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Malcolm McDowell on working with Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick has created cinematic magic throughout his career in masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon, among many others. An indispensable part of his filmography, as well as his legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers of his time, is his masterful adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ seminal novel A Clockwork Orange.

Starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex – a juvenile delinquent whose sense of morality is severely perverted – A Clockwork Orange presents a dystopian vision of a world where crime and punishment are equally corrosive. Although the film received mixed reviews and generated controversy at the time of its release, it is now recognised as one of Kubrick’s finest.

“The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free will,” Kubrick elaborated. “Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we become, as the title suggests, A Clockwork Orange? Recent experiments in conditioning and mind control on volunteer prisoners in America have taken this question out of the realm of science-fiction.”

As the host of an event, McDowell compared the filmmaker to the greatest directors of the twentieth century: “He can be mentioned in the same breath as John Ford, David Lean, Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa. Yes, he really does belong in that elite group of directors.” 

In the same lecture, McDowell explained how enigmatic Kubrick’s presence was on set as well as the auteur’s approach to directing his actors: “I rather innocently just asked him how he directed his films because I had sought of been used to working with… people from the theatre who were nurturing to actors. Well, he looked at me with a blank stare and said, ‘Gee, Malcolm. I don’t know what I want but I do know what I don’t want.’… He’d actually given me a blank canvas to come in and just do whatever I wanted, make a complete idiot of myself if I wanted to and it would not seem ridiculous to him.”

In other interviews, McDowell has revealed other details about the production, which usually fly under the radar. One significant conflict occurred when Kubrick refused to pay McDowell what the studio had promised. According to McDowell, a Warner Bros executive had already handed 2.5% of the box office cut to Kubrick so that the filmmaker could deliver it to McDowell, but Kubrick never followed through.

“I knew he would never pay me,” McDowell later wrote. “It was a terrible way to treat me after I’d given so much of myself, but I got over it. Doing this film has put me in movie history. Every new generation rediscovers it — not because of the violence, which is old hat compared to today, but the psychological violence. That debate, about a man’s freedom of choice, is still current.”