“Alphaville” was both a complete revelation and yet not so vaguely familiar.
This exotic product of the French new wave washed across the shores of my youthful consciousness, mingling the familiar with the new, pulp fiction, pop culture and high art, suggesting multiple ways to recombine film DNA. One of the most important examples of genre cross-pollination in modern cinema, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965) merged film-noir and science-fiction tropes long before Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” In fact, Scott acknowledges “Alphaville” in “Blade Runner,” and surely the Seductress Third Class in “Alphaville” is a forerunner of Pris, the Basic Pleasure Model.
In addition to mixing genres, Godard recruited secret agent Lemmy Caution, an existing B-movie character made famous in 1950s France by American-born expatriate actor and Paris cabaret singer Eddie Constantine. More Mike Hammer than Philip Marlowe, the trenchcoat-clad Caution was another exotic, bi-continental hybrid.
The craggy-faced Constantine, once a lover and collaborator of Edith Piaf, had been playing the character, created by British pulp novelist Peter Cheyney, in such films as “This Man Is Dangerous” since 1953. Constantine would make his final appearance as Caution in Godard’s “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” (1991).
The “Alphaville” plot also borrows liberally from George Orwell’s “1984,” pitting Caution, who infiltrates the future city of Alphaville (the film was shot in Paris) undercover as a journalist, against the evil Leonard Nosferatu aka Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon). Any resemblance to German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun is not accidental.
Godard’s evocation of German expressionism also reveals a debt to Fritz Lang’s science-fiction (and place-named) landmark “Metropolis.”
Vernon’s von Braun is the creator of the Alpha 60 sentient computer, the machine that rules Alphaville and has outlawed individualism, free thought, love, poetry and emotion. The Alpha 60, a clear forerunner of HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “speaks” with the mechanical voice of a man whose larynx has been removed.
Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in “Blade Runner,” Caution falls in love with the film’s futuristic femme fatale, von Braun’s curious and curiously robotic daughter Natacha (Anna Karina).
Instead of singing “Daisy” as its circuits are disconnected, the Alpha 60 goes nuts, along with the inhabitants, after Caution argues with it and quotes poetry to it. But not even Kubrick might have conceived of Alphaville executions accompanied by synchronized swimmers.
“Alphaville” — which preceded the publication of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — is like a fiction film version of one of Godard’s nonfiction meditations on history and the cinema. But in this case, it was a cinematic meditation upon the “history” of the future.