The “Kubrick Stare,” a particular style of close-up shot utilised in multiple films by director Stanley Kubrick, is one of the most recognisable — and imitated — cinematic cliches. In “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” as well as to a lesser level in “Lolita” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it appears.
Due to the fact that they were created before “A Clockwork Orange” from 1971, the following two movies don’t fully suit the “Kubrick Stare” pattern. Kubrick had been using close-ups in a distinctive and piercing way since his first film, “Fear and Desire,” but it was “Clockwork” that developed and defined the use of the “Stare,” which is employed to indicate a character’s inner threat, mystery, and/or madness.
It was the ideal appearance for Alex DeLarge, the antihero of the movie, who is such a proponent of “the old ultra-violence” that the government uses him as a test subject for a brainwashing procedure. In the end, Kubrick determined that the opening shot of the film would be Alex’s stare, a drawn-out and methodical pullback from a close-up of Alex’s face that would not only establish the character but also the mood and setting of the picture. Nevertheless, despite Kubrick having a great understanding of shot composition, it was actor Malcolm McDowell who popularised the “Stare,” defining it not only for his role and the movie but also for subsequent Kubrick productions.
Beethoven + drugs = Kubrick Stare
Warner Bros. McDowell was well aware that “A Clockwork Orange’s” opening shot would be essential to drawing in viewers and maintaining their interest. Alex was a difficult role to play right out of the gate, and while McDowell had received some guidance on how to do so from Lindsay Anderson, who served as his “If…” director, Kubrick’s recommended preparation for the actor was troublesome and diverse. Additionally, Kubrick recognised that Alex’s expression in the opening image would reveal the tone of the movie “Clockwork,” thus the character had to be identified before the sequence could be shot.
Fortunately, while filming a later scene in which the young Droog listens to his beloved “Ludwig Van” in his bedroom, McDowell and Kubrick were able to identify the distinctive appearance for Alex. It came up because Kubrick said, “I need some kind of look for when you hear the music,” McDowell recounted. The director instructed McDowell to “just watch what happens” as was “going to play the Beethoven Choral Symphony real loud.” In response to “this look” that appeared on McDowell’s face as the music played, Kubrick started laughing. “The eyes were kind of up and glazed over and the mouth kind of took on a crazy look,” he said.
The expression that came to be known as the “Kubrick Stare” was a synthesis of several things McDowell knew about Alex’s character and the movie: he was “supposed to be a little high,” and despite the fact that Alex was an insane and unrepentant criminal and rapist, he and Kubrick “were making a comedy, let’s face it.” So, when they realised they had the look and McDowell understood that “all I had to do was duplicate it for that initial shot,” Kubrick’s reaction to him was hilarious.
The stare that launched a thousand close-ups
A Clockwork Orange’s opening shot proved to be so powerful that it came to characterise not only that movie but also a lot of Kubrick’s later work. Every one of his later films had a close-up where a character would deliver some variation of the “Stare,” and even his earlier works appeared to have some early traces of it.
The “Stare” continues to appear in a variety of media, including comic books, TV series, and movies, as a result of the continuous success of Kubrick’s films. It appears in various movies and television shows, such as “Stranger Things,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Mulholland Dr.,” and even Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” poster. Of course, neither Kubrick nor McDowell are responsible for the close-up or an actor’s decision to project an air of menace. Without McDowell, Kubrick, and “A Clockwork Orange,” however, there is no question that such a stare would appear entirely different.
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