*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 23 – Alphaville


23: ALPHAVILLE: 1965. Director: Jean-Luc Godard. France. New Wave science fiction fantasy. Additional title: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (French with sub-titles). Eddie Constantine. Anna Karina. Howard Vernon. Alim Tamiroff. Laszlo Szabo.
Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard, apparently in part inspired by Paul Éluard’s Capital of Pain (La Capitale de la douleur, 1926); producer André Michelin, music by Paul Misraki, photography (in black and white) by Raoul Coutard. Screen time: 99 minutes. Budget was estimated to be $220,000. Box office takings unknown.
Typically there were numerous influences – from obvious ones like the Paul Éluard book of poems (surrealist poet, 1895-1952); to George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four; to Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950); French, right-wing writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline; classic 1940s film noir; Argentine poet/short story writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986); to the Dr Mabuse movies. In fact, having presumably conceived the basic idea, Godard barely had a script, often improvising as usual. The story goes that, hoping to get German financial backing, assistant director Charles Bitsch mocked up a draft script, which Godard agreed to, without even looking at it. In fact, it never got used, and later the Germans demanded their money back!
Alphaville is, in a way, another James Bond spoof, but with a clever French twist – Jean-Luc Godard gets aged Eddie Constantine to reappraise his private detective Lemmy Caution persona in a dark film noir-cum-science fiction setting, actually filmed almost entirely without props or special effects, using existing locations in night-time Paris – the Hotel Scribe, and the Electricity Board Building – the latter an example of concrete and glass modernist architecture, comparative new – and hence ‘futuristic’ at the time.
Lemmy Caution was a fictional FBI agent-cum-private investigator created by novelist Peter Cheyney (1896-1951), in ten books from 1936 to 1945. There followed fifteen French-made movies from 1952 to 1991, in which American-born actor and singer Eddie Constantine (1917-1993) played the leading role, eventually becoming completely associated with the character. Born Israel Constantine, in L.A. of a Jewish Russian father and Polish mother, Eddie spent most of his career in Europe – France, then Germany. His filmography was from 1953 to 1993. In 1956 he helped Edith Piaf translate her songs into English. His screen version of Lemmy Caution was a “suave-talking, seductive, smooth guy” and he “turned his accent and perceived American cockiness to his advantage”. He was “James Bond before James Bond.” Godard, however, had him as a world-weary, rather gloomy character, insisting he not use make-up. Effectively this finished Constantine’s career playing Lemmy, although he did play a mafia boss in the British movie The Long Good Friday (1980, with Bob Hoskins). Later, following his third marriage, he relocated to Germany, and Godard got him to play Lemmy one last time, in the movie Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991), set in Berlin, following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
British Time Out magazine, which can sometimes be rather sniffy about science fiction movies, actually did a good summing up: “One of Godard’s most sheerly enjoyable movies, a dazzling amalgam of film noir and science fiction in which tough gumshoe Lemmy Caution turns inter-galactic agent to re-enact the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in conquering Alpha 60, the strange automated city from which such concepts as love and tenderness have been banished. As in Antonioni’s The Red Desert (made the previous year) Godard’s theme is alienation in a technological society, but his shotgun marriage between the poetry of legend and the irreverence of strip-cartoons takes the film into entirely idiosyncratic areas. Not the least astonishing is the way Raoul Coutard’s camera turns contemporary Paris into an icily dehumanised city of the future.”
