A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971): The Catlady’s Murder

A Clockwork Orange, written, directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) in 1971, is not only one of the most controversial films ever made by the acclaimed American director, but also a paradigmatic example of his unique and outstanding approach to filmmaking. Based on the homonymous novel by the British writer Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), published in 1962, the film is considered the apex of the golden age of American film violence for its crude and stylised portrayal of social, sexual, and political brutality. Mainly for this reason, especially in the UK, A Clockwork Orange ‘was attacked as an unmediated celebration of the young self, as a provocation to youthful viewers to imitate what they saw on the screen’.[1] This critical reception overshadowed other voices that acclaimed the film, prompting the director in 1974 to convince Warner Bros. to withdraw the film from distribution in England, a self-imposed ban that remained in effect until his death, when the film was re-released.[2]

Despite this public dispute led by official censorship and all kinds of critics, A Clockwork Orange became a cult film, in part because its worthiness is beyond the straightforward representation of violence. Kubrick’s ninth long feature has also been highly appreciated as a revolutionary piece of art, especially because the film ‘works against the usual codes of framing, cutting, narrative construction, character formation, viewer positioning, and thematic conventions, that we take so much for granted when we watch a film’.[3]

Now, in this text, my intention is to address two of the main themes of the film (violence and sexuality) through the textual analysis of a sequence that epitomises the ground-breaking thematic and artistic approach deployed by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange - Alex (Malcolm McDowell)

The sequence

A Clockwork Orange occurs in a dystopian and futuristic English city, ruled by a totalitarian and repressive government. In that world, ordinary citizens have become passive and aloof witnesses of the insidious growth of a flagrant, violent culture. The protagonist of the story is its own narrator, Alex, a young boy who speaks with a slang called Nadsat, an intricate language cleverly created by Anthony Burgess incorporating elements of Russian and Cockney English. Alex belongs to and leads a four-member gang of juvenile criminals -his droogs (friends), Dim, Pete, and Georgie-, who wander together around the city under the influence of drugs, robbing, beating men, and raping women.

A Clockwork Orange narrates the story of Alex in three well-defined acts: the first one, the most explicitly violent and sexual, portrays the daily life of the gang, their ultra-violent excursions during the night, and the frequent disputes about Alex’s leadership. During their last attack, the members of the gang frame Alex, who is apprehended by the police. The second act is about the period during which Alex spends incarcerated: the initial hard months in the oppressive prison, the easier times after he befriends the prison chaplain, and the final stage when Alex is selected as the first candidate for an experimental treatment called Ludovico’s Technique, a form of brainwashing that incorporates associative learning.  The third act starts when the Government considers that Alex has been successfully treated, releasing him as a new harmless human being incapable of vicious acts.  But soon Alex finds he is not only harmless but also defenseless, as his prior victims begin to take revenge on him. The situation compels Alex to ineffectively attempt suicide, causing a public debate on the effects of the Ludovico’s Technique. The official doctors undo the treatment, restoring Alex’s old vicious self, who triumphally dreams again with her former life.

The Catlady scene is the conclusion of the first act of the film, the last attack perpetrated by Alex before being apprehended. Regarding this analysis, the sequence is important for three reasons: first, narratively speaking, this is the turning point for the main character, who breaks into the house of this woman in an attempt to exert his dominance and leadership over his defiant droogs, but end up betrayed by them and arrested by the police. Second, for the illustrative presence of two defining elements of the identity of the film: violence and sexuality. And third, for the conspicuous filmmaking style used by Stanley Kubrick to create the sequence.

To begin with the analysis, it’s important to delimit and to segment the ‘text’. The delimitation is given by the inner unity of the sequence, defined by the presence of the Catlady’s house and the events occurred in it. Therefore, the initial point would be the moment when the Catlady’s room appears for the first time in the film (0.36.30), and the closing point would be when Alex lies on the front door after the attack by the droogs, just before being captured (0.43.40). Regarding the segmentation, the following shot breakdown gives a preliminary and useful description of the elements that form the sequence.[4]

