Monday, 1 June 2009

Alphaville (1965)


Country: France /Italy
Director:
Jean-Luc Goddard
Starring: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff, Howard Vernon
Music: Paul Misraki

A Strange Case Of Lemmy Caution
“You wouldn’ know me, wouldya? You never heard of me, didya? My name’s Caution – Lemmy Caution – an’ you never heard a G-man with that moniker, didya? You cheap, lousy, double-crossin’, two-timin’ heel. I suppose you got out of New York because of that McConnigle bump-off, hey? An’ who sent you? Who gave you the dough to break outa there with? Come on, spill it, before I sorta get annoyed, an’ bust you in the pan."

I sit down an’ light a cigarette. I look at the punk through the flame of the lighter. The boy has got his nerve back. He is rememberin’ that this is England.

“Hey…hey…” he says. “Well, now, if it ain’t the little fly-cop, Lemmy Caution.”
He takes off his fedora an’ makes a big bow. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “allow me to present to you the big ace G-man, Mr. Lemmy Caution, the guy with the big Federal badge an’ a face like the rear end of a milk delivery truck…”
From the novel ‘G-MAN AT THE YARD’ by Peter Cheyney

I copied the above passage to introduce you to the character of Lemmy Caution. Actor Eddie Constantine almost made a career out of playing Caution or characters that were so similar that they could be Caution by everything but name. Now having said all that, and given you a passage from one of Cheyney’s Caution novels, I am going to ask you to throw that all out the window. Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville is no ordinary Lemmy Caution adventure. In fact, there is nothing ‘ordinary’ about Alphaville at all. It is one of the most unusual films you will come across.

I can tell you why Alphaville is a spy film – it’s simple – Lemmy Caution is Secret Agent 003 and he’s on a mission to liquidate Professor Vonbraum, who has built a sentient computer called Alpha 60. As simple as that sounds, Alphaville doesn’t play out in the usual way. It is possibly one of the least conventional films of all time.

Despite the espionage trappings, the story is twisted into a dystopian science fiction story – albeit with no special effects. And even though it is science fiction, if you stripped away the dialogue, you could be watching an American detective thriller from the 1940s. There are other nods to the past too – with characters called Dick Tracy, Heckel & Jeckel, and Nosferatu. So the film is a spy film, with a hint of science fiction, wrapped up in a style that is a love letter to the pulp stories of the past. But this is only the tip of the iceberg; but first let’s look at a bit of the plot, so I can put some of the other themes into context.

The film starts off in a fairly straight forward manner. Lemmy Caution arrives in the city of Alphaville in his battered Ford Galaxy automobile. Now Alphaville is a police state ruled over by a supercomputer called Alpha 60. Alpha 60’s law is logic. The inhabitants of Alphaville must live in a logical fashion – for example, later in the film a man is sentenced to death because he cried when his wife died. Crying is not logical, so he is sentenced to die. Alpha 60 has also outlawed love and poetry. So the people of Alphaville are a rather cold lot. They lack emotion.

Caution makes his way to a hotel and checks in. As he unpacks, he goes over two photographs of the parties involved in his current assignment. The first is Professor Vonbraun (Howard Vernon), a renegade scientist who created Alpha 60. Caution’s instructions are to acquire or liquidate Vonbraun. He also has to destroy Alpha 60, which will in turn free the people of Alphaville. The other photo is of Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff). He was Caution’s predecessor. Also an agent, he was sent to Alphaville to kill Vonbraum, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts.

Posing as a newspaper reporter for Figaro-Pravda (not a real newspaper but a conjunction of the French Figaro and Russia Pravda newspapers), Caution seeks an interview with Vonbraun, and to assist with the process, he is given a guide to show him around the city, and take him to Vonbraum. The guide is Natasha Vonbraun (Anna Karina), the Professor’s estranged daughter. Now I don’t know is estranged is the right word, because at one point she claims she has never met her father, yet it seems like she works with him every day. As Caution and Natasha work together they slowly fall in love – or rather, Caution falls in love with her – but because love has been outlawed in Alphaville, she does not reciprocate the emotion.

Of the many themes contained in Alphaville, the one that seems most prescient today, are the prophetic allusions to the New World Order. In Alphaville, the citizens are numerically coded and their thoughts and emotions are dictated by Alpha 60. Of course, Goddard was mostly making comparisons with Nazi Germany and the tattooing of identity numbers onto concentration camp prisoners. But it applies equally today, where we see the world be carved up into trading blocks and (justified by terrorism) our movements are being heavily monitored. As a global community, we are moving towards life in a fascist society. Extremists believe that it won’t be long before we are all barcoded and microchipped. Data is being recorded and centralized, and the technology exists for mood control. So how far away are we from being controlled by a computer that is similar to Alpha 60?

It doesn’t matter how many words I use, I will never be able to accurately describe Alphaville because it is such a visual experience. Don’t get me wrong – this film does not feature any futuristic grand sets or sweeping stylish camerawork. In fact most of the camerawork is rather nailed down. Often scenes are simply front on shots of the characters heads. The visual impact comes from the little embellishments throughout the film. As an example, as Caution talks to Dickson in a stairway, he pushes the hanging lightglobe so it swings like a pendulum – or a hypnotists watch. Then there is the constant intercutting of traffic lights and direction signs, symbolizing the structured police state that Alphaville has become. You have no choice; you must follow the directions as presented to you! Towards the end of the film, as the violence increases, the film is displayed in random fragments of negative image (that is: black is white and white is black). It may seem like an error, but it reflects Alpha 60’s imminent loss of control.

Alphaville is an amazing film, but in all honesty, it is not the type of film that will appeal to everybody. The structure and the narrative are confusing at times. In places the film veers off into spoken word surrealist poetry that cripples the story’s pacing and although it provides a framework for one of the films other major themes - ‘All you need is love’, - which, until the end, when it all makes sense, seems like an awful, jumbled plot contrivance.

For the jaded spy film fan Alphaville may just be the tonic that you need. It's something very different but still presents it's story within the boundaries of an espionage film But if you don't like it, well don't blame me!