A slow, pulsing electronic score accompanies a medium close-up of Alex. He stares straight into the camera, his bright blue eyes searing from underneath his trademark black Derby hat. He has long false eyelashes on his left eye and is clothed in a white button-down shirt with matching suspenders. The camera slowly pulls back as Alex takes a sip of milk from a tall glass, revealing his droogs - Pete, Georgie, and Dim, all dressed in white. Alex's voice-over informs the audience that they are at the Korova Milk Bar, trying to figure out what to do with their evening while drinking "milk-plus" laced with "drencrom".
The camera continues to pull back slowly, revealing the slim black-and-white Milk Bar. It is decorated with white mannequins of naked women in compromising positions, and populated with other young people, stoned to the point of catatonia. Alex, who is completely alert, explains in voiceover that the drug-laced milk will "sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence". The camera holds on a wide-shot of the whole Korova Milk Bar, with Alex and his droogs in the exact center of the frame. This entire scene consists of only one shot.
Cut to an old Irishman singing drunkenly while lying on the pavement, alone in the dark. The long shadows of Alex and his three droogs descend upon the tramp. In his voice-over, Alex explains that one thing he can't stand is an old drunk man, "howling away at the songs of his fathers". Alex and his droogs stop in front of the tramp and applaud when he finishes singing. The tramp asks for some change, but instead, Alex hits him in the stomach with his cane. The tramp challenges Alex to just kill him, saying he "doesn't want to live in a stinking world like this". Alex's glee at is evident in a close-up of his profile as he asks why the world is so "stinking". His droogs cackle as the tramp rants and raves against lawlessness. As if to prove his point, Alex and his droogs proceed to beat the tramp senseless.
Cut to a soft painting of a pink bouquet. The classical score is punctuated by a woman's piercing screams, as the camera pulls back to reveal a stage in an empty, decrepit casino. Five men dressed in army uniforms and SS Helmets are attacking a woman. Alex's voice-over introduces the men as "Billy boy and his four droogs". The camera pulls back further to show the macabre 'performance', as Alex explains that these men were getting ready to perform the old "in-out-in-out" on this young "devotchka". Her attackers laugh as they strip her naked and throw her down on a pile of old mattresses.
A wide shot of the opposite end of the Derelict casino reveals Alex and his droogs standing, watching. As Alex shouts a theatrical greeting, the frightened, naked devotckha makes her escape. Alex challenges the rival gang to a duel, and Billy boy leads his droogs off the stage and into battle. Alex and his droogs, backed by a triumphant Rossini score, subdue their challengers easily and run away at sign of the police.
Cut to Alex driving a convertible at top speed with his three droogs along for the ride, yelping excitedly, into the darkened countryside. First, they get their kicks playing "hogs of the road" by running other travelers off the road. Over a closeup of his determined, gleeful expression, Alex explains that it is time for a surprise visit. Just as the sun is starting to come up, the car approaches a remote country house with a small, illuminated "home" sign in front of the gate. Alex and his droogs creep towards the front door. Cut inside, where Mr. Alexander is working on a typewriter in front of a large shelf filled with books. The doorbell rings and Mrs. Alexander goes to answer it.
She cracks open the front door and Alex pokes his head in, telling her that he needs an ambulance because his friend is bleeding to death in the middle of the road. At first, she refuses. Mr. Alexander, however, tells his wife to let the stranger in, and she does. Alex, now wearing a grotesque, phallic mask, leads his similarly disguised band of droogs inside. They whoop and holler, tossing Mrs. Alexander around and throwing her bewildered husband to the floor. Alex gleefully sings, "Singin' in the Rain" as he terrorizes the screaming couple, dancing on their furniture and destroying the house. Alex cuts strategic holes in Mrs. Alexander's knit jumpsuit while Mr. Alexander, writing on the ground, is forced to watch his wife being brutally raped.
Cut back to the Korova Milk Bar. Alex and his droogs stumble in for a nightcap, worn out from their "evening of some small energy expenditure". Dim serves himself some milk plus, which the white mannequins dispense from their nipples. He calls the mannequin "Lucy". Alex describes a group of "sophistos" from the television studio sitting nearby - four men and one woman. At one point, the female sophisto takes out some sheet music and begins to sing. Alex is, in his way, moved, explaining that he is quite familiar with the piece she is singing, "a bit from the glorious 9th by Ludwig van" - Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Dim, however, blows a loud raspberry at the sophisto's performance, and Alex, without breaking his gaze, slams his cane across Dim's knees. He chastises Dim for his lack of manners, and Dim comes right back at him, threatening him. Alex offers to fight, but Dim backs down and suggests that they all go home and sleep.