Time Shot Movement Description
1 0.36.30 LS Static A long shot of the room where the Catlady is exercising surrounded by several cats. The room is decorated with four big sexually explicit paintings, a static bicycle and the plastic sculpture of a giant plastic penis appears in the background. Georgie and Alex voiceover dialogue describes the place, which the gang intend to attack. Someone knocks on the door and the Catlady stops exercising to attend the unexpected visitor.
2 0.37.21 LS Static The Catlady, surprised and dubious, walks through another room with cats towards the front door.
3 0.37.30 MLS Static The Catlady asks who’s there and stands next to the locked door. After listening to Alex’s feigned voice, who is behind the door, unseen, trying to persuade her to ‘help’ him, she refuses to open the door. Alex apologizes for the disturbance and apparently leaves.
4 0.38.22 VLS Pan Now we see Alex for the first time, moving from the front door to the side of the house, where the rest of the gang is hidden awaiting to enter.
5 0.38.29 MLS Static The Catlady stands trying to listen to what happens behind the door. She seems thoughtful and suspicious.
6 0.38.35 LS Pan The gang put on their masks and stealthily follow Alex round to the rear of the house.
7 0.38.42 LS Static The Catlady slowly goes back to the interior of the house. She seems concerned.
8 0.38.47 VLS-I Pan and tilt The gang finds an open window, which is clearly shown. Alex whispers his plan of getting through the window to open the front door afterwards.
9 0.39.05 MLS-LS Pan The giant plastic penis is seen in the foreground while the Catlady returns to the first room. She goes to her desk and dials a phone number. In this shot, more sexually explicit paintings are visible, plus a home gym equipment.
10 0.39.27 VLS Static Alex climbs up the house’s wall, aiming for the window.
11 0.39.33 MLS Static The Catlady talks very politely with the Police to notify them about the situation, which she finds unusual and worrisome for the similarities with the recent attacks. The Police decide to send a patrol, even though the Catlady seems not completely convinced that it would be necessary. In the precise moment when she hangs up the phone, Alex enters the room, causing the exaltation of the Catlady.
12 0.40.31 MLS Static Alex, wearing a mask, stands next to the door and asks if their previous govoreet (talk) at the door was not satisfactory. The first use of Nasdat.
13 0.40.36 MLS Static The Catlady seems angry and defensive. She asks Alex about his identity and how he got in. Her language starts to be aggressive.
14 0.40.39 MLS Static Alex observes the paintings and the giant plastic penis, he seems astonished and delighted. Meanwhile, the Catlady words reveal her increasing discomfort.
15 0.40.53 MLS Static The Catlady vehemently reacts against the accusation of Alex, who calls her ‘filthy old soomka’. The second use of Nasdat in the sequence. The explicit paintings are clearly visible behind the Catlady.
16 0.41.03 MLS Static Alex keenly examines the giant plastic penis next to him.
17 0.41.05 LS Static In the foreground, Alex friskily touches the tip of the giant plastic penis. In the background, the Catlady tells him to stop, for ‘it’s a very important work of art’. A defiant Alex touches the plastic phallus again and makes it swing.
18 0.41.12 MLS Static Alex touches the giant plastic penis again, appearing as surprised as enchanted by the swinging.
19 0.41.21 LS Static The Catlady, clearly irritated, asks Alex what does he want.
20 0.41.25 MLS Static While the giant plastic penis keeps on swinging next to Alex, he eloquently explains that he is participating in a selling magazine contest.
21 0.41.31 LS Static The Catlady stands defensive, listening to Alex speech, clearly aware that he is lying. She advices him to leave the house right away before he gets into serious troubles.
22 0.41.41 MLS Static Alex hits the giant plastic penis.
23 0.41.43 LS Static The Catlady is exasperated and yells to Alex to stop touching the work of art and to leave immediately the house.
24 0.41.46 MLS Static Alex hits the giant plastic penis again.
25 0.41.48 MS Static The Catlady seems to be on the verge, she is furious, she takes a small bust of Beethoven she has in the desk and moves towards Alex with the intention to hit him.
26 0.41.56 LS-MS Track and pan The Catlady approaches Alex in an attempt to attack him, and he takes the giant plastic penis to defend himself. They start to fight moving in circles. While she screams, he laughs.
27 0.41.58 MLS-MS Track and pan The Catlady tries to hit Alex, but he’s blocking her with the giant plastic penis. They keep on moving in circles.
28 0.42.01 MLS-MS Track and pan The fight continues. The Catlady is striving to hit Alex, while he seems playful while avoiding her.
29 0.42.07 MLS Track and pan The Catlady and Alex continue fighting, they circle around.
30 0.42.13 MCU-MLS Track and pan The Catlady and Alex continue fighting, they circle around.
31 0.42.16 MCU Pan The Catlady and Alex continue fighting, they circle around.
32 0.42.18 MLS Track and pan The Catlady expression of despair is shown, she is still trying to hit Alex with the bust of Beethoven.
33 0.42.19 MLS Track and pan The Catlady and Alex continue fighting. The latter is jumping, almost dancing while the Catlady seems out of control.
34 0.42.23 MLS Track and pan It seems that the Catlady finally hits Alex with the bust, making him fall.
35 0.42.24 MS Track and pan Alex is on the floor and drops the plastic phallus. The Catlady, still standing, tries to hit Alex again while he is lying on the floor.
36 0.42.26 MS Track and pan Alex rapidly grabs her legs and make her stumble.
37 0.42.27 MLS-MCU Track, pan and tilt Alex pushes the Catlady to make her fall. He quickly picks up the giant plastic penis and stands above her.
38 0.42.31 MCU Tilt Alex frenzy face appears. He holds the plastic phallus up, aiming to hit her with it.
39 0.42.32 MCU-CU-MCU-CU Tilt A close-up of terrified Catlady, who lies on the floor defenceless. She screams.
40 0.42.33 MLS Static From an extremely low angle, Alex appears violently wielding the giant plastic penis towards her face.
41 0.42.34 I Static A serious of rapid extracts of the paintings in the room are shown, some of them are sexually explicit. The main insert is a mouth with several layers of lips and teeth. The images are accompanied by a feline shriek.
42 0.42.37 MLS-MS Track and pan A Police siren is heard in the distance. Alex seems to be taken out of a trance-like state. He looks at the Catlady body, out of frame, and leaves the room after putting back the giant plastic penis on a table.
43 0.42.56 LS Static Alex seems affected and nervous, while he goes to the front door.
44 0.43.05 I-LS Static A bottle of milk is held by Dim’s wounded hand. Then, the three droogs are calmly waiting for Alex, who is struggling to open the door. When he finally manages to go out, he nervously takes off the mask and tells the gang to scape fast, for the Police is coming. Dim rapidly takes Alex by the neck and hit him with the bottle of milk in the face.
45 0.43.14 MS Static In slow motion, the hit of the bottle is shown from a different angle. Alex expression of pain is visible, while the rest of the gang roar with laughter.
46 0.43.16 LS Static The gang quickly leaves the place, laughing out loud. Alex tumbles down, painfully screaming and insulting his droogs.

