A key musical moment in Kubrick’s brilliant realization of Anthony Burgess’ ground-breaking novel (our English prof dared to smuggle in copies from the U.S.) comes when Alex (Malcolm McDowell owns the part—please, no remakes!) breaks into song in the bath. He’s just been beaten and nearly drowned in the countryside by his former hooligan Droogs (Dim—Warren Clarke, Pete—Michael Tarn) who have been converted to cops by the conniving law-and-order government, seeking to protect its citizens even if it has to lock them away to do so—fiction of the highest order.
In search of a home (having been evicted from his following a particularly brutal murder that initially saw him draw serious time only to be rehabilitated by the very same government that wanted to “cure” violence medically), Alex inadvertently wanders in from a non-coincidental downpour only to find himself back at the scene of another of his “ultra-violent” crimes (with a doorbell whose ringtone is the opening call of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). Here, he and his milk-swigging buds had previously crippled an activist writer (Patrick Magee in fine manic form) and raped his wife (Adrienne Corri) during a typical night on the town.
The heartless criminal’s initial nervousness at being discovered by his now wheelchair-bound host (with eyes that fantastically speak painful volumes and a bulging-muscle manservant—David Prowse—whose chiselled bulk and brawn ensure that the master’s security will never be violated again) quickly dissipates as Alex recalls he wore a Pinocchio-penis mask (artfully complementing the overstuffed jock ensemble of the thugs’ uniforms) during the melee so his face was never seen. More proof of his anonymity is found in that day’s newspaper where the just-released “reformed” criminal’s mug adorns the front page—heralded as a huge success for the government’s crime package. But the hot, sudsy water relaxes the nine-life lucky rescued wretch, who feels so comfortable that be belts out a few choruses of “Singin’ in the Rain”.
Trouble is, that was the tune he bellowed while having his “in-out” with the author’s wife. Hearing the same crooner who ruined his life prompts the author to exact a musical revenge of his own: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
To render Alex safe to resume his life in society (and save the government thousands that criminals require to remain in captivity), he is bombarded with horrific images (uncaring sex and brutal violence) until any thought of returning to his own horrific ways brings on a physical revulsion of empty-the-stomach proportions. During this systemic brainwashing, Beethoven’s grandest creation—a personal favourite of the classical-music fan whose ménage à trois with a pair of lascivious tarts picked up at a record shop accompanied by Rossini’s Overture to William Tell remains the most frenetic coupling on film—is played constantly. Unintentionally, the born-again pacifist has the same sickening reaction whenever the “Ode to Joy” is heard.
Kubrick uses the music in an especially brilliant way. In the early frames, we hear Ferenc Fricsay’s 1958 recording (with a blatant product placement foretelling the future mix of commerce and art) but when in the clinic, the music is as artificial as his miraculous recovery (the Walter/Wendy Carlos tracks are enough to make any serious music lover ill). Yet using the trendy imitation has meanings on many levels: the imitation simply cannot replace the original. Kubrick knows this and was also aware that the faddish, synthetic-music arranger was also in the throes of a sex change around the time the film was being shot.
All of this carefully sets up the final scene where the quickly-recovering criminal (the relentless dose of Beethoven caused a botched suicide attempt—look no further than Beethoven’s Nephew for a remarkable similarity) makes a nefarious deal with the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharpe is as effectively sleazy as the real thing) to remain a poster boy for successful rehabilitation but still get a little on the side, even as a real rendering of Beethoven’s Hitler-admired score signals to all that the career thug will soon be plying his trade in bed with power and savouring masterworks from other incredibly active minds. JWR