‘Clockwork Orange’: Malcolm McDowell finally appreciates classic

Sept. 16, 2011 | 4:44 a.m.

With his bloodied cane and black bowler, Malcolm McDowell became a signature symbol of brutal youth in 1971’s “A Clockwork Orange” but the actor says he couldn’t truly appreciate that angry young man until he himself was old enough to comb white hair.

“For years, I didn’t see the same film everybody saw,” the 67-year-old actor said recently. “It was 10 years ago in Los Angeles when I went to a screening of it and I couldn’t believe what I saw, the accomplishment of the movie, the pure talent of [director] Stanley Kubrick. In truth, that’s when I began to look back in a different way.”

The movie’s 40th anniversary won’t arrive until a week before Christmas but the commemoration began months ago. The movie was also shown with great fanfare at the Cannes Film Festival in May, as was a  well-reviewed documentary, “Once Upon a Time … Clockwork,” examining the legacy of the film and the novel by Anthony Burgess that inspired it. A lavish Blu-ray anniversary edition has inspired another wave of cultural essays and, on Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host a McDowell tribute followed by a sold-out screening.

All of this has McDowell pondering his long, strange odyssey with the film.

Malcom McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Malcolm McDowell, right, in "A Clockwork Orange." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

“I was invited into the woods when Kubrick cast me in the film but I couldn’t see the trees until years later,” McDowell said. “For maybe 10 years, I resented it because everyone wanted me to repeat it. The best part for any actor is the next one and ‘Clockwork’ irritated me because it took that away at times.”

“Clockwork” and its tale of sociopathic thugs in a futuristic England shocked with its scenes of rape, murder and torture. It was released in the U.S. with an X rating and, amid a nasty furor in 1972, Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation in England. For more than 25 years, it was illegal to show the film in U.K. theaters.

The controversy only added to the allure of a film that still echoes loudly in pop culture.

Gnarls Barkley and Bart Simpson are among the tricksters who have worn the bowlers and so did Christina Aguilera a few years ago at her “Clockwork”-themed birthday party. Acts as diverse as Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Lady Gaga, My Chemical Romance, Usher, Blur and David Bowie have used the film’s iconography in their concert stagings or music videos. The prominence has a price. After pop star Kylie Minogue’s back-up singers appeared in “Clockwork” gear, the Guardian of London moaned that the classic had officially “ceased to be dangerous.”

Not a chance, says Steven Spielberg, who sees dark new shadings in the movie and its vision of youth numbed by sensory overload and sexualized violence in a society advancing in science but not spirit.

“The movie hasn’t worn out its welcome at all and I doubt it ever will,” Spielberg said in a recent Hero Complex interveiw. “Like all of Kubrick’s films, it’s still a cautionary tale that continues to occur in the world. It was considered a revolutionary film when it came out but not really a prophetic film. But like all of Kubrick’s films, it turned out to be more prophetic than is reasonable.”

Malcom McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

At the center of it all is McDowell, the British actor who has one of the more disturbing resumes in cinema with “Caligula,” “O Lucky Man” and two “Halloween” films. He even killed off Captain Kirk in 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations,” but it is his cane-twirling as Alex DeLarge in “Clockwork” that people remember.

Kubrick first saw McDowell’s malevolent smirk in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film “If…” and Christiana Kubrick recalls that her husband, in his private screening room, called out to the projectionist to turn the reel back when he saw McDowell. He did that four more times.

“We have found our Alex,” the director announced.

The novel “A Clockwork Orange” had been published in 1962 and there was interest in a movie right away. Mick Jagger, eager to star, acquired the rights for a time but they ended up with Kubrick, who, after “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was ready for something more manageable.

The director gave McDowell the book and (like many readers) he found it difficult to wade through the slang argot Burgess had created. After three readings, “the penny dropped” and the actor grasped the “amazing potential” of the role.

McDowell would suffer for his art. In the film, Alex, a prisoner of the state, is subjected to a hideous experiment where his eyes are kept open by metal clips and, on the set, the actor’s howls were real.

“I ended up with scratched corneas — nasty, viciously painful,” McDowell said. “It heals up pretty quick but a few days later Stanley says he needs one more, a real close-up. The stand-in wouldn’t do it; he saw what happened to me. So it was back in the chair. It was the last day of the shoot. I was terrified and you can see it in the shot.”

Malcom McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

At another point, Kubrick was flummoxed by a scene that called for McDowell and his mates to break into a home and brutalize the owners.

“As written, they just come in and menace and throw bottles through a window,” McDowell said. “There was really nothing there. The way we were doing the whole movie was in this dark, surreal manner, it was real but heightened. To do something naturalistic wouldn’t work. We sat around thinking about it — for five days the camera did not move — which is unimaginable with anyone other than Kubrick.”

McDowell came up with the solution — a robust rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain,” an unforgettable flourish of the perverse and, for the actor, a signature career moment. “It just came out,” the actor said, “and it added so much horror to it all.”

“Clockwork” would be nominated for the best picture Oscar (and become the first sci-fi film to get that honor) but the acclaim was hardly uniform. In the view of McDowell, the central message is often missed.

