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A Clockwork Orange at 40

Kubrick's dystopian 1972 vision sparked both moral outrage and admiration. Jonathan Romney, and those involved, look back on a monument of modern cinema

The word has been bled dry, but few films have been so genuinely iconic as A Clockwork Orange. Its imagery was sufficiently powerful to take on a life of its own, even to eclipse the movie. I was too young to see it in 1972, but I read about it, read Anthony Burgess's novel, pored over the abundant stills. When I finally saw the film on its re-release in 1990, it was more like revisiting it (but I was disappointed to see how crudely sitcom-like much of the humour was).

The flamboyance of its style and imagery has made A Clockwork Orange a monument of modern cinema – but, arguably, less of an enduring work. Stanley Kubrick's genius at imagining entire worlds meant his images quickly acquired an autonomous power, and in Malcolm McDowell's charismatic thug, Alex (above), the film had a horribly seductive anti-hero. Pop-culture notables who have kitted up in homage include Kylie Minogue, Rihanna and Dragon Tattoo star Rooney Mara.

Everything in the film felt new, sexy, outrageous: the designer John Barry created a hyper-eroticised pop-art world; Walter Carlos synthesised Rossini on a pioneering soundtrack; "Singin' in the Rain" accompanied scenes of rape and murder. And Burgess's future slang, "nadsat", gave the film a marketing tool like no other.

Luis Buñuel, no less, hailed it as "the only movie about what the modern world really means". But did A Clockwork Orange make sense as social satire, as dystopian warning – or did its exuberance derail its meaning? What, finally, did it really mean? And did Kubrick have control of that meaning? I think not: while he was one of cinema's greatest world-makers, he wasn't quite so strong as a storyteller.

Released in the UK only after vetting from the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, Kubrick's film was attacked by moral watchdogs, and repeatedly alleged to be a factor in violence in Britain. Kubrick withdrew the film in 1974 after threats to his family. This extraordinary case of a director censoring his own work was perhaps partly an admission that the film had escaped its creator.

A Clockwork Orange, for better or worse, now belonged to its public, not its director. That, one suspects, was something that Kubrick – the all-controlling Napoleon of cinema – couldn't stand.

Steven Berkoff

Played a policeman in the film

"When I saw it I did not think it was that controversial. I thought there were some achingly archaic bits in it, the prison scenes, the little bit of winky winky, you know, were from someone who's not familiar enough with British life. I remember feeling it wasn't quite up to his [Stanley Kubrick's] usual being ahead of time – it was behind the times. I suppose he felt it made the violence too seductive and maybe he felt guilty about that. I don't think it was cutting edge, no. I don't think it should have been withdrawn."

Michael Tarn

Played the droog Pete. Now 58, he was a teenager and fresh out of stage school when he got the part

"I think probably the over-riding thought is – why didn't we make any money out of it? You got paid more on a chocolate commercial than working for Stanley. While filming was the experience of a lifetime, it was veiled in secrecy. Being a 16-year-old doing this fabulous thing and not being able to say a word about it was a little bit limiting in my social life. [If Kubrick had not pulled the film] I rather expect ... interest in it would have died a death within six, seven, eight months. I think it's the imagery that's kept the film alive, not the subject matter."

Virginia Wetherell

Went topless in a scene in the film, making Malcolm McDowell sick. She now lives in London running a vintage fashion shop

"I remember we had fun showing Malcolm how to belch because he has to look at me and then recoil and be sick at my feet. It was fun rehearsing that. But because it was Kubrick you don't question it. It's bizarre because I'd done my share of horror films and dramas with directors trying to get me to take my kit off and I didn't want to, but it wasn't in the slightest bit sordid... he was just totally respectful."

John Clive

Played a character who attacks McDowell. Now an established character actor and author

"When I had to slap Malcolm, Kubrick went mad in rehearsal and said 'hit him'. Malcolm said 'don't argue with him'. I had to hit him so hard the spit flew out of his mouth – I've never hit someone so hard. Then we had to do it all again in the actual piece. I wasn't surprised by the controversy and I knew that it would be controversial. It was a particularly strange film. Even if it hadn't been banned it would have still had the status it does – it is brilliant."

Christiane Kubrick

The director's widow lived through the frenzy of controversy over the film

"Stanley was mesmerised by the language of the book. Not for one moment did I think, 'Oh my God, there will be trouble'. The film didn't show any true cruelty ... We had press in front of our house, we started receiving horrible letters, and then came the detailed death threats. The police said: 'I think you would be better off leaving the country.' Then we were really alarmed. So Stanley phoned Warner Bros and begged to have the film withdrawn. He was right to do it."

Interviews by Paul Bignell, Jonathan Owen and Thomas Goodenough