The brilliantly-named Lemmy Caution (American B-movie actor Eddie Constantine) is the quintessence of all the American tough guy private eyes you’ve ever seen in the movies—he’s got the trench coat, the fedora, the craggy features, the vocal fry, the snappy repartee—and of course, a taste for brawling and a Colt semi-automatic in his pocket. Lemmy is the central character in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a 1965 science fiction film without futuristic sets or fantastic gadgets, in which the future looks like a cross between an American film noir and some of the more modern but otherwise completely ordinary sections of Paris.
Caution is a secret agent traveling under the pseudonym “Ivan Johnson;” his cover is that he’s a journalist working for Figaro-Pravda, an occupation presumably chosen to give him a cover story in case any asked why he was constantly photographing everything (although why he uses a plastic consumer camera with a tiny flashbulb might be harder to explain). And if the name of that paper sounds a bit suspect to you, you’re not the only one—I think Godard is having a bit of a laugh, as he seems to be doing throughout much of this film, as if to say that he understands that filmmaking is a game and if everything in this film is just too much of whatever it is, that’s totally deliberate on his part.
The science fiction aspect of Alphaville comes in more in the concept than in the film’s visuals: Alphaville is a town controlled by a computer, the Alpha 60 (and yes, Rod Serling did recycle that idea a few times in The Twilight Zone). The computer was created by a professor with the on-the-nose name of von Braun (Howard Vernon), and it’s quite the dictator, having banned both free speech and the expression of emotion (much too individualist, don’t you know). In a concept that seems lifted from George Orwell’s 1984, dictionaries are even regularly revised to remove words that might invoke emotion, and neon lights flash scientific formulas at everyone as if they were advertising peep shows.
Caution’s job is to find Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), a fellow secret agent who has gotten way too comfortable drowning his sorrows (so it seems the pleasures of booze, at least, have not been banned in Alphaville; sex is also available, although presumably not love). He’s also planning to hunt down von Braun, and for that mission he enjoys the assistance of von Braun’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina).
The French subtitle of Alphaville, “une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution” (“a strange adventure of Lemmy Caution”) offers a good clue that this is a film to be viewed with at least one arched eyebrow. So do various indications within the film, including the habit of some characters to directly address the camera, and some film processing tricks that are pure amateur hour. Godard’s fellow directors either saw the joke not at all, or only too well, because Constantine, who had played the character Lemmy Caution in a number of French films before this one, never got another offer to play the role.
Above all, Alphaville looks amazing. That’s largely due to the work of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who had a real feel for night shots, production designer Pierre Guffroy, who comes up with all kinds of telling props to express the strangeness of Alphaville society, and whoever scouted the locations for this film (if you like 1960s architecture and interiors, this is definitely the film for you). The script, by Godard, draws on a variety of influences, perhaps most remarkably the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, while the soundtrack by Paul Misraki heightens both the noir atmosphere (with regular interruptions by electronic beeps, to remind us that it’s also futuristic) and the absurdity of it all. | Sarah Boslaugh
Alphaville is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, an introduction by film scholar Colin McCabe (5 min.), an interview with Anna Karina (4 min.), and the trailers for 5 films.