Malcolm McDowell remains steadfastly proud and defiantly protective of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s stylish and subversive 1971 classic in which he starred as the violent criminal antihero experimented on by the government of a dystopian future.
He just doesn’t care to ever see it again, thank you.
“To be honest, I really couldn’t really stomach watching it again,” McDowell tells us during a recent virtual interview promoting the film’s new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release leading up to its 50th anniversary this December. “I mean, give me a break here. It’s still the same movie. It may look a little sharper, the color [might] be a little brighter, but it’s still the same movie.
“But listen, I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I mean, my god, it’s cinema history. Not many actors in their careers can have such an experience.”
The 78-year-old British actor estimates he’s seen A Clockwork Orange about 10 times in the five decades since its release.
“A lot of times it’s been at some festival and I’m stuck watching it. The last time I was stuck watching it was a the Cannes Film Festival, sitting next to one of the head honchos of Warner Bros. because we were celebrating the 40th anniversary. Thank god we don’t have to go to Cannes because I’d be stuck up there watching it again.”
Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name, A Clockwork Orange starred McDowell as Alex DeLarge, a delinquent in his upper-teens who leads his gang of “droogs” on drug-fueled rampages of what he casually dubs “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” Once he’s arrested, Alex is subjected to an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique that expels all violent and sexual urges.
“It’s about the freedom of man to choose about which path he desires to take,” says McDowell now. “It may be an immoral one or it may be a moral one, but I think we should have the freedom of choice.”
A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick intended as a satire and McDowell has called a comedy, is a devoutly revered film among cinephiles — one that’s poster ends up on so many college dorm room walls it’s almost cliché. But its own morals have long been the source of controversies, given the abominable actions of Alex and the droogs (which include implied rape) that have been blamed for copycat crimes over the years. The film drew so much heat that Kubrick ultimately pulled it from circulation (it was not “banned,” as often misrepresented) from 1973 until his death in 1999.
“I just thought it really made copy,” McDowell says. “It was just something for the tabloids to have fun with. Whether of not a film really makes any difference to what’s really going on, socially. What I did hear is that the guy [Arthur Bremer, who shot Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972] had watched the movie. And he kind of got obsessed with it. You know, you don’t want to hear that.
“But psychos are psychos. You don’t know what’s going to set them off. It could be a black cat crossing a road… Did I feel any responsibility? Absolutely not. We made a movie that was reflective of the times we lived in. Anything else would’ve been a form of censorship.”
Critics were not kind to the movie upon its initial release. Roger Ebert famously ripped the movie, calling it “an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning,” while the New York Times’s Fred M. Hechinger declared the filmmaker a fascist.
“[That] was really utterly ridiculous. People got carried away with it,” the actor, who went on to star in Caligula (1979), Cat People(1982) and Star Trek: Generations (1994), says now. “I understand why. Because the protagonist, who is an immoral man, you kind of root for him. That’s hard for some people to stomach.”
A Clockwork Orange releases on 4K Ultra HD Sept. 21.
Watch the trailer:
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee