The mid-1960s were Jean-Luc Godard’s heroic period, the time when the vector of his talent seemed almost uncannily aligned with the direction of history. Between 1964 and 1967 Mr. Godard directed a mind-boggling nine feature films, completing one every few months in a frenzy of productivity that blurred the line between prolific and compulsive.
That a handful of these films have become touchstones — classics even — is one of the jokes that history likes to play now and then as it transforms bloody-minded aesthetic radicals into canonical figures. In an essay from 1968 that managed to be both gushing and analytically acute, Susan Sontag identified Mr. Godard as “a deliberate ‘destroyer’ of cinema,” yet somewhat paradoxically, his wanton, wily and thorough deconstructions of cinematic technique have become objects of preservation and examples for the future.
But he was also, from the beginning, a conservator of film history and a fetishist of cinematic form and genre. Made in U.S.A.,” a 1966 quasi policier starting a two-week run at Film Forum on Friday, is dedicated to “Nick and Sam,” as in Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, Hollywood mavericks who were objects of filial awe and Oedipal aggression for Mr. Godard.
As its title suggests, “Made in U.S.A.” pays ambivalent, tongue-in-cheek tribute to American movies. Shot in obviously French locations, it pretends to take place in Atlantic City and features characters whose names are a salad of American political and pop cultural references, like Robert McNamara and Paul Widmark.
One of Mr. Godard’s frequently cited sayings is the claim that all he needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun. There are quite a few guns in “Made in U.S.A.,” but the axiom only really applied when the girl in question was Anna Karina, Mr. Godard’s mid-’60s muse, who had recently become his ex-wife when this movie was made.
Looking a bit weary (perhaps from the strain of having appeared in so many Godard films in such a short time), Ms. Karina plays Paula, a fetchingly dressed young woman desultorily investigating the disappearance of her boyfriend Richard, whose last name is drowned out by sound effects every time it is uttered.
The detective story trappings are vestiges of the movie’s supposed literary source, a pseudonymous novel by the American mystery writer Donald Westlake, whose death a little more than a week ago gives the film’s current release a poignant timeliness.
“Made in U.S.A,” in any case, has rarely been seen in the U.S.A. since its appearance at the 1967 New York Film Festival. And while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.
Sontag noted that “one of the most modern aspects of Godard’s artistry is that each of his films derives its final value from its place in a larger enterprise, a life work.” Anyone curious about the shape and status of that work will want to seek out “Made in U.S.A,” but there are also reasons for non-Godardians to make the pilgrimage.
There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.
And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.
As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun. If it doesn’t merit a place, with “Weekend” and “Band of Outsiders,” on the Godard’s Greatest Hits compilation — a perverse idea, I know, but an appropriate one for just that reason — it is still a great lost B side, a time capsule whose half-strength doses of Godardian self-contradiction, self-consciousness and provocation remain surprisingly fresh.