Novelist and critic Kim Newman, in 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die, goes into more detail: “In the future, secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) cruises into Alphaville, which is either a city or a planet, in his Ford Galaxie, which is either a car or a spaceship. His mission is to find and perhaps liquidate the missing Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon). First, Caution runs into Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), an agent who has gone native, and then the mad scientist’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina), who has never heard the words ‘love’ or ‘conscience’. Alphaville is run by a croaking super-computer that has made honest emotion a capital crime, insisting on mass executions carried out in an eerie swimming pool. He-man hero Caution naturally sets out to destroy the computer (by feeding it poetry), and incidentally woos the fragile Natacha, awakening her dormant emotions. Jean-Luc Godard, powerhouse of the French nouvelle vague, set out to create a science-fiction film without expensive sets or special effects. Shooting in cleverly-selected Paris locations, he discovers the seeds of a totalitarian future in contemporary hotel lobbies, neon signage, office buildings, and bureaucratic waiting rooms. Alphaville’s relationship with science fiction was initially parodic, as is Godard’s affectionate borrowing of trench coat characters and gun-pulling poses from hard-boiled Franco-American pulp (Constantine had previously played author Peter Cheyney’s Mike Hammer-ish sleuth Lemmy Caution in a run of thick-ear thrillers). However, considered as a product of the times – when Philip K. Dick was exploring similar themes in ever-more-ambitious novels – Alphaville now looks a lot like proper sci-fi, to the extent of influencing a run of adaptions (from François Truffaut’s take on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Ridley Scott’s Dick-derived Blade Runner). Like many Godards, Alphaville deliberately runs out of plot after an hour and has two characters sit in a hotel room arguing for minutes. As in Breathless and Contempt, this free-ranging conversation, with Caution shaking Natacha out of zombiehood, ought to be a dead spot but is actually a highlight, confirming Godard as almost equal to Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the cinema of conversation, the film shows a wry humour and a poetic seriousness (sometimes silliness), and is a rare futuristic vision that simply does not date.”
Idiosyncratic as this review is in places, it does hit on what sets Alphaville apart as a sci-fi movie. Comparatively unknown (perhaps even now) to mainstream British or American cinema audiences, it is ‘typically’ French in its inclusion of poetry, flowery dialogue, highbrow philosophies and literary references, yet its images remain strangely memorable. By comparison to today’s sci-fi movies (or movies in general) Godard made his on a shoestring – not for him studio mock-ups or massive set-pieces, elaborate models of futuristic cities, or CGI. Instead, he improvised with lighting, editing, clever photography – and it still worked! His soulless, future city is as real and believable – more so – than Ridley Scott’s 21st century L.A. in Blade Runner or Batman’s Gotham City. At the same time is the playful humour – secret agent Lemmy Caution is 003 of ‘The Outside’. His car is a ‘Ford Galaxie’ (said with a French accent.) He poses as a journalist, Ivan Johnson, of Figaro-Pravda. The computer is called Alpha 60. It’s creator is Professor Von Braun (after the German V2 rocket scientist), but also known as Leonard Nosferatu – after the 1920s vampire movie. Henri Dickson succumbs to a ‘First Seductress Third Class’. Brainwashed Alphaville agents are sent out to other ‘galaxies’ to ferment “strikes, revolutions, family rows, student revolts”. Godard’s original working title apparently was Tarzan versus IBM.
Anna Karin (1940-2019, born Hanne Karin Bayer) was a Danish-German avant garde actress, also director, writer and singer, and Godard’s 1960s muse. As well as Alphaville (perhaps her best known film outside of France), she appeared in his movies The Little Soldier, A Woman is a Woman, My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders, and Crazy Pete. In 2008 she directed the French-Canadian movie Victoria. She and Godard were married from 1961 to 1965. Off-screen the marriage was tumultuous, fighting and arguing in public, him going off and disappearing for days at a time. She married three more times, finally to Dennis Berry in 1982, She was regarded as a style icon in the 1960s. Her filmography was from 1961 to 2008.
Beyond any influence on cinema, “Alphaville” was the name of a track on Brian Ferry’s 2011 album Olympia, issued as a single 2011. Other music tributes include William Parker’s Double Quartet 2007 album Alphaville Suite; Kelly Osbourne’s 2005 One Word; the cover of Robert Palmer’s 1972 album Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley; and the German synth-pop band Alphaville (from 1982), also known as Forever Young. One of their albums was titled Afternoon in Utopia (1984). Danish director Christoffer Boe founded Alphaville Pictures in 2003. A suburb of Sao Paulo, in Brazil is named Alphaville. It was also mentioned early in Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel Satanic Verses, as well as in a 1967 Star Trek episode.
