LOS ANGELES — 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 shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May, as was a new documentary, “Once Upon a Time ... Clockwork,” examining the legacy of the film and the novel by Anthony Burgess that inspired it. A lavish new Blu-ray boxed set has inspired a new wave of cultural essays and, last Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a McDowell tribute followed by a sold-out screening.
All of this has McDowell pondering his long, strange odyssey with the film.
“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; so did Christina Aguilera a few years ago at her “Clockwork”-themed birthday party. Acts as diverse as Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Lady Gaga, Usher and David Bowie have used the film’s iconography in their concert stagings. 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. “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.”
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 ....” 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 in which 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.”
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 — his robust rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain,” an unforgettable flourish of the perverse. “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, but the acclaim was hardly uniform. In the view of McDowell, the central message is often missed.
“It’s about the freedom to choose,” McDowell said. “Burgess was brilliant in that he made this antihero a despicable 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.”
Consider author Tom Wolfe a voice for the unamused: “It was a shock, just the cynical cruelty of it. ... 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 the “schlubby” Kubrick.
“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.”