My teenage introduction to art film culture was something of a science fiction auteur detour (R2-D2?). I discovered Alphaville at a tiny art theater above the Fox Riverside, where Gone with the Wind had previewed in 1939. I bought the filmscript book to understand what the heck was going on… and slowly began to appreciate Jean-Luc Godard. Fifty-two years later I can’t claim a complete understanding, but I’m certain that the ‘étrange aventure’ of Lemmy Caution is as original a film, of any kind, that I’ve ever seen.
KL Studio Classics
1965 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 99 min. / Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution / Street Date July 9, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff, Howard Vernon, Michael Delahaye, Christa Lang, Jean-Pierre Leaud.
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Film Editor: Agnès Guillemot
Original Music: Paul Misraki
Poems by Paul Éluard
Produced by André Michelin
Written and Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Alphaville is an odd film out in the work of Jean-Luc Godard. It’s his one feature that’s most like a conventional movie, with relatively few distinct interruptions of form and even fewer formal ‘irruptions’ that cause uninitiated audiences to shake their heads in surrender. Godard sticks with a firm central concept all the way through — a genre mashup, essentially. It not only has a beginning, a middle and an end, it allows us to identify with its characters and perhaps shed a tear at the conclusion.
In school we reacted to the adventure of tough guy Lemmy Caution as a satire on spy films, which shows how stunted our imaginations were. On his trip through the cultural supermarket, Godard pulled a number of discordant items off the shelves. None of the working elements in Alphaville is original, but Godard assembles them into a whole far bigger than the parts.
In his Ford Galaxie secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels across space to Alphaville, a mysterious technological supercity where all decisions are made by a computer, Alpha 60. Posing as Figaro-Pravda reporter Ivan Johnson, Lemmy’s mission is to find his predecessor Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), and to either bring back or liquidate scientist Leonard Nosferatu, a defector who now ‘engineers’ Alphaville under the name von Braun (Howard Vernon). Lemmy meets the daughter Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), who works as a tour hostess for visitors from the exterior world that Alpha 60 and von Braun consider enemy territory. She tries to inform him about this ‘capital of pain:’ hotels offer prostitutes stamped with numbers, and words considered too illogical or inconvenient by Alpha 60 are deleted on a daily basis. Alphaville is preparing to attack the ‘Exterior Countries’ because logic says they will one day invade. Evading the computer’s secret police, Lemmy concentrates on two goals: to find and neutralize Prof. von Braun, and to redeem the lost soul Natacha. He’ll reach her through the power of poetry and the recovery of lost concepts, like love.
Alphaville is noted for filming a ‘futuristic’ spy saga entirely in ordinary (but modern) Paris locations. Lemmy crosses ‘intersidereal space’ just by driving on a freeway in his Mustang. Raul’s Coutard’s B&W cinematography sees Alphaville mostly as a city of night. Visual clues offer mixed references to the Occupation, existential malaise and totalitarian science fiction movies. An elevator button reading ‘SS’ takes us to a death chamber where poets and philosophers wait in line to be executed by synchronized swimmers.
All is definitely out of orbit in what Lemmy at one point refers to as ‘Zeroville.’ Natacha never knew her father. She has no concept of the Past or of the Future. Many things are reversed: people nod to say no and shake their heads to say yes. The sad city is overrun with agents in hats and trenchcoats, collecting citizens to be interrogated by the super computer. The state of free will is summed up in the fact that the word ‘why’ has been replaced with ‘because.’ Alpha-60 uses language as a weapon — Lemmy is at one point disarmed by a verbal joke.
Is this the first sci-fi picture with a sentient supercomputer that wants to rule the world? Menacing computers surely existed before, but within half a year after this particular cultural flashpoint, the concept had become a spy movie cliché. Godard gives Alpha 60 a brilliant touch — the computer is voiced by a man with no vocal chords, who has learned to talk ‘from his diaphragm.’ The ugly noise sounds like vocalized belching. Godard called it a ‘killed’ voice.
Godard steers Eddie Constantine’s established secret agent character in a fresh direction. Instead of a two-fisted joker/adventurer, this Lemmy Caution is a humorless killer with a mission. I’ve heard it said that Godard’s Lemmy was modeled after Robert Stack in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo. His actions are reduced to blunt-force bursts of violence and his hardboiled dialogue is studded with comic-book one-liners:
“Not bad for a veteran of Guadalcanal.”
“Do you know that Reporter and Revenger begin with the same letter?”
The beauty of the concept is that for all his Mike Hammer- like brutality, Lemmy is a defender of human values, defined repeatedly as language and poetry. His main weapon against Alpha 60 is words, specifically an irrational Riddle of the Sphinx that only a flawed human will accept. The gimmick was copied and repeated ad infinitum in so-called ‘thinking man’s’ sci-fi of the 1960s, especially The Prisoner and Star Trek.
