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Kubrick And Codpieces: Behind The Scenes Of 'A Clockwork Orange'

Updated September 23, 2021 5.6k views14 items

It took some prodding from his wife and a failed Napoleon movie project to finally convince director Stanley Kubrick to adapt Anthony Burgess's 1962 futuristic, dystopian, juvenile delinquent, black comedy novel A Clockwork Orange. Judging by these A Clockwork Orange movie facts, however, it's easy to see why the meticulous director ultimately decided to take on the ambitious project. 

The making of A Clockwork Orange begins and ends with Burgess's acclaimed novel. It was such excellent source material for Kubrick that he barely used an actual script while filming. The movie is especially unsettling, though much of its violence is left to the viewer's interpretation. Even still, when the movie was originally released in 1972, it earned an X-Rating. Kubrick later altered two of the most gratuitous scenes and the MPAA gave the "less offensive" version an R-Rating when it was subsequently rereleased. 

A Clockwork Orange was condemned by The National Catholic Office Motion Pictures for its depiction of adult pleasure and violence. It was so controversial in the UK that Kubrick opted to pull it from distribution after his family received threats and after a series of "copy-cat crimes" were committed. Kubrick was so affected by the controversy that it was not until the director passed in 1999 that theaters in the UK were allowed to publicly screen the film.

Stateside, the controversy was not so extreme. In fact, in the United States, the movie earned more than $20 million at the box office on just a $2 million budget. It also received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. 

A Clockwork Orange lives on in pop culture infamy. It has influenced acclaimed movie directors like Quentin Tarantino and Danny Boyle, been referenced in the music of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, and been satirized on The Simpsons and South Park

Which famous rock star almost played the lead role of Alex? How did the joyous show tune "Singin’ in the Rain" find its way into one of the movie's most disturbing scenes? How did Malcolm McDowell almost lose his eye sight? Learn about those A Clockwork Orange behind-the-scenes stories and more. 

  • McDowell Panicked And Scratched His Cornea While Shooting The Eye-Clamp Scene

    One of the most infamous scenes in A Clockwork Orange is when Alex agrees to participate in the Ludovico technique, an experimental aversion therapy used with the goal of rehabilitating criminals. Alex's eyes are clamped open with lid-locks, and he is unable to close them while doctors pump him with substances. He is forced to watch ultra-violent imagery, which is accompanied by music from his favorite composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.

    Before actor Malcolm McDowell did the scene, both a doctor and Kubrick told him that it would be perfectly safe. The doctor would place eye drops into his eyes every 15 seconds. Without the eye drops, there was a chance that McDowell could go blind. McDowell was hesitant at first, but he was assured by the doctor that they use the same lid-locks every day for patients who need eye surgery. The actor finally agreed, though there was the unforeseen issue that eye surgery patients are lying down on an operating table and McDowell would be sitting up and wearing a straight jacket. 

    The actor described how the lid-locks ultimately scratched his cornea, "When we shot it, the lid-locks kept sliding off my eyelids and scratching my cornea." 

    McDowell also suffered temporary blindness because his eyes were clamped for 10 minutes at a time. Kubrick, a perfectionist unwilling to sacrifice his vision under any circumstances, also needed to get several different takes. In the scene, Alex is screaming while undergoing the aversion therapy, and as it turns out those screams were real - McDowell is terrified and in actual pain and discomfort.

    "When the anesthetic wore off, I was in such pain I was banging my head against a wall," said McDowell.

  • The White Outfits And External Codpieces Came From Malcolm McDowell’s Cricket Gear

    McDowell spent several months with Kubrick prior to filming A Clockwork Orange. One day the actor asked the director what his Droogs would wear in the movie. Alex's gang of fellow juvenile antisocial misfits includes Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus), and Dim (Warren Clarke), and they all wear combat boots, white clothes, bowler hats, and codpieces. The legendary costume came about because McDowell had his cricket clothes in his car. The actor explained for Digital Journal:

    I was over at Stanley's house, looking for stuff to do. And I didn’t like anything there, really. They had a big box of hats, some with feathers. I thought that was pretty lame. So I said, "Look. I've got my Cricket gear in my car." So I went to the car and got my Cricket gear. 

    And [Kubrick] said, "Oh yeah, I love the white." And so I put it on. Then he goes, "Oh put the protector on the outside." And I went, "Great idea." So I wore the protector on the outside like a codpiece. He goes, "This could be like the Middle Ages. I like this look."

    And that's how the look of the Droogs came, because I had my Cricket stuff in the back of my car.

  • 'Singin' in the Rain' Was Used Because It Was The Only Song McDowell Knew - And It Saved The Scene

    One of the most memorable scenes in A Clockwork Orange features Alex and his Droogs breaking into writer F. Alexander's house and attacking Alexander's wife while forcing him to watch. The scene was not really coming together during the first couple of days of filming, and Kubrick asked McDowell if he could perform a song and dance number. The actor admitted the only song he knew by heart was "Singin' in the Rain."

    McDowell explained how the improvised sequence came about:

    I jumped up and started singing "Singin' in the Rain" as an improv, on the beats, slapping, kicking, boom. And why did I do that? Because [that song is] Hollywood's gift to the world of euphoria. And that's what the character is feeling at the time. So Stanley shoved me in the car, we drove back to his house, and he bought the rights to "Singin' in the Rain."

    According to McDowell, Kubrick never paid Gene Kelly for the rights to "Singin' in the Rain." Apparently, Kelly's widow told McDowell in 2011 that Kelly wasn't upset with McDowell for using the song so much as he was with Kubrick for neglecting to pay him. 

    McDowell described Kubrick as "cheap" and said he "roared with laughter. Of course, he never paid him. He thought it was enough that 'Stanley Kubrick' was going to use the song. That's what he thought."

  • Kubrick's Camera Work And Editing Style Are Just As Important As Dialogue 

    Stanley Kubrick is an auteur and most of his films are highly stylized. He wants the audience to know he's the man behind the camera. A Clockwork Orange is a notable example of Kubrick's style, as he relies on his direction as much as dialogue to tell the story. 

    Kubrick often breaks continuity to shatter realism, which is intended to distance the viewer from the events that unfold onscreen. In several scenes, Kubrick uses extra wide-angle lenses, slow motion, and fast motion. Kubrick explained how his stylistic choices helped him stay true to Burgess's novel:

    I tried to find something like a cinematic equivalent of Burgess's literary style, and Alex's highly subjective view of things. But the style of any film has to do more with intuition than with analysis. I think there is a great deal of oversimplified over-conceptualizing by some film-makers which is encouraged by the way inter-viewers formulate their questions, and it passes for serious and useful thought and seems to inspire confidence in every direction.

    Kubrick used high speed to create a choppy, distorted feel during the adult-pleasure party scene. In contrast, the director slowed down the scene where Alex fights with his Droogs in order to create a "floating" feeling. 

    Kubrick wanted the more salacious acts in the film to read as art. He describes this, saying, "I wanted to find a way to stylize all of this [intensity], and also to make it as balletic as possible. The attempted [attack] on stage has the overtones of a ballet."