My comments from 31/07/1989:
Alphaville (1965) from Jean Luc Godard, is a science fiction thriller, stylish, obscure, surrealistic and spoofy. There are elements of American film noir (secret agents or Philip Marlow-like detective), sci-fi pulp magazines, references to Dick Tracy, the anti-utopias of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, or Brave New World, or We (with the governing super-computer ‘Alpha 60’ and the robot people…) I’m reminded too of the French comic strip artist Bilal – an Englishman would have probably made it either more comic or more visually fantastic (Brazil is a good example), whereas Godard very cleverly used buildings and locations in contemporary Paris, selectively intersected with symbols, neon lights, other images to create a futuristic impression of glass lifts, hotel corridors, glimmering stylish glass receptions, freeways, computer control rooms. The Russian Tarkovsky achieved the same in Solaris with his photography of Tokyo, but Godard uses Paris as a continuous set with few studio-created extras. A ragged Eddie Constantine (secret agent Lemmy Caution) arrives in Alphaville from the ‘Lands Without’ supposedly as a reporter for Figaro-Pravda, but really to hunt down Professor Leonard Nosferatu, alias Von Braun (two excellent joke names) who seemingly controls Alphaville with the computer. Art, poetry, love, feelings, even basic questions are unknown here, words are wiped out (a new edition of the ‘Bible’, really a dictionary – like the Newspeak Edition number 11 in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four). Dissidents are either used by Alpha 60 or shot in swimming pools or electrocuted watching a film. “I’m very well. Thank you. You’re welcome,” is the catch-line, the standard introductory comment, replacing hello or goodbye.
Anna Karina plays Natasha, the pretty robot-like daughter of ‘Van Braun’. Godard uses broken cuts and the repetitive theme cord of music as in A Bout de Souffle very effectively and he cleverly evokes a futuristic city without the dire models or special effects or studio props used by British or American film makers. The photographer is Raoul Coutard, and it’s in black and white, which again sets the image (colour would tarnish or normalise) also I think it has a film noir feel, although much of it is filmed at night to conceal any sense of familiarity.
Although the comic-strip spoof humour is funny, it does distract and perhaps undermine the seriousness of the theme – freedom of the individual vs. the human ant-like society controlled by scientists in white coats and emotionless omnipresent super-computers. Rather like Belmondo’s overdramatic spoof-like death scene in A Bout de Souffle, which spoils an otherwise clever, fresh and entertaining film, so the comic-strip element and the James Bond-like ending (agent Caution kills Nosferatu, the robot people collapse as the computer goes crazy, agent escapes with girl out of the city) rather ruins what could have been a first-rate film. Played straight, without losing the humour of the illogical ‘normality’ of Alphaville’s ethics – the ritual greeting, the “seductress third class” hotel hostesses, the indoctrination lessons and the omnipresent Alpha 60 (its rasping artificial-sounding mechanical voice in the police headquarters corridor counting the closed doors – “occupied, occupied, free, occupied…”) Still as a thriller, but with the ending being more ambiguous, Alphaville perhaps still a threat to the ‘Lands Without’, I think might have made it a stronger, more thought-provoking story, rather than the childish ‘good defeats evil’ Batman-like with a few socks to the jaw and some well-aimed bullets. The images and Alphaville itself is brilliant, dialogue has depth still better than many American films of the period, so it’s a shame the story couldn’t have been more subtle, perhaps more worthy of the visual effects.
Further comments made: 04/08/1989
Postscript to Godard’s Alphaville…Eddie Constantine was an American bit-part actor who fetched up in Paris and who starred in several “Lemmy Caution” films – Caution being not a Godard creation, but a detective by a British writer. Godard used this character as his ‘hero’ is even more of a spoof. Another source Godard plundered was Ian Fleming. Secret Agent Caution is ‘Zero Zero Three’ of the Lands Without. Another book on science fiction films (from which I got the Constantine bio) also quotes Cocteau’s Orpheus – the “Don’t look back” in the escaping car, but I personally think the Bible is a more immediate influence there – they are escaping the doomed city after all. Anna Karina was, it seems, Madame Godard at the time – hence her regular appearance in his films.
Eddie Constantine had what could only be called a ‘lived-in’ face as he got older, yet still apparently romancing beautiful, younger women in his movies. I rather thought he looked a bit like former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, another smooth rake!

2 thoughts on “*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 23 – Alphaville

  1. Godard doesn’t count as one of my favorite directors, because I look at a director’s entire oeuvre and I mostly like his nouvelle vague period, from À bout de souffle through Weekend. Of those, Alphaville is my clear favorite, being my all-time favorite science fiction movie and among my all-time top 10 movies. I developed a massive crush on Anna Karina from it. I did manage to see, and loved, Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro at the Museum of Modern Art, but I have never found it on DVD, unlike the films from his nouvelle vague period. Thanks for the fascinating and informative essay!

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