One of the interesting characteristics of many of the young men associated with La Nouvelle Vague was their affinity toward what in higher literary circles would be regarded as trashy pulp fiction. Francois Truffaut, for example, was drawn to this type of material as witness his productions of “La marièe était en noir” and “La sirène du Mississipi” both the product of novels by Cornell Woolrich, (“The Bride Wore Black” and “Waltz Into Darkness”, respectively) as well as his 1960 “Tirez sur le pianiste” which was an adaptation of the 1956 novel “Down There” by David Goodis.
Jean-Luc Godard, of course, began his feature film career in 1960 with “À bout de souffle”, a nod to the noirish influences on both literature and film (not insignificantly, the screen story is by Truffaut) and in 1965 wrote and directed “Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”, a continuation of a popular series of French detective thrillers based on the very pulp/noir influenced adventures of Lemmy Caution, a character invented by British writer Peter Cheyney, and the subject of ten different novels before Cheyney’s untimely death in 1951 at the age of 55. Caution was originally conceived as an agent of the F.B.I. (though British, Cheyney wrote Caution in the American noir idiom) until later becoming a private investigator. Caution was depicted as hard and no nonsense man of immediate and violent action, in the tradition of other American hard-boiled detective characters like Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne (that literary characterization heavily watered down in the still enjoyable series of films starring both Lloyd Nolan at Fox and Hugh Beaumont at PRC) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, though his writing style in the Caution books contained strained imitations of the characteristic lyric similes in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Caution became the basis of a popular series of French detective noirs starring expatriate American Eddie Constantine, who at the time was finding popularity as a European recording artist, and was a protege of the legendary Edith Piaf; his dour, pock-marked countenance finding a perfect home in the hard-boiled world of detective fictions where these same characteristics found relatively closed doors in finding any momentum pursuing a career in Hollywood studios.
“Alphaville, une ètrange aventure de Lemmy Caution” was the eighth Caution film to hit the screens, each starring Constantine. The character made his screen debut in 1953 with Bernard Boderie’s “La môme vert de gris” (“Poison Ivy”) and followed in rapid succession in 1953 again with Jean Sacha’s “Cet homme est dangereux” (“This Man is Dangerous”), in 1954 with Boderie’s “Les femmes s’en balancent” (“Dames Get Along”), in 1955 with Pierre Chevalier’s “Vous pigez?” (“Diamond Machine”) and three successive films directed by Boderie, 1960’s “Comment, qu’elle est!” (“Women Are Like That”), 1962’s “Lemmy pour les dames” (“Ladie’s Man”) and 1963’s “À toi de faire…mignonne” (“Your Turn, Darling”). All were typically straightforward tough guy detective stories with varying degrees of humor thrown in.
Enter La Nouvelle Vague enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard whose vision of the no nonsense tough guy Lemmy Caution was not straightforward, nor even conventionally hard-boiled, but a philosophic wanderer in trenchcoat and hat, waxing poetic while blasting his revolver and stuck in a science fiction universe of no discernible location. To say this idiosyncratic mixture was puzzling and off-putting to many is an understatement, yet there is an interesting method to this mad melange that has outward pretensions of venturing beyond merely random pastiche; an increasingly favorite convention of later filmmakers whose life experience seemed formulated and defined completely by film schools. (Joe Dante is an example of such a “director” who consistently throughout his films feels compelled to feature references to his favorite films- as if recalling trivial movie details bestows brownie points for excellence on his own paltry efforts- and pointlessly anachronistic cameos of the players who fed his childhood imagination.)
The film finds Caution as a Secret Agent (designated 003, which should indicate the ingenuity of pop culture satire in the film) entering Alphaville from the Outlands at 12:17 Oceanic time, greeted by a sign which reads: ALPHAVILLE- SILENCE LOGIC SAFETY PRUDENCE. Clearly any allusions to “1984” are blatant and intentional, as are later references to Naziism and the Cold War. Despite the film assumedly taking place in a futuristic world, the constant attributions to 20th Century experiences places the events in a possible “alternate” world. Nor are references to other galaxies reliable as Godard seems to be having a fine time developing his own vernacular, a cinematic version of the Orwellian doublespeak.
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