Having said this, the analysis will be focused on two important aspects of the sequence: the representation of violence and gender. Considering that Kubrick reinterpreted the novel’s version of the Catlady event, exchanging the old ugly woman in the book for a younger one, and adding the pornographic paintings on the walls, the two aspects to be analysed could be regarded as indicators of the director’s personal approach to filmmaking.

1
The first shot of the Catlady’s room.

Stylised violence

A Clockwork Orange is devoutly centred in Alex character. His subjective perspective dominates the whole narrative, his voice is an essential part of the story, not only as narrator but as an insatiable speaker, and his excessive personality controls the frame and dominates the space.[5] Therefore, the obsession of the camera with his histrionic body language and his unsettling gaze is not fortuitous. For this reason, his ‘disappearance’ during the first minutes of the Catlady’s sequence is an exception.

However, Alex absence does not correspond to a positive assessment of the Catlady. On the contrary, these first minutes focused on her and the space where she seems to be safe and comfortable, allows to clearly draw a physical and psychological boundary that intensifies the irruption of Alex. From the moment the Catlady appears, we understand the singularity of her private ‘reign’: a long shot shows her in the middle of a big and colourful room, while she placidly exercises surrounded by her cats. The high key lighting caused by overpowered lamps, the sexually explicit paintings on the walls and the clothes she is wearing (green leotard, white leggings, no shoes) establish the room as a private, intimate, and warm space. In between this introduction to the Catlady’s world, some long shots show Alex and his droogs in the outside, a dark space that contrasts with the bright light that comes from inside the house. This dialectic between inside and outside, brightness and darkness, safety and vulnerability, private and public, is constantly broken by Alex, whose violence is not only physical but psychological.

Such a broader comprehension of violence, a signature feature of the film, could partially explain why the director decided to depict the ultra-violent behaviour of Alex and its effects mainly using an artistic language. As it will be explained hereafter, the Catlady sequence reinforces this argument, which has been recounted as a reason to accuse A Clockwork Orange of portraying a stylised violence.

