It is the best of times for viewing Jean-Luc Godard’s back catalog. Criterion’s industry-standard deluxe DVDs have made the director’s seminal films from the 1960s easier than ever — as well as more pleasant — to watch at home. More importantly, for those of us who still prefer to see movies in movie theaters, arthouse distributor Rialto continues to churn out impeccable 35mm versions of those very same classics — the latest of which is a gorgeous CinemaScope print of the little-seen Made in U.S.A. (1966).
Still, Godard is one of those unfortunate artists who has not been well served by his fan base, and if you have the impression that Made in U.S.A. (or Alphaville, Week-end, or Tout Va Bien) has more in common with an undergraduate critical theory seminar than with the MGM musicals and pulp detective stories that were Godard’s inspiration, you are not alone. With forty years worth of philosophers, hagiographers, fashion designers and video-store fanboys (thanks a lot, Quentin Tarantino) guarding these pictures as their own, it no longer feels possible to recognize what was so joyous, liberating, and fresh about these movies in the first place — what was so damned new and fun. In other words, it is the worst of times for viewing Godard’s back catalog.
Thankfully, the belated theatrical release of Made in U.S.A. may help to rectify this impasse. Other than a single 1967 appearance at the New York Film Festival, the movie was never shown here because Godard hadn’t cleared the rights to his source novel, The Jugger, and author Donald E. Westlake (who died last week) successfully sued to prevent stateside distribution. Made on the cheap — and shot simultaneously with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) — Godard conceived Made in U.S.A. as a quickie lark. The point was to help producer Georges de Beauregard raise some fast cash while also throwing some work at ex-wife Anna Karina, about whom Godard — at the time enthralled with his 2 or 3 Things star, Marina Vlady — was likely feeling guilty.
The result is Godard’s most straightforward genre picture ever — although, of the many cinematic variations on Westlake’s infamous Parker character (Lee Marvin’s assassin in Point Blank is another), Karina’s Paula Nelson may be the most perverse. Investigating the death of a former lover in an Atlantic City that is pretty obviously Paris, Nelson brandishes her trenchcoat-and-gun combo with all the swagger of a genuine hardboiled gumshoe. Godard doesn’t emphasize the gender inversion, but in a memorable tracking shot midway through, he does depict Paula walking into an all-female gymnasium, where she is sized up as if she had entered a dive bar on the wrong end of town. Appropriately, Karina’s cool performance in Made in U.S.A. is unlike any of her other collaborations with Godard — grave yet playful, shedding the heavy introspection of A Woman Is a Woman (1961) and Vivre sa vie (1962).
The real star of Made in U.S.A., however, is Godard’s unusually delicate sound design. In his concurrent project, 2 or 3 Things, Godard was, for the first time, putting his own didactic voice at the center. But in Made in U.S.A. he frequently opts for silence, or else expresses himself through music (Beethoven, Schumann, and, in a cameo appearance, Marianne Faithful). Like the recurring motif of planes flying overhead, these simple notes give Made in U.S.A. an unexpected grace. There are better Godard films than Made in U.S.A., and more accessible ones, but none quite so buoyant.