Forty years ago today, Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” arrived in U.S. theaters and immediately scorched a place in cinema history. To look back at the anger and art, Finnish film journalist Juhani Nurmi sat down with the late Kubrick’s brother-in-law and longtime collaborator, Jan Harlan, to write the following article for Hero Complex. The German-born Harlan (brother of Christiane Harlan Kubrick) was an executive producer on four Kubrick feature films (“Barry Lyndon” in 1975, “The Shining” in 1980, “Full Metal Jacket” in 1987 and “Eyes Wide Shut” in 1999.) He also directed the documentary “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” in 2001.
The flames of controversy surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” his 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, rose as high as those sparked by the director’s version of “Lolita” approximately nine years earlier. Now, in retrospect, it is all too easy to see “A Clockwork Orange” having been made into a scapegoat for daring to depict an ultra-violent dystopia, which had (and still has) the feel of an especially unsettling future for British society. The film was withdrawn from circulation in Britain for more than 2 1/2 decades, adding the aura of taboo to an already shocking film.
“It’s both an excellent novel and a very good film,” Harlan said. “The turmoil [referred to above] to happened only in the UK, and the story was hyped by the press after a long and very successful theatrical run. These days Kubrick’s film is often unfairly quoted when young people mete out mindless violence in the streets to weak victims.”
Harlan pointed out that the violence of the movie isn’t unique to our times and occurs “wherever society’s cohesiveness has broken down, for whatever reason. It is present in all wars, and it becomes part of our societies when caring for human life succumbs to fear and loathing and impunity rules supreme.”
Harlan said the trauma of “A Clockwork Orange” existed primarily in newsprint: “Some people in the British media strangely found a niche and had their own agenda blaming ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as a paving stone to Sodom and Gomorrah. This culminated in threatening mail and sinister phone calls [to Kubrick and his family], so that ultimately the police had to be called in. Alas, all this was water on the mill for a press that notoriously lives off controversy, always loves easy answers and in particular disliked Kubrick for being elusive and out of reach. Actually, many people in Britain saw the film when it opened. ”A Clockwork Orange’ had a long and successful run in the UK. However, the threats on Kubrick were disconcerting and uncomfortable. [But] had it not been for the three girls at school, Kubrick would probably have done nothing.”
It was Kubrick who asked Warner Bros. to withdraw the film from British distribution. The film was successful worldwide, and studio officials were far more interested in their new and excellent relationship with the director than the extended box-office prospects of one film in the British marketplace.
“A Clockwork Orange” was a follow-up to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a sci-fi epic now considered a classic but which was less understood on its release. The public reception and view of Kubrick films was complicated, but so too was the director’s relationship to his movies. Harlan said that throughout Kubrick’s career, it was essential for the filmmaker to fall in love with a story, with an idea. Ultimately, he said, the director was happy with his movies but that he was also their hardest critic.
“It is so easy to make a film, and so very difficult to make a good one,” Harlan said. “Kubrick was always well aware of this. Only great passion could deliver the energy needed to make something great – and great in his view alone. Whether critics or an audience would like it is a totally different topic. He himself had to be satisfied with his own films. That was difficult enough to achieve, so he simply couldn’t worry about the audience or film critics at that stage.”
Students of film have long celebrated the masterful use of music in “A Clockwork Orange”; not only the works of Beethoven (whose larger-than-life symphonies mesmerize Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge) but other music as well, such as Moog synthesizer compositions by Walter Carlos. However, the depiction of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” in “A Clockwork Orange” must have surprised many viewers.
“It was actually Malcolm McDowell who got the idea of using ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ which spontaneously came up during the rehearsals,” Harlan said. “The rights were immediately sought and secured by Warner Bros. in Burbank. It was the late John Calley, then CEO of Warner Bros. productions, who used his status and network to make the deal for the rights on behalf of this production within 24 hours.”
Harlan talked about his own favorite scenes in the movie: “I’m especially fascinated by the opening. The film opens perfectly, setting the right tone and indicating what is to come. The totally stylized set, the costumes, the electronic arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Funeral March for Queen Mary’ and Alex’s narration over a superb tracking shot gives evidence of a master of the cinema on the opening alone.”
The late John Barry, production designer of “A Clockwork Orange,” would later win an Academy Award for “Star Wars.” In Kubrick’s dystopian black comedy, he devised a look that was vaguely futuristic, yet strongly evoked the counterculture of the late 1960s, with its vivid psychedelia and sexual imagery. This was a radical departure from the sleek and minimalistic sci-fi look of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Harlan confirmed that “the film’s low budget limitations required a lot of shooting on location, and as little as possible in a studio. John Barry was limited to what he could find — but he found a lot. I am reminded of a wonderful phrase I heard from Francis Ford Coppola: ‘Small budget, big ideas — big budget, small ideas.’ Milena Canonero came up with astonishing costumes, all easily available and cheap. Malcolm McDowell himself contributed a lot of ideas to the overall white look and the single eyelash, which became Alex DeLarge’s signature look.”
The final theatrical poster of “A Clockwork Orange” is a classic in graphic design in its own right. It was created by a British airbrush artist named Philip Castle. As with all details overseen by one of the world’s most famous cinematic perfectionists, the poster went through a lot of iterations, Harlan said.
“We had a number of different designs for the poster, but I can’t tell you how many. This was 40 years ago. The point of any good film poster is to reveal truthfully the atmosphere of the film. What I can say is that as Stanley took infinite care with all aspects of his films, so also with this; the poster involved many stages of design.”
Does Harlan agree with many that “A Clockwork Orange” is prophetic about the fate of Western society?
He shook his head with a wry smile. “I’m not fond of using such grandiose words. Kubrick’s film is strong, serious and satirical, very well acted and crafted with the greatest care. It is as good today as it was 40 years ago. In some ways, it’s almost better, since the symbolism and humor seem to be better understood by an audience now. Kubrick was accused of showing a gang-rape scene, which was considered to be extremely shocking. Kubrick’s response to this was: ‘I hope so.’ This says it all.”
— Juhani Nurmi
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