Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie Review: Alphaville (1965)

"No one has lived in the past. No one will live in the future. The present is the only form of life. It is a state of existence which is indestructible. "  
-- Alpha-60.

Alphaville (1965) is one of my favorite foreign films. It is also that rare foray into existential science fiction that actually works on the screen, and is as much of a success in that category as Solaris (1972).

Jean Luc Goddard's "thinking-man's noir", is based on the adventures of a popular secret agent/private detective created by Englishman Peter Cheyney. This version of Lemmy Caution was a great leap from the previous prose and film versions of the character; This Caution is a tired and beaten man, trying to do his duty in a city without hopes or dreams. Eddie Constantine portrayed Caution, just as he did in several other movies, but his new interpretation of the character shocked many audiences. Lemmy Caution was normally more sprightly and upbeat ... but it's hard to see anyone being happy in the city of Alphaville.

The gist of the mostly-improvised story is that Caution, posing as a journalist, is supposed to find out what happened to the last agent sent into Alphaville, and to find and stop the plans of Professor Von Braun, the creator of the sentient computer Alpha-60, which does all the thinking for everyone in the forlorn metropolis. 

Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution
Alpha-60 outlawed concepts such as love and emotion; even crying over someone's death has a penalty of summary execution. Alpha-60 has even erased words from society. Each room has a "bible", which unlike the ones provided by the Gideons, is actually a dictionary, which can be replaced several times a day as more and more words and concepts are banished to oblivion. 

The movie also looks at how the heroic can fail. Lemmy Caution seems to be on the verge at times, but his willingness to beat the computer has him holding on tightly to his principles and values. He finds his fellow agent Henry Dickson (played splendidly by Akim Tamiroff) near destitute and living only for his own baser pleasures. A conversation between the two mentions that both Dick Tracy and Guy LeClair are also dead, apparently figuratively killed by the emotionless world of Alphaville, if not by literally agents of the super computer. 

Goddard puts in several strange pop references into the film, as if to subtly hint as to what's going on. Professor Von Braun's real name is Leonard Nosferatu, an aside to the classic F.W. Murnau movie about Count Orlock the vampire. Two of his assistants in the bureaucracy of Alpha-60 are named Professors Heckle and Jeckle, after the comical Terrytoons magpies.  Von Braun is constantly denying that Nosferatu exists, and the two Professors just explain the strange goings on to Caution amid people tap-dancing on tables and clackering computer machinery. 

Anna Karina as Natasha 
Depending on how one goes into a viewing of Alphaville, the movie can seem either arcane or very cheap. Caution's Ford Mustang is called a Ford Galaxy, and he states he hopes to use it to put the "vast gulf of sidereal space" between him and Alphaville. The stark black-and-white cinematography can also lean toward the uninitiated looking at the film as a cheap production, rather than the existential work it really is; there are no fancy special effects, even of the limited kind available in science fiction films of the era. The photography gives the movie a claustrophobic feel that's necessary for understanding what's going on in the characters' minds, or at least what's left of them. 

The movie has been favorably compared to Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, and Goddard was definitely influenced by that classic, all the way to the ending admonition of Caution to Natasha to not look back at the city as they were leaving it. The real highlight of the film is the word play in the battle of wills between Caution and Alpha-60, each putting forth his own philosophy until one becomes the victor.

This is one of those movies that I naturally had to replace the VHS when it came out on DVD. The Criterion Collection DVD of Alphaville has a great transfer of the original film in French, but the subtitles are slightly different than the dubbing of my old copy, which I purchased from Sinister Cinema way back when I got my first VCR. Most of the new translations make a bit more sense than what I was used to hearing, which is a good thing, but it's a little confusing at time. Luckily, I've watched this film so many times that neither the sound nor subtitles really matter. 

The film's the thing, to paraphrase the Bard, and Alphaville is a movie that it would behoove most movie fans to give a try. It's Goddard so the film snob in you can be happy, and it's hard-boiled for the blue collar side of the equation. And it makes you think, which a good movie is supposed to do. 


By Rich Meyer

This omnibus is a compendium of all four volumes of the 99-Cent Quiz Book series. All of the original 400 questions and answers are here, on Cliffhanger Movie Serials, Television Westerns, Comic Strips, and Horror Movies

As an added feature, there are also forty (40) bonus questions about those same topics. This quiz e-book omnibus is great for several evenings of family-friendly and fact-filled fun!



No comments:

Post a Comment