First, concerning the mise-en-scène and the editing in the Catlady sequence, the main confrontation between Alex and her consists of a quick-paced erratic camera work, with jerky shots over the shoulder, alternating the perspective between the two of them, giving a visual feeling of emotional bewilderment, physical exhaustion and even sexual tension. Nonetheless, body contact is absent from the sequence, and blood is never shown. This is even more clear when Alex murders the woman: instead of showing her disfigured face, the scene is constructed using an extremely fast sequence of visual extracts from the sexual paintings on the room, thus representing the woman’s pain without strictly showing her.

But even during the tragic death of the woman, Alex remains in the centre of the story. One of the paintings used to symbolise the death of the Catlady is the one hung next to the main door. The portrait shows an old woman masturbating, wearing a dress and a pair of boots similar to those used by Alex’s mother, and holding a little man in a white overall, similar to the droogs’ default uniform. The inclusion of this image could insinuate a deeper psychological layer in Alex’s motivation to kill the Catlady: a subconscious revenge against his pusillanimous and neglectful mother.

Second, the body language of the characters contributes to the nuanced violence. When the fight starts, the encounter suddenly turns into a choreographic battle: the two of them circling around, the Catlady swinging the bust of Beethoven and Alex protecting himself with a giant plastic penis. His playful and almost comical jumps, and his sardonic laughter, as opposed to the clumsy and hysterical Catlady, turns the violence into a dance. [6]

And third, connected with this dancing, the music plays a significant role in the stylisation of violence. The score used in the sequence is La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), by the nineteenth-century Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). Despite this is not a comic opera, the widespread use of its overture in Warner Brothers cartoons, commonly has related it with a lightweight tone, with buffoonery.[7] This connotation perfectly fits with Alex’s attitude during the murder sequence. Thus, the soundtrack provides a powerful engagement ‘by shrinking the apparent space between the perceiver and the characters, so that the world of the story may invade a perceiver’s most vulnerable psychological reaches’. [8] In other words, the music softens the harshness of the violent act represented on the screen.

These elements from the sequence expose how Kubrick addresses ‘the culture of violence through styles that are unusual and against the norms of Hollywood cinematic construction and that become problematic and even threatening’.[9] Even more, besides being practically forced to empathise with Alex during the whole first act of the film, for his ubiquitous perspective that controls the frame, a sequence like the Catlady’s murder generates a conflictive pleasurable experience for the viewers, who are drawn by the film to vicariously enjoy Alex’s freedom, violence, and lack of guilt.[10]

2

Encounter of genders

Another characteristic of A Clockwork Orange that has been usually recounted as essential within the film, is the sexual dimension both in Alex and in the narrative. Although this is traceable along with the film, the Catlady sequence provides an opportunity to focus on a more specific aspect: gender.[11] It is not a coincidence that this murder (also the rape of the writer’s wife) has been cited by feminist film critics as paradigmatic misogyny in cinema, worsen by the stylised violence commented before. Now, accepting that Kubrick is creating a grey moral zone where the spectator must decide, more than making a statement about women, the Catlady sequence is highly appealing in terms of the portrayal of the relationship between male and female within the film.

On the one side, the dynamic of the female-male encounter is defined by the divergence between the Catlady and Alex. She is an anonymous character, whose name is briefly mentioned (Miss Weathers) only once by herself during the phone call to the Police (she is listed as Catlady in the credits, though), whereas Alex name has been clear since the first line of the film (‘There was me, that is Alex’). She is wearing a tight green leotard that clearly reveals her feminine figure, while in contrast, he goes with the plain white uniform of the droogs, a disguise matched with a long-phallic-nose mask. Their attires reveal an opposition between a see-through and truthful character, and a compulsive masked liar, evidenced by the fact that nothing said by Alex during the sequence is actually true.

Nonetheless, on the other side, the erotic works of art in the room seem to correlate the two characters in a subtle way. As it has been pointed out above, the Catlady’s room is a personal space, but furthermore, it reveals her freed sexual dimension and even her predatory side, represented by the multiple cats around her. When Alex enters the room, his attention is immediately drawn by the erotic paraphernalia, the sexually explicit paintings and the giant penis in particular. It is a prominent reaction from Alex, given the similar type of art he has in his own bedroom, and his recognised compulsive sexual nature. Alex gestures reveal not only an intense shock but also a profound excitement, almost an intimate complicity with the woman. Even though, the Catlady’s reaction demonstrates a great discomfort for the violation of her privacy, and she loses her temper when Alex exceeds the limit, symbolised by his playful and disrespectful attitude towards the giant plastic penis.

