicide by jumping out of the window of the home of the writer, the press seizes on it and the government performs damage control by reversing the procedure. “I was cured all right,” Alex intones before the credits roll.
(1) Georgie (James Marcus, left) and Dim (Warren Clarke) inform Alex that they want a say in what goes on. (2&3) Alex reasserts his role by attacking them as they walk along the waterfront.
VIDEO/AUDIO No matter which side of the fence they fall on, viewers will also agree that Warner Bros., like it did with Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket,” has done an exceptional job remastering “A Clockwork Orange” (1.66:1 aspect ratio) in 4K Ultra HD. Color, density, grain and contrast levels are off the charts. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott (an Oscar winner for “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick’s next film) favored in-your-face framing, radically wide angles, handheld cameras and, as McDowell points out in his commentary, single-source lighting. The new print delivers every time. The audio, not so much. The new DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix loads up the front channels, giving the dialogue, especially Alex’s narration, a harshness that is almost unlistenable. Better to go with the original mono track. It’s not as dynamic, but the dialogue, sound FX and overall balance are much better. The soundtrack -- Walter Carlos’ pioneering electronic score is still ahead of its time -- register, too, even on my unsophisticated set-up. EXTRAS There are only a handful, all from previous releases, including an interview with McDowell, a documentary and a making-of feature. The commentary, in which McDowell is joined by historian Nick Redman, is the place to start. McDowell disagrees that Alex is the seminal portrayal of juvenile delinquency, countering that he was offered the part (after Kubrick saw him in Lindsay Anderson’s “If …”) and played it to the best of his ability. From there they touch on every topic you can imagine, among them McDowell’s efforts to bring Clarke and Stone on board, the high-powered light bulbs Kubrick imported from Germany, the reaction of Gene Kelly, star of the beloved 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” after being introduced to McDowell at a party, and Kubrick’s motivation for making the movie. “2001” had gone way over budget, McDowell says, and he “wanted to prove that he could make a great film for very little money.” He also talks about the dichotomy embodied by Alex.
“It’s one of the most extraordinary roles an actor has ever been asked to play. Here you have this thug-rapist-murderer on one hand and [on the other] a man who has all these sides to him that we can all enjoy and like,” he says. “His appreciation of life, his joie de vivre, is very infectious. You go with him because he’s likable in a way, he loves what he’s doing.”
Roger Ebert did get one thing right: We’ll be debating “A Clockwork Orange” for a long time.
– Craig Shapiro
(1&2) Detective Constable Tom (Steven Berkoff) explains just how it’s going to be after Alex is arrested for murder. (3) Sentenced to 14 years in prison, Alex learns of an aversion therapy program called the Ludovico Technique that will free him early and asks to be included. (4&5) He’s put in a straitjacket, strapped into a chair and is forced to watch hours of violent footage, with the Ninth Symphony as the soundtrack, that renders him incapable of making a moral choice: He wretches and collapses at the thought of sex and violence. He has the same reaction to Beethoven.
(1&2) After his release, Alex’s victims get their retribution. He’s attacked by the vagrant and his mates and, after being beaten by Dim and Georgie, who are now police officers, ends up at the home of the writer he crippled. (3-4) When the writer (Patrick Magee) learns who he is, he spikes Alex’s wine then pumps Beethoven into the room where he’s confined. (5) Unable to bear the music, he tries to commit suicide by jumping from a window.