On this day in Film History: A Clockwork Orange makes a splash!

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Credit to Bill Gold

On this day in film history, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange made its debut in American movie theaters. The film tells the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a sociopathic delinquent, whose interests (by his own admission) are: “Beethoven, rape and ultra-violence.”

Alex is the leader of a gang consisting of three other boys: Pete, Georgie, and Dim. After committing a series of petty crimes, Alex is caught and arrested after an attempt to rob a wealthy “cat-lady” goes awry (and because Dim smashed Alex across the face with a milk bottle) and because the lady died of her injuries, Alex is charged with murder and sentenced to 14 years in jail. Two years later, Alex volunteers for something known as the “Ludovico technique” because it alleges to reform inmates in two weeks (and Alex is hoping to be let out early).

Alex

Alex

The “treatment” scene has been referred to as one of the most terrifying experiences in film (I personally couldn’t make it through the scene). The terror comes in a large part because Alex’s eyes are being forcibly held open by this nightmarish contraption (meaning he can’t look away even if he wanted to). The treatment aims to “cure” inmates by giving them an overwhelming revulsion for all the things that used to propel them to violence. For Alex, that means the mere thought of sex, women, violence OR his beloved Beethoven, will make him violently ill. After the treatment is over, Alex is proclaimed “cured” and is allowed to leave. However, a lot has changed since he went away. All of his things were  confiscated by the police, and his parents (assuming he was never coming back), rented out his room, leaving him with no place to stay.

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Homeless, beaten by several people (in retribution for acts committed earlier in the film), Alex is finally tortured by one former victim, who plays Beethoven’s 9th symphony as loudly as possible while Alex is locked in a room. Tormented, the young man throws himself out a window, attempting suicide. The attempt fails, but when Alex awakens, he finds the “cure” has been reversed.

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Kubrick at work

Kubrick’s adaptation of the story is controversial because he omits the final redemptive chapter of the story, where Alex finally grows up and vows to forget his former sociopathic ways. Instead, the film ends with Alex being offered a job by the government (in a scene which implies that Alex hasn’t really learned anything). Despite the controversy, the film was an overwhelming success at the box office (earning $26 million against a $2.2 million budget) and received critical acclaim. The film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), as well as 3 Golden Globes, but sadly it didn’t win any. It did however win a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and two New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Director and Best Film.

The score for this film consisted largely of classical music (especially Beethoven’s 9th, which saw a huge rise in sales after this film was released), music by Rossini (which actually outnumbers the Beethoven selections) and electronic synthesized music composed by Wendy Carlos (at the time billed as Walter Carlos). If you’ve ever read this book (and many high school students are required to, as I was), and even if you haven’t, this is one of those “films you should see at least once before you die.”

For more “On this day” posts, see here

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