Regarding the conflict itself, it could be said that it probably starts giving some equality to the contenders. On one hand, the Catlady is the first and only female character that defies Alex: her tone of voice, her courageous reaction, and her visible strong personality put her in a relatively equivalent position. Another argument in favour of this would be, on the other hand, the weapon she uses to attack Alex, i.e. a bust of Beethoven. As it has been defined by prior scenes in the film, Beethoven ninth symphony, the exclusive diegetic music in A Clockwork Orange, represents Alex’s ‘sophisticated, intelligent and powerful character’.[12]  The fact that the Catlady has this bust, plus the avant-garde paintings, suggest that she also has a developed aesthetic sense, very similar to the one Alex brags about.

Nevertheless, the tragic outcome of this encounter shows that even though in this dystopian world an independent and sexually free woman could exist, it is still male-dominated. This is ultimately symbolised by Alex killing the Catlady beating her to death with the most significant representation of male power: the giant phallus, not unintentionally white-coloured as Alex’s clothes, a fact that indicates a male destructive force against the female. The feeling of subjugation and destruction is intensified by the way the murder is shot, especially the last moments: an eye-bird close-up of the terrified expression of the Catlady while she lies on a blood-red carpet, while Alex is shot from an extremely low angle wielding the giant penis.

Conclusion

In this analysis I have explored two main themes of A Clockwork Orange using the Catlady sequence as an example, referring numerous formal elements as the editing, the cinematography, the mise-en-scène, and the music to outline some relevant aspects for the disclosure of meaning within the film. To conclude, the contribution of this analysis could be summarised in two arguments. First, it is true that Kubrick’s artistic approach regarding the representation of violence is marked by a stylisation, not necessarily to make an ambiguous statement, but probably to emphasise an even more damaging violence, the psychological. And second, although the point of view of the film is certainly male-centred, the Catlady sequence, with the depiction of a free and strong female, presents an interesting (though brief) challenge to Alex’s overwhelming masculinity.

Notes

[1] Robert P. Kolker, ‘A Clockwork Orange… Ticking’, in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, ed. by Stuart Y. McDougal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.19.

[2] Cf. Wim Matthys, ‘Observe All: On the Staging of Fundamental Fantasy, Jouissance, and Gaze in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’, American Image, Vol. 70, No. 2, 225–247.

[3] Robert P. Kolker, ‘A clockwork Orange… Ticking’, in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, ed. by Stuart Y. McDougal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.24.

[4] CU: Close-up; MCU: Medium Close-up; MS: Medium Shot; MLS: Medium Long Shot; LS: Long Shot; VLS: Very Long Shot; I: Insert.

[5] Robert P. Kolker, p.29.

[6] Peter J. Rabinowitz, ‘“A Bird of Like Rarest Spun Heavenmental”: Music in A Clockwork Orange’, in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, ed. by Stuart Y. McDougal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.125.

[7] Cf. Kate McQuiston, ‘Value, Violence, and Music Recognized: A Clockwork Orange as Musicology’, in Stanley Kubrick: Essays in his Films and Legacy, ed. Gary D. Rhondes, (London: McFarland & Company, 2008), p.108. Also: Peter J. Rabinowitz, p.125.

[8] Kate McQuiston, p. 107.

[9] Robert P. Kolker, p.23.

[10] Peter Krämer, A Clockwork Orange, (China: Palgrave McMillan, 2011), p.6.

[11] About gender: cf. Margaret DeRosia, ‘An Erotics of Violence: Masculinity and (Homo)Sexuality in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’, in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, ed. by Stuart Y. McDougal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.61-84.

[12] Kate McQuiston, p.108

 

References

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, ed. by Stuart Y. McDougal, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Wim Matthys, ‘Observe All: On the Staging of Fundamental Fantasy, Jouissance, and Gaze in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’, American Image, Vol. 70, No. 2, 225–247.

Kate McQuiston, ‘Value, Violence, and Music Recognized: A Clockwork Orange as Musicology’, in Stanley Kubrick: Essays in his Films and Legacy, ed. Gary D. Rhondes, (London: McFarland & Company, 2008), pp.105-122.

Peter Krämer, A Clockwork Orange, (China: Palgrave McMillan, 2011).

Alan R. White, ‘Review: How to Do Things with Words’, Analysis, Vol. 23, Supplement 1 (Jan., 1963), pp. 58-64.

L. Austin, How to do things with words, (Oxford: University Press, 1962).

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