Secret agent and detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) has travelled through time and dimensions in space to reach the city of Alphaville, which is in the grip of a machine overlord named Alpha 60. This computer tells every one of the populace what to think, but Lemmy believes there happens to be someone behind its monolithic facade, and he is the mysterious von Braun (Howard Vernon). But how to get to this man? The sleuth has taken a room in this hotel and after negotiating with the so-called seductress assigned to him, he is attacked - seems someone knows he's here.
Of course, when you attack someone like Lemmy Caution, you get your arse handed back to you, as many of those watching this film in the sixties would have been well aware for he was a popular pulp fiction character in Europe which Constantine had portrayed in a selection of thrillers since the early fifties. The star was ideal for the role, with his granite features and brutal air, which made him all the more intriguing for being cast in the same persona for a science fiction movie made by the New Wave Auteur's New Wave Auteur, Jean-Luc Godard; naturally, this was no ordinary science fiction flick.
Godard was implementing the form to say something about the way he thought society would progress in the future, and indeed how it had become in the present, nothing new in taking a dystopian view of the genre, but Alphaville was one of the movies which led to sci-fi being taken seriously as an artform rather than something to read in paperbacks on the train or to divert children via the latest space opera or big bug epic. This also was not anything too fresh, as there had been major minds contemplating the world through this style for decades, but the appeal here was to see what an iconic filmmaker like Godard would do with it.
Many have observed that he simply reheated notions that were already hackneyed by 1965, but his use of Caution, and his acknowledgement that he was using what might be described as trash fiction to make serious points, offered up an intriguing tension onscreen. In its method, Alphaville was almost the anti-Kiss Me Deadly; where Robert Aldrich had used the Mike Hammer character to demolish and destroy intelligence while slyly sending him up for doing so, Godard used Caution as a liberator from too much ordered thinking, and even going as far as teaching one of the city's most constrained inhabitants, von Braun's daughter Natacha (Anna Karina), how to love.
What seemed revolutionary at the time may have been born out of budget necessity: setting the film of the future in the Paris of the mid-sixties and practically daring the audience not to accept that it was truly a location in another dimension. Godard did this by taking the seedy aspects of your usual low rent crime thrillers - dingy hotels, prostitutes, double crossers - and placing them in the same milieu as the modernistic buildings constructed of glass and metal that represented Alpha 60's idea of what an ordered society should be. Language and its regulation is the most obvious instance of that, with the dictionary as Bible, the words like "conscience" being erased and meanings twisted, Orwellian fashion.
There are many examples of a fascistic mindset which the unlikely figure of Caution grows to lead a revolution against (a two-person revolution, but nevertheless), such as the secret police who kidnap him for interrogations or the state executions bizarrely staged with synchronised swimmers, but the intention was less to see the audience intimidated by the hyper-controlling government and more think of human reasons to shake off its shackles. Idealistic, perhaps, and Alpha 60's voice could have been easier on the ear as it sounds like the voiceover actor has downed a two litre bottle of cola and is belching his lines accordingly which leads to accusations of a constantly threatening monotony, but a very individual take for all that. Alphaville's legacy would be more for the genre it toyed with than much else, but its genuinely alien tone, a tone it tries to discard the more it goes on, was worth experiencing. Music by Paul Misraki.