Alphaville (1965): Godard’s Noir Transformation” by Tony Williams

In the hybrid-noir Alphaville, fantasy, pulp fiction, and other influences all merge in Godard’s challenging process.

Daphne du Maurier’s anonymous narrator opens Rebecca (1938) with the line, “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again”. By contrast, I often fantasize about strapping up certain students in an auditorium and forcing them to watch Godard’s Dziga Vertov films as well as others like Nouvelle Vague (1990) evoking Kubrick’s Ludovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange (1972) to eliminate superhero movies from their minds and get them to watch a different type of cinema. Yet Howard Vernon Dr. Orloff fantasies aside, one major regret concerning the current emphasis on genres, rather than directors, is the loss of focus on the role of a director transforming an original text or generic formula into a unique type of different conception. The authorship of a John Ford or Stanley Kubrick in doing this forms an important part of this activity and if one can understand Andre Bazin’s caution concerning the isolation of auteur from genre, the same is true for elevating genre above authorship. Seen in isolation from the rest of Kubrick’s work, The Shining (1980) tends to be misunderstood as a “crazy Jack” movie to be scorned at by audiences unaware of key issues recognized by critics such as Thomas Allan Nelson in his study Kubrick: Though a Film Artist’s Maze.

I often fantasize about strapping up certain students
in an auditorium and forcing them to watch Godard’s
Dziga Vertov films as well as others like Nouvelle Vague
(1990) evoking Kubrick’s Ludovico treatment in A
Clockwork Orange

If the Leavises once hoped for an educated public to co-exist alongside the university as a center of civilization, that ideal is now lost especially when institutions of higher education have now deteriorated into corporate tools designed to extinguish any form of creative imagination and discovery with the hideous imposition of metric and rubric forms of evaluation. The world outside is, and always has been, important. The role of DVD companies such as Kino Lorber, Flicker Alley, and others has now emerged to develop that educated public by re-releasing films that were once important and now regarded as challenging a type of student audience only there for the grade in academia. Yet their predecessors once revered these films either inside the classroom or outside in film societies that have long become sadly extinct.

The noir-science fiction hybrid Alphaville is one of those films. It belongs to the middle period of a very challenging director whose constant aim has always been to challenge his audience by dialectically merging texts and cinema using elements of popular culture in new and provoking ways. Kino Lorber’s 2019 re-issue provides another important highway not only to appreciating a classic of yesteryear but also into stimulating audiences to think actively and not consume passively – a goal that has always been at the heart of Godard’s work in all its varied phases.

The beautifully restored 4k edition from Kino contains both the French subtitled and English dubbed versions of the film, brief introduction by former 70s Screen guru Colin McCabe, personal reminiscences in English by Anna Karina and informative audio-commentary by Tim Lucas. McCabe’s contributions are brief mentioning particularly the role of Paul Eluard’s The Capitol of Pain also cited in the film as well as the possible influence of the grubby world of Len Deighton upon the revised character of Lemmy Caution according to the Cinematic Gospel of Jean-Luc Godard. Karina’s memories are more personal noting the role of cinematographer Raoul Coutard and Godard’s influences by films he saw in London prior to shooting. Alphaville is a beautifully lit but challenging film, so compelling to the senses and intellect that at one point I forgot to return to the audio-commentary I’d been listening to due to captivation by one particular scene.

Already celebrated as the editor of Video Watchdog and now well-known as a prolific audio-commentator, Tim Lucas again reveals his credentials as a dedicated, self-educated film scholar sharing his extensive knowledge with viewers who may not know the background behind the making of this film nor relevant back stories concerning each particular participant. His version of the colloquial phrase “Never a Dull Moment” is “Never a wasted pause” on the commentary track where everything relevant becomes available to the listener who has the opportunity of following up the information given like those following up footnotes in a book. It is on this level that commentaries by Lucas and others provide viewers with the opportunity to explore further, developing their own interpretations, and engaging in a critical version of Roland Barthes “The Pleasure of the Text”. In this manner, the new DVD audio-commentary represents a new technological development of a critical process begun by literature by taking the process into a new dimension very similar to the very different re-workings of genre by William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Michael Moorcock. Godard had already begin this with cinema in his own challenging manner, a direction he continues to pursue today in differing degrees. It far exceeds the clumsy efforts of Blake Edwards on the DVD audio-commentary to Days of Wine and Roses (1962) where he struggles to say anything of significance, while lapsing back into reminiscences and his days as a recovering alcoholic. The potential exists for progressive developments of a more critical nature; Kino-Lorber is one company that recognizes this.