“It’s about big brother and the freedom to choose,” McDowell said. “Burgess was brilliant in that he made this anti-hero — a despicable guy, a murderer and a rapist — but does the state have the right to alter his mind? Obviously not. And Kubrick found in this novel a black comedy although when it came out not everyone was laughing.”

kubrick Clockwork Orange: Malcolm McDowell finally appreciates classic

Stanley Kubrick on the set of "A Clockwork Orange." (TCM)

Consider author Tom Wolfe a voice for the unamused. In a phone interview, he groaned when asked about the film: “It was a shock, just the cynical cruelty of it. The film went after everybody as target, the criminals and society and the government. Nothing went quite as far as ‘wild kids’ as that film and for years when there was a brutal crime, the news reports would use ‘Clockwork Orange’ as shorthand. The characters in the film, to use the police term, showed no affect. That’s what I remember most.”

The movie’s long exile from the theaters of England, however, resulted from a decision by Kubrick, not the censors, McDowell said. Amid incendiary reports of “copycat” crimes and death threats, the director consulted with Scotland Yard and then pulled the film.

“It created a kind of craze,” McDowell said. “People would fly to Paris and buy these awful videos made by people aiming cameras at some movie screen. Stanley moved on. He just didn’t think to go back to the whole thing.”

McDowell had a similar attitude, both toward the film and the filmmaker. McDowell was vague on the specifics of the estrangement but spoke fondly of Kubrick, who dressed “schlubby” and seemed forever distracted, like some astrophysicist too busy with knotty cosmic puzzles to notice his shoes were untied.

“I suppose if I regret anything in life it’s that I didn’t pick up the phone,” McDowell said. “But then neither did he.”

McDowell said “A Clockwork Orange” now feels more like a time traveler than a time capsule. That was another insight he gleaned at the 30th anniversary screening in Los Angeles.

“I went to the bathroom and this kid, maybe 16, walks past and says, ‘Hey, ‘Clockwork,’ right?’ I said, ‘Well, yes.’ He asked, ‘Which part were you? The old guy?’ He thought it was a new film. And he thought I was the old guy. Maybe he was right about both.”

— Geoff Boucher


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17 Responses to ‘Clockwork Orange’: Malcolm McDowell finally appreciates classic

  1. Richard Kaufmann says:

    Like many of Kubrick's films, the excellent sound track made the movie. Wendy Carlos' score is still one of my favorite pieces of music.

  2. alex miller says:

    I wonder whether the reason that the point of the movie was missed by some audiences and critics is that the film, if I remember right, never does explain its title. The book explains, as McDowell does here, that "a clockwork orange" refers to something unnatural, to imposing artificially induced change on the natural state of a person or object. And should the state have the right to do that?

  3. Arye Michael Bender says:

    Saw 'Clockwork' opening day in Los Angeles. It reverberates still.

  4. Kinoman says:

    McDowell's performance in Clockwork is probably the greatest never to have received an Oscar nomination.

    • Alex says:

      I saw the movie today, Stanley was a genius… And Malcolm McDowells… AMAZING performance by him! I was shocked to know that he wasn't even nominated for the Oscar's for his role in this movie… I was disappointed!!!

  5. Dondo says:

    With all the recent publicity and renewed interest in Clockwork Orange, why not show it for a week at the Cinerama Dome? Seems like a no brainer for film-centric L.A.

  6. You Dont Know Me says:

    Another trivia bit: down in the shopping area is a music kiosk, look at the various band names, and see how many real bands named themselves after those made up album covers. The movie is brilliant.

  7. Allen says:

    That "official" trailer is not the one that Stanley approved. Pablo Ferro cut the trailer that Stanley liked and used for most of the campaign.

  8. SI LITVINOFF says:


  9. brettghampton says:

    Jagger was interested in playing Alex, and at one point Litvinoff was trying to get financing for the film with Jagger attached to star. The Beatles wanted to do a soundtrack at one point, too.

  10. Maria Levenson says:

    I've seen A Clockwork Orange so many times I've lost count! Happened to catch it on Encore tonight. It's still an incredible movie! The music is perfect! When I got married 2 1/2 years ago, I chose the opening theme to walk down the aisle. Only one of my guests recognized it, the rest asked what that beautifully chilling music was! They all were in shock when I told them! It's my all time favorite movie, so why not? By the way, Malcolm McDowell is still hot!

  11. Melanie says:

    It's a brilliant film still after 40 years! Malcolm was and is a bloody genius. Stanley made a brilliant film made up of location, cinematography, and the score which punctuated the scenes. The alliteration of the script leads to the final punctuation of the score. Malcolm mastered it through Stanley's direction.

  12. Priti says:

    In light of recent events, the brutal, torturous gang rape of young girl in New Delhi. The entire country was seeking death penalty for the accused's and I being a minority of minorities insisted on implementing the "Clockwork Orange" method. Kubrick has his quirks, yet somehow he created the fear of God like no one ever did. Those in favor of the said method, i presume would agree.

  13. roger helal says:

    I wonder if anyone seeing the movie today has the same response to it as I did in the 1970s
    and understands why any movie would be banned for 25 years ?

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