The French have long sustained
a reputation for appreciating things American that the
U.S. populace by and large chooses to overlook. Jazz
is one glaring example. Only recently recognized in
its native States as an art form, it's been revered
and preserved in Europe for decades. Similarly, it is
a uniquely French breed of filmmaker, known to film
history as the New Wave, who is responsible for acknowledging
and emulating the American film noir, preserving an
American innovation at a time when Hollywood was turning
to big budget, wide-screen, Technicolor blowouts for
Riding the crest of the New Wave
was director Jean-Luc Godard, whose breakthrough film,
Breathless (1959), combined the stark artiness
of French film, with the shadowy, hard-bitten nihilism
of American film noir. The screenplay details Jean-Paul
Belmondo's ongoing devotion to, and emulation of, Humphrey
Bogart, a noir icon if ever there was one.
In 1965, Godard combined the
noir sensibilities that had long underpinned his career,
with his love of yet another American art form, the
comic strip. Godard has often acknowledged his artistic
debt to comics, and Alphaville (A Strange
Adventure of Lemmy Caution), is certainly possessed
of a comic book flavor, combining disparate elements
in a way that only the broad scope of a comic book could
world-weary private dick, had been the subject of at
least two previous films. As portrayed by French film
vet Eddie Constantine, Lemmy possesses a rumpled manhood
and a crusty dignity rooted in American crime films.
Reprising the role in Alphaville, Constantine
is now a secret agent, sent to its titular city of the
future, to assassinate its totalitarian founder, Professor
Von Braun (Howard Vernon).
while hardly model handsome, is craggily attractive
and acerbically engaging. Anna Karina as the professor's
daughter is poutily enigmatic in that French kinda way,
and intercontinental character actor Akim Tamiroff turns
in another of his deviously good-natured portrayals.
Sleek futurism and threatening
inner city shadows have no business coexisting successfully.
In Alphaville, the combination works. Strikingly
spare sets are invested with a symbolism typical of
French film at the time. Hallways lead nowhere. All
paths are labyrinthine. It's impossible to take a direct
course to any conclusion.
A science-based, dystopic future
is certainly not a novel twist, nor was it at the time
of Alphaville's release. The film's novelty lies
in Godard's ability to sequester essentially American
ingredients, and turn them into something uniquely French:
A New Wave, sci fi, film noir comic book.
Godard was not alone in his devotion
to the cultural spirit of the American scene. We therefore
re-examine the following French nods to noir:
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Louis Malle's debut as director is imbued
with a shadowy sensibility. Chronicling a young couple's
foiled murder scheme, suspense builds admirably in a
James M. Cainish scenario, enhanced by an alluring Miles
Perhaps more horror than noir, what does
it matter? This one's a ripping good caper that's as
atmospheric as it is entertaining. Henri-Georges Clouzot
directs with aplomb this white-knuckle mystery that
truly isn't over 'til it's over. Forget the remake.