It has to go down as one of the most misleading opening shots in movie history: four lads sitting on a couch sporting dandyish bowler hats and sipping milk. Of course, this being Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the next scene has the amphetamine-fueled quartet kicking the stuffing out of a helpless wino—a pastime the movie’s ”humble narrator,” Beethoven-worshiping nihilist Alex (Malcolm McDowell), calls ”a bit of the old ultraviolence.”
By now, the film’s place in the pantheon of cult classics has become so secure that seeing Clockwork is a cinematic initiation ritual for each new generation of thrill-seeking teen audiences. But when the reclusive Kubrick’s eagerly awaited follow-up to 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted on Dec. 20, 1971, audiences and critics didn’t quite know what to think. Was A Clockwork Orange (adapted from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel) a bleak, pessimistic masterpiece satirizing our cruel, crumbling society, or, in the words of one British judge, ”a horrible film” responsible for a wave of copycat crimes?
Despite being labeled a nonviolent generation, the college-age crowds that packed theaters seemed to believe the former (Clockwork eventually pulled in more than $30 million at the box office). For the most part, critics agreed. While some, such as Pauline Kael, accused Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, The Shining) of ”sucking up to the thugs in the audience,” the film whose ”hero” takes such joy in torture that he croons ”Singin’ in the Rain” while committing rape and murder received four Oscar nominations (though no statuettes) and took the New York Film Critics’ Best Picture and Best Director honors.
Clockwork’s most controversial reception, however, was saved for Britain, where public protests prompted Warner Bros. and Kubrick to pull the film even though it had played to sellout crowds in London for nearly a year. In that time, several incidents (including one in which a woman was raped by a gang of youths who sang ”Singin’ in the Rain”) were blamed on the film. Ironically, Kubrick had made A Clockwork Orange to explore the nature of violence, not to encourage it.
Twenty-four years later, the debate still resonates, with politicians and presidential hopefuls tongue-lashing Hollywood and gangsta rap as sources of society’s ills. As for Kubrick, both sides of the argument will have to look elsewhere for support. The meticulous, Bronx-born director, who fled Hollywood after making 1960’s big-budget epic Spartacus, lives in self-imposed exile in England and hasn’t made a film since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket.