Alphaville (1965): Godard’s Stunning Sci-Fi, Starring the Great Eddie Constantine

Jean-Luc Godard’s first and only sci-fi Alphaville, is a poetic, visually stunning film tat blends the conventions of a futuristic tale, detective-film noir, social satire, and political allegory.

The french title is “Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution” (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution).

One of Godard’s most technically polished and brilliant features, Alphaville benefits immensely from the stylized black-and-white cinematography of the genius lenser Raoul Coutard, sharp and poignant editing by Agnes Guillemot, and moody score by Paul Mizraki.
Remarkably, there are no futuristic sets, but rather on locations shooting in Paris, with its nocturnal atmosphere and modernist glass and concrete buildings, which were a novelty then, serving as interiors.   While the film is set in the future, the characters refer to twentieth-century events–the hero describes himself as a Guadalcanal veteran.
The great French star Eddie Constantine plays the mysterious secret agent Lemmy Caution. The casting of Eddie Constantine is terrific, as by that time, he had established the character of the hard-boiled dick Lemmy Caution in a series of French movies based on Peter Cheyney’s novels.
The character was originally created by British pulp novelist Cheyney, but Godard moves Caution away from his twentieth-century setting, instead placing him in the technocratic dictatorship of Alphaville.
Constantine, much like his American counterpart Bogart, sports a trench coat, fedora, and craggy face, with cigarette in his mouth
A man with a mission, Lemmy goes to Alphaville in search of his predecessor Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff) and Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), the inventor of a death ray.
The tale begins with a typically Godardian voice-over narration that reflects his grim philosophy: “Sometimes reality is too complex for regular oral communication.”
Pretending to be a reporter, Lemmy discovers that Alphaville is a cold and loveless automated society that’s run by a computer invented by Von Braun called Alpha 60.
While there, he meets and becomes intrigued by Von Braun’s daughter Natasha (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time).   He then finds Dickson at a hotel where dissidents are kept until they commit suicide. After seeing Dickson die, Natasha takes Lemmy to see her father. Von Braun’s guards capture Lemmy and he’s interrogated by Alpha 60, then given a tour of the computer’s control center. There he learns that Von Braun intends to declare war on the Outlands.
A riveting satire, “Alphaville” depicts an alienated society, which has been robbed of feelings and emotions by “rational thinking, science, and technology. Significantly, the original title of the film was “Tarzan Versus IBM,” featuring a theme that will also dominate Godard’s next film, “Pierrot le Fou” (1965).
The first half of the film is particularly inventive in establishing the inventive set-up for the tale. But like other Godard’s works, the feature gets progressively ideological and even didactic, with speeches about how the new electronic society inevitably would become a total emotional wasteland.
“Alphaville” was made during one of the most creative phases in Godard’s long, fruitful career, released after “Contempt” (“Le Mepris”) in 1963 and “Band of Outsiders” (1964), and preceding one of his masterpieces, “Masculine/Feminine” (1966).
Considering the film’s modest budget, the visual and sound effects are glorious.

Intertextuality:

As usual with Godard’s features, Alphaville is replete with references to other   literay and cinematic influences, both Gallic and American. The French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline is directly referenced by Caution in the taxi, when he says “I am on a Journey to the End of the Night” (Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932).

The narrator’s disembodied voice in Alphaville recalls to that of “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The narrator Alpha 60, voiced by a man with a mechanical voice box replacing his cancer-damaged larynx, may have been inspired by Mabuse’s disembodied voice in the 1933 film “The Testament of Dr Mabuse.”

There are also parallels between Alphaville and Cocteau’s 1950 film Orpheus, as in Orphée’s search for Cégeste and Caution’s for Henri Dickson.

Cultural Status:
The film won the Golden Bear award of the 1965 Berlin Film Fest.
Credits
Produced by Andre Michelin
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

Running time: 99 Minutes