The last survivor, played by Akim Tamiroff (1899-1972),
portrays him very much like his “Man of Sorrows” in
Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962), a film commentator
Tim Lucas notes as being influential on Alphaville.

Lucas describes Alphaville as Godard’s “best known, most atypical film”. He traces the background of Eddie Constantine’s earlier Lemmy Caution films that originated from British writer Peter Cheyney (1896-1951) who, like James Hadley Chase (1906-1985) with No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), had no first-hand experience of America but constructed their novels second-hand before they transformed into many European film adaptations. Already, Godard’s fascination with the formal properties of collage in his early films had roots in the mixed origins of the works that were often adapted. Thus, he developed his own form of progressive, intellectually challenging mixture in his pre-Dziga Vertov films.

Unlike the cinematic real-life environment of the preceding Caution films, the character now travels through galactic space to arrive in a urban noirscape of the future that is present-day Paris. Particular emphasis appears upon the new technological buildings that resemble J.G. Ballard’s version of a “Brave New World” set in the present. (Did Godard know Ballard’s work at this time?) At any rate, Caution knows his missing predecessors such as Dick Tracey, Flash Gordon, and Henry (Harry) Dickson who preceded him on this quest. The last survivor played by Akim Tamiroff (1899-1972), portrays him very much like his “Man of Sorrows” in Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962), a film Lucas notes as being influential on Alphaville.   

Fantasy, pulp fiction, and other influences all merge in a challenging process designed to subvert viewer familiarity with the known but mixing the elements in different directions. As Larry Cohen once said, “every film needs a good villain” and Godard finds him in Howard Vernon (1914-1996), an actor well known for his prolific appearances in serious and non-serious films especially those associated with Jess Franco in his “Dr. Orloff” and Dracula roles. Thus Vernon, whose first scene in Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer (1947) already represents him as a vampire though he does not play a villain in this film, becomes Alphaville’s menacing Dr. Von Braun (aka Professor Leonard Nosferatu). From his detailed research, Lucas contributes to his version of “The Pleasure of the Audio-Commentary” by noting that two other actors would appear later in the vampire films of Jean Rollin (1938-2010). Possibly, Godard may have known of the vampire nature of the Martian invaders in War of the Worlds (1898), as well as the possible influence of the constantly rewritten Alphaville Dictionary designed to remove any word having emotional associations reminiscent of” Newspeak” but it is among many unmentioned associations that Lucas stimulates his listeners to follow by implication.

Alert to cinematography and camera movement, Lucas notes that the first long tracking movement along the hotel corridor, where the camera precedes Caution and the first Seductress Third Class, runs two seconds shorter than that famous opening camera movement in Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). He also cites email correspondence with Christa Lang (Fuller) who plays Carter’s “femme fatale” in the hotel room where failed agents are left to die or encouraged to commit suicide. One wonders whether the fatal Victory Square café in Orwell’s 1984 may also have been an influence here. Yet, Lucas supplies an ingenious reason for the use of negative film at the end of Alphaville, citing Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as a plausible influence.

Other influences are also possible, such as the work of William Burroughs that conflates genre as in Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine with the blurring of genres, especially the detective motif in The Interzone. These works appeared in French by Olympia Press well before English translation. Alphaville may also have influenced the early work of David Cronenberg, such as Crimes of the Future (1970) and Stereo (1969). These are challenging references, yet Lucas engages in an ingenious form of interpretation at the end when he explains one possible reason for no close-up of Constantine at the end, beyond the possibility of Godard running out of money. In Alphaville’s world of technologically imposed emotional repression, Natasha’s recovery is central to the film’s positive resolution. Here Lucas notes the climactic redundancy of the hero that occurs in the classical Hollywood films Godard once loved. I’d recommend viewers listen to Lucas’s interpretation here, since he appears to be moving towards becoming a very accomplished audio-visual critic in addition to a meticulous film historian. Following his ingenious suggestion, I would also suggest that maybe Godard had (unconsciously) in his mind the final shot of The Searchers (1956). Lucas notes that the earlier alternation of close-ups between Constantine and Karina, contrasting light with dark, may be a metaphorical cinematic trope for love scenes between them.

Kino’s is a very accomplished DVD release; it’s the type of work Criterion once did regularly. Fortunately, Kino Lorber will now fill in the gap, allowing Alphaville to stand as a hybrid-noir masterwork.

Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International. The co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-noir (with Esther C.M. Yau), he has contributed to the Film Noir Reader series (Limelight). Read him on David Goodis here.

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