Cut to first sunrise, and Alex is walking alone through an industrial-looking residential area that is littered with trash and abandoned furniture. Through his voiceover, Alex explains that he lives with his parents in municipal housing. Inside the lobby of his apartment building, a socialistic mural has been defaced with lewd graffiti. The elevator is broken, and Alex whistles cheerily while ambling up the stairs. In his room, he takes off his fake eyelashes and jumps into bed, fully clothed. He opens a drawer next to his bed filled with stolen money and watches, placing his earnings from the evening inside, and pulls out his pet snake from another drawer. He says it has been a wonderful evening, and the perfect way to end it is by listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
As the symphony plays, the camera lingers on the provocative art around Alex's room, especially a small sculpture of 4 naked Jesus Christs dancing together, marked by stigmata. Alex describes the symphony poetically, while masturbating - and the film cuts to a montage of images that Alex thinks about while listening: explosions, vampire teeth, lava, and a girl that looks like Alice in Wonderland hanging from a noose.
Since its release, A Clockwork Orange has been at the center of a great deal of controversy - not only because of its brutal depiction of sex and violence, but because of the film's moral ambiguity about Alex's actions. Roger Ebert writes in his scathing 1972 review that the film "pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex." In response to allegations that the film glorifies violence, director Stanley Kubrick said, "...everything that happens is through [Alex's] eyes. Since he has his own special way of seeing what he does, this may have some effect in distancing the violence. Some people have asserted that this made the violence attractive. I think this view is totally incorrect" (Ciment 149).
From the opening scene, there is no question that A Clockwork Orange is Alex's story. He stares right into the camera, and remains in the center of the frame while the camera tracks back - keeping his gaze steady - as he introduces the audience to his world, sitting with his droogs in the Korova Milkbar, getting ready for their nightly ultra-violence. Everyone else in the Milkbar appears to be stoned, while Alex, with his fierce intensity, looks to be completely lucid.
According to writer Ethan Canin, "nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better..." (Lamott 50). Alex is hardly likable in the traditional sense - Theodore Dalrymple describes him as a "precocious... psychopath". However, Kubrick establishes Alex's narrative authority - and charisma - in this first scene and maintains it throughout the film, abetted by Malcolm McDowell's "exuberant" performance, which Pauline Kael claims "makes [the viewer] root for Alex's foxiness, for his crookedness". Kubrick himself compared Alex to Shakespeare's Richard III, calling him "a character whom you should dislike and fear, and yet, you find yourself drawn very quickly into his world..." (Ciment 158). Kubrick enhances the viewer's alignment with Alex by showing the characters around him to be significantly less intelligent and mostly flat.
Meanwhile, Ebert and other critics feel that Kubrick's loving cinematic treatment of Alex relies on manipulation rather than character development to inspire the audience's sympathy. Alex likes to drink drugged milk, listen to Beethoven, and commit ultra-violence, but there is no real explanation as to why. Nevertheless, while Alex gleefully performs disgusting acts of violence, he establishes an intimacy with the viewer, whom he addresses as 'my brother' in his often ironic, unapologetic voice-over.
Kubrick's role as the film's creator and auteur is at the core of much of the controversy surrounding A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick wanted to "present the violence as he [Alex] sees it, not with the disapproving eye of the moralist but subjectively as Alex experiences it'" (McDougal 14) - just as Anthony Burgess had done in his novel. One of the ways that Anthony Burgess softened the novel's brutal depictions of violence, though, was through his creation of "Nadsat", (meaning 'teen' in Russian), a language he invented just for A Clockwork Orange. In 1972, Burgess said, "it was certainly no pleasure to me to describe acts of violence while writing this novel" - so, Stuart McDougal writes, Nadsat "proves baffling to most readers and shields them somewhat from the sex and violence" (14). However, film being a visual medium, Kubrick had a much more challenging task when weaving the sex and violence into the narrative of A Clockwork Orange, and the result has left many critics and audiences questioning whether or not Kubrick condoned such behavior.
While Roger Ebert and other critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris find Kubrick's treatment of Alex's extracurricular activities pointlessly brutal, Robert Kolker praises the filmmaker's cinematic representation of sex and violence. Stuart Y. McDougal writes, 'this self-reflexive film succeeds in part, for Kolker, precisely by forcing us to examine our 'own notions of cinematic violence'" (McDougal 14). Kolker credits Kubrick's success to the filmmaker's carefully designed mise-en-scene, which he believes 'foregrounds the artifice of the filmmaker's own work' (14). Mise-en-scene (meaning 'put in the scene') refers to the staging of a shot - everything that exists within the frame. In the context of A Clockwork Orange, Alex's voiceover, his language, his jolly tone - is all part of the film's mise-en-scene, and therefore, informs how the audience views the character and his world.
Kolker finds the lack of realism in the sets, the costumes, the language - and even the Kubrick's staging and choice to use wide-angle lenses - as a constant reminder to the audience that we are watching a film. This style, Kolker claims, 'rushes us through its story and at the same time welcomes us to pause and think about it" (McDougal 30). For example, in this first section of the film - when Alex and his droogs beat Billy boy's gang senseless, the natural sound is very faint underneath Rossini's The Thieving Magpie. That, combined with the unrealistic, theatrical setting and the lack of facial closeups, takes the viewer out of the story of the film, aware of the separation between reality and what is on the screen in front of us. This overwhelming sense of artifice, evident even in the earliest shots of the film, help to set up the social satire to come - as what is true and right is always undercut by the hyper-realistic or absurd.