Godard does play some of his cinematic graffiti games. Instead of agit-prop inter-titles, the language-obsessed director’s text messages are transformed into standard signage, neon displays, and even slide shows. Non-sequitur cutaways to flashing lights and neon displays serve as punctuation, and transitional material. Several of Godard’s handwritten cartoon-scribbles crop up; they feature little word-puns in French. More word jokes arrive when Lemmy Caution name-drops other ‘exterior land’ city states in space — Nueva York, Angoulême City, Tokyorama. I suppose that New York is now primarily hispanic. If the word Angoulême was chosen because it sounds like the French word ‘ange,’ then ‘Angoulême City’ might be Los Angeles.
This is definitely one of Godard’s most accessible movies. Breaking with habit, he seems less committed to disorienting effects for their own sake. He once used jump-cuts to cover pauses where he fed dialogue lines to his actors; here he favors unbroken tracking shots. The audio will drop silent now and then, but tracks don’t pop in and out at random : Goddard is no longer intent on reminding us that we’re watching an artificial construction. The show has a mostly conventional sense of humor. Eddie Constantine’s deadpan behavior is wonderfully funny in its own way. Godard doesn’t shut us out, we don’t get the feeling that he’s laughing up his sleeve at us.
The world of Alphaville is anything but feminist. Although we see a female security guard with an M-1, most women in this dystopia are courtesans, including one whose job appears to be serving as a nude statue. These sexist details were carried over into the ‘pleasure units’ of the first Derek Flint movie. Lemmy examines the numbers tattooed on the comfort hostesses’ arms, legs, neck and even faces. He sometimes seems concerned, but still slaps women around in approved Mickey Spillane fashion, even Natacha.
Viewers opposed to Godard’s style may still be turned off but Alphaville has qualities that immediately grow on one, beginning with its ‘raw’ B&W look. Raoul Coutard filmed the show in constant protest, as Godard barely allowed him to use any lights. With today’s sensitive film stocks night shoots no longer require excessive lighting, which was not the case in 1965. Godard found an English film stock manufactured by Ilford that could be ‘cheated’ to produce an extremely high ASA; many takes came back simply black, as Coutard had been warned they would. But the show has a remarkable look — in most night scenes we see everything, and any light source comes out as a bright item with a halo. One of the first shots shows Lemmy lighting a cigarette in a car, and the tiny flame lights up his pockmarked face.
Coutard pretty much conquers those technical difficulties. Only two shots appear to have been ‘rescued’ in the lab, a pair of close-ups of Lemmy in his final scene with von Braun. Elsewhere Coutard’s camerawork is masterful, as when he hand-holds a take that follows Lemmy and a house prostitute up an elevator and all the way to his hotel room… it almost seems a reference to the lobby-and-elevator achievement in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. Godard claimed that the movie was about light: ‘bringing light to darkness?’ In one scene, an agent of Alpha-60 switches on a line of corridor fluorescents, and ‘proclaims the dawn.’ Contrasting close-ups stress Karina’s beauty and Constantine’s craggy face. One purely poetic sequence uses shots that rack through the exposure spectrum, from almost black to almost white. The poem itself alludes to Song of Songs: (“Your voice, your eyes, your hands, your lips…”) and more than suffices to represent the life-affirming rebirth of Natacha’s soul.
Embracing all of this is Paul Misraki’s music score, which alternates between overstated ‘Danger!’ and ‘Tension!’ stings, and more delicate motifs that create a detached sense of genre glory. Romantic cues include a waltz and a emotional love cue. The mostly conventional music helps us relate to Alphaville as something apart from a Godardian culture-critique.
In its basics Alphaville is a standard super-spy yarn. A Lone Wolf agent travels to a hostile location, neutralizes a terrible technological conspiracy and escorts ‘the girl’ to safety. That’s the central motif of much of James Bond starting with Dr. No; minus the girl, the structure saw its first full expression in a science-fiction film Quatermass 2. In each case a ‘legendary’ hero staves off an element of ‘malevolent’ futurism. Godard’s wrinkle posits a new kind of adventure for a Galahad-like private eye. One of his alternate titles for Alphaville was said to be ‘Tarzan vs. I.B.M..’ Alpha-60’s ‘bible’ turns out to be a dictionary, but a real Biblical allusion is saved for the finish: “Don’t look back.”
The characters are more pulp constructs than ‘real people,’ yet Anna Karina’s endearing princess is possessed of a sad, longing soul. Akim Tamiroff’s Henri Dickson really seems taken with Christa Lang’s thieving good time girl. A secret agent gone to seed, he’s been brought low by the vices in Alphaville’s forbidden-zone underworld. We’re told that various Godard friends and film critics play Alphaville’s lab-coated engineers. The art-film distortion of Eddie Constantine’s signature role had an effect opposite to what the actor wanted — his star power was diminished, not enhanced.
Richard Brody’s book Cinema Is Everything The Working Life of of Jean-Luc Godard is packed with insights on Alphaville. The show came about when a half-serious plan to film Bonnie & Clyde fell through; Godard would later develop his own lovers-on-the-run story, Pierrot Le Fou. The director had by this time broken up with his main muse Anna Karina. The show is one of several in which he addresses the relationship directly, perceiving the problem as being HER failure to love him.
