A Clockwork Orange at 50: Malcolm McDowell Revisits Kubrick’s Film

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Burgess was a linguist and his decision to make a new hybrid youth slang was a practical one. He wanted the youths in this world to feel ‘other’ and separate from the grown ups but felt if he’d chosen to use contemporary slang that the book would date quickly. It was a shrewd move that Kubrick stuck to, helping the film have a sense of timelessness.

Then there were the iconic costumes worn by Alex and his droogs – removed from any particular era of fashion they were simple but immediately intimidating. The look came about via a moment of serendipity between McDowell and Kubrick when Kubrick asked his star what he had in mind for the costume himself. 

“I said ‘Futuristic, I don’t know!’” McDowell laughs. “He goes, ‘What have you got?’  I went ‘What have I got? I mean I’ve got jeans and a T-shirt and I’ve got my cricket gear in the car’. He goes, ‘We’ll put it on. And then ‘What’s this?’ I went, ‘Well, that’s the protector’. He said ‘Wear it on the outside’. And that’s the iconic costume, right there, boom.”

McDowell says he had around six months of prep time where he got to know Kubrick really well, where Kubrick grew to trust him which he describes as being really fun. That trust between the two was important – McDowell had heavy lifting to do physically, including the indelible scenes of the ‘Ludovico technique’ which saw his eyelids pinned back (he scratched a cornea) and the humiliation scene, after his conversion, (he cracked several ribs). McDowell plays this down, “Most of the time it was fun to do. I had a couple of injuries but they weren’t life threatening. They were fairly painful, but it was really a small price to pay.”

On a rewatch these moments still standout, though there are others too – an extended sequence where Alex is being drowned in a trough by his former friends knocks the breath out of you. 

“To be honest with you, it’s a complete cheat,” says McDowell of the scene. “There’s one cut right at the beginning. That water was cold and they coloured it with Bovril. I mean can you imagine beef extract? It stank to high heaven, it was absolutely like shit! And it was cold because we shot it I think in November. So they couldn’t heat the water because it steamed. I could only literally last three to five seconds before I had to come up for air. And so he put a tank of oxygen in there with a mouthpiece, and I spent my time trying to find the mouthpiece, which was bobbing around. It was harrowing.”

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