You can say about most Stanley Kubrick movies that they will be made in an exacting manner, that they will look good, and they will get people's attention in ways other filmmakers do not. Honestly, I have no idea why the latter is true. My father-in-law once got me a book about Kubrick. It was a thoughtful gift ... he knew movies were one of my interests. And there was no reason why he would know that I am not the biggest Kubrick fan. The best I can figure is he decided to get a book about movies, saw Kubrick's face on the cover, recognized the name, and bought it. Because Stanley Kubrick was well-known.
Why? When I think of directors the average moviegoer might know by name, I think of Tarantino, Scorsese, Eastwood I suppose, Spielberg. I wouldn't be surprised if that hypothetical moviegoer were ask to name a director, they would say "Hitchcock". The Best Director Oscar has seen some welcome diversity in recent years, but are those directors household names? Chloé Zhao, Bong Joon-Ho, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang Lee ... some of my favorite directors are in that list, but if my father-in-law were still alive, I doubt he would think to get me a book about any of them.
But Stanley Kubrick is a movie director that people have heard of.
A Clockwork Orange certainly got people's attention in 1971. It was a box office success. It got 4 Oscar nominations. The look of the film still grabs the eye. And Malcolm McDowell is iconic. It was Kubrick's first film after 2001, and I suspect people were ready for a masterpiece. The movie is unforgettable in many ways, with scenes you can call up in your mind to this day. It is currently #77 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
It seems to be about something deep ... free will or something ... but it works on the level of Straw Dogs, setting up a situation that forces us to agree with its conclusion. Malcolm McDowell's Alex is basically the only interesting character in the entire movie, and he is in every scene, as far as I can recall. McDowell plays Alex with such cunning charisma (helped by the fact that Alex narrates the film, as well) that we side with him, even as he and his droogs perform disgusting acts. One member of his gang is called "Dim", and you can see why, just as you can see why Alex is the leader: he has so much more going on in his brain than the others. And how bad can he be, after all? He loves Beethoven!
Kubrick doesn't care about any of the other characters. Patrick Magee, a decent actor, is directed to overact so badly that you can't believe your eyes. (He plays a man who was crippled by Alex and the gang when they forcibly made him watch while they raped his wife, so he has reason to be over-the-top, but as presented, he just seems like a lunatic, far more dangerous than poor Alex.) Alex tells the story, Alex is more charismatic than the rest of the cast combined, he's smarter than everyone ... of course we root for him. That he is also a thug, a rapist, a murderer, and who knows what else, is forgotten, other than to serve the function of Kubrick's arguments about free will.
You can't call A Clockwork Orange ugly ... it looks too good. But it feels ugly. Kael brings up one scene in particular:
Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex's voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can't wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn't show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it's the purest exploitation.
I am not immune to the pleasures of A Clockwork Orange, although I can't say I reach the level of a friend who watched with me back in the early-70s. He laughed through the whole movie, thought it was a comedy. But I can't escape the feeling that the main thing we get from Kubrick movies is that Kubrick is a supremely accomplished filmmaker. Sam Peckinpah made movies that were usually a mess. His movies were violent in confusing ways. But at his best, his movies were also about people, about life ... there was nothing cold about his films, the way that Kubrick's often feel. Of course, Peckinpah was also capable of something as scummy as Straw Dogs. He might be the least-perfect great director of all time. Which, I guess, makes Stanley Kubrick the most-perfect mediocre director of all time.
Yet, he did make Paths of Glory.