According to Brody, Godard quotes freely from Paul Éluard but lifts ideas and text by an author named George Bernanos, from a sci-fi book called ‘France Against the Robots.’ The surprisingly conservative Godard ranted and railed against film crews that wouldn’t work all night without extra pay, as per labor laws. Brody quotes Raoul Coutard as being fed up with Godard’s attitude that everyone was against him: “He’d like to swallow the film and process it out his ass — that way he wouldn’t need anyone.”
Fellow film student Steven Nielson paid serious attention to Godard and helped straighten me out when I (back then) called the filming haphazard and amateurish. Steve disabused me of that notion and advised me to reevaluate my attitude. We then were able to show a 35mm print of Alphaville at a sci-fi film series I ran at UCLA in 1975. It was stunning. The valuable lesson: don’t judge movies through the filter of Hollywood values.
I still don’t claim a thorough understanding of Jean-Luc Godard — much of what he does just doesn’t interest me, and too much is aggressive, hectoring. A 2014 3-D feature plays like an abusive con-job. I’m not ashamed to recall that I originally classified Alphaville as a simple comedy with hidden references. Audiences laughed when the film cut between positive and negative images; as I lived inside the cinema bubble of proper production values, I imagined that the inverted shots were an ad hoc substitute for a special effect. Now I wonder if it’s ‘Nosferatu-vision,’ seeing as how Murnau used negative images. We also laughed to see Lemmy’s big ‘kung fu fight’ represented by a series of images of Lemmy and a thug standing in action poses, as if for the still man. We had no idea that Godard had already used the gag in A Woman Is a Woman, to create Donen & Kelly-style musical sequences without all that troublesome dancing and choreography.
The movie can also feel legendary, as when Alpha-60 breaks down and the city’s lights go berserk, imitating the power meltdown in Metropolis. Left without the computer’s guidance the denizens of Alphaville now stagger about disoriented and delirious. It’s like a zombie movie or a sci-fi picture where all the robots or Pod People suddenly malfunction together. Lemmy must physically carry Natacha from the Lion’s Den. As in an old serial, Natacha can’t find the way out until Lemmy tells her to think of the word ‘love.’ Human language once again pierces the darkness. She responds like a trouper: the exit is thataway. More cheering for the wedding of pulp and poetry.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Alphaville is a good HD rendition of a classic all too often seen in degraded copies. My UCLA professor Bob Epstein had worked for the film’s original American distributor. He said that the Production Code censors required only one change, asking that the shot of the nude under the stairwell be darkened.
I remember that Alphaville was projected widescreen, at least at 1:66 — the burned-in subtitles were slightly higher in the frame. But the flat version is clearly correct, because the opening titles would definitely be cropped away. (Amazon is wrong, this is not ‘anamorphic.’) I noticed no damaged shots and the audio track is clear. The opening shots have a tiny bit of instability and a couple of close-ups show a strange ‘swimming grain’ effect — that may have been the result of processing issues that drove Raoul Coutard to distraction. Nothing can substitute for a 35mm print on a big screen but this encoding is a winner, from the flashing-sign opening to the shaky final shot out on the ‘intersidereal space’ freeway.
Two video items are each under six minutes. Colin McCabe is on camera for a generalized introduction, and Anna Karina offers a personal memory that’s more than a bit rambling. An original trailer in pretty good shape almost sells the show as a standard action picture … almost. We’re given a choice of soundtracks. The English dub is here. It’s terrible.
Quite welcome is a full feature commentary from Tim Lucas. He casts his net wide for filmic, art and cultural references, from Dante’s Beatrice to the Instamatic camera. When he explains who Dick Tracy, Guy Leclair and Henri Dickson were, I have to remind myself that the world of 1965 is likely foreign territory for much of today’s audience… how many kids watch Blu-rays, or B&W movies? Lucas rolls out the filmic connections, sci-fi connections, and a full Eddie Constantine biography. He also relates anecdotes offered by actress Christa Lang, who is still a busy online presence, happily promoting the legacy of her late husband Samuel Fuller.
My information may be out of date about the voice of Alpha 60, for Tim cites another origin. He very helpfully points out the new transfer’s rather faulty subtitles — they frequently skip over what’s actually being said, missing references to things like ‘pointed teeth reminiscent of vampire films we once watched at the old Cinerama theaters.’ I realize that many of the joke lines in older subtitles were basically rewritten from the original French. I’ll never forget Lemmy’s line when he plugs a hated enemy, as related in an apparently inaccurate subtitle: “Let that be a lesson for all despots that take aggression as their personal hobby horse.” Or something to that effect. It was warmly received in my film school screenings.
The subs here are just ignorant, and destructive. ‘Tokyorama’ is listed as plain ‘Tokyo,’ and Angoulême City is just ‘Angoulême.’ I’ve seen the show so often that I’ve taken to watching it without subs … and instead listen to the French dialogue more closely.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, Anna Karina interview, Colin MacCabe introduction; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 18, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson