Godard's Missing Link
Despite the title, ‘Made in U.S.A.’ is singularly French
Jean-Luc Godard made roughly 15 films during his first eight years as a director, a number of which have been re-released theatrically during the last decade, in spanking new “restored so we can put out a clean DVD” prints. It would be easy (and sloppy) to think of the 1966 “Made in U.S.A.” as the “latest Godard reissue,” but, in fact, the film has never legally played in America theaters before.
As in many of his mid- and late- ’60s works, Godard seems utterly uninterested in presenting a “plot” (in the conventional sense). In fact, the story behind the film and its belated release is arguably more fascinating than the story within it.
Georges de Beauregard — who had produced Godard’s first feature, “Breathless,” as well as Nouvelle Vague classics by Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, and Jacques Rivette — was in financial trouble. He needed to get a film into production immediately and knew that Godard was capable of preparing something on the fly. Godard grabbed the pulp novel “The Jugger” by Richard Stark — a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake. In a macabre coincidence, this extraordinarily prolific American novelist died on New Year’s Eve 2008, less than two weeks before the belated New York opening of “Made in U.S.A.”.
Westlake wrote in the vicinity of 100 novels, using half a dozen names. As Stark, he produced a series of ultra-hardboiled books about a coldly professional thief named Parker; under his real name, he wrote a comic crime series about a hapless professional crook named Dortmunder — sort of the anti-Parker. (Indeed, Westlake said he came up with the first Dortmunder book as an antidote to being trapped in Parker’s grim universe.) Both sets of books are great — they make up the majority of the 35-plus Westlakes I’ve read. (Yes, it’s quite likely that I’ve read more books by Westlake than by any other writer, unless one counts “Franklin W. Dixon.”)
Both characters spawned numerous film versions: Dortmunder has been portrayed (under a variety of names) by George C. Scott, Christopher Lambert, Martin Lawrence, and — in “The Hot Rock,” handily the best of the bunch — Robert Redford. Parker shows up as Lee Marvin (“Point Blank”), Robert Duvall (“The Outfit”), Jim Brown (“The Split”), Mel Gibson (“Payback”), and ... Anna Karina (“Made in U.S.A.”)!
Sadly, because of de Beauregard’s money problems, the rights to the book were never properly obtained, keeping it out of American release.
Here’s the punch line: “Made in U.S.A.” has almost nothing to do with “The Jugger.” Godard retained so little from the book that, had it not been announced as an adaptation, it almost certainly could have been shown here without legal complications. There are several unofficial adaptations of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” that lean far more heavily on their source.
In the book, a former associate — now retired in a small town — writes to Parker, using the latter’s carefully maintained false identity, for help out of a jam; Parker shows up, maybe to help him, but more likely to kill him, since it’s dangerous to let anyone so indiscreet live. When he gets there, his friend is already dead, under suspicious circumstances; Parker investigates, not out of sentiment, but to make sure that there are no threads leading back to him.
That fairly generic setup, ladies and gentlemen, is where the connections begin and end, save for two or three vaguely similar scenes.
Godard reworks the story, with Karina as Paula Nelson, a journalist investigating the death of a former lover. What he ends up with might be considered an homage to American films; a condemnation of American politics; a veiled commentary on the disappearance of left-wing Moroccan activist Ben Barka, still a controversial scandal in France at the time; a snapshot of the brewing revolutionary politics soon to erupt; a deconstruction of film language; or a final tribute to Karina, the muse/wife with whom he had just split up. (He filmed “Made in U.S.A.” in the afternoons, while making “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” which starred new girlfriend Marina Vlady, in the mornings.)
Most of the characters are named after Hollywood figures (Widmark, Preminger, Aldrich) and noir writers (David Goodis); there’s even a Nixon and a McNamara. The actors sometimes seem to be addressing the camera; or they speak dialogue that is often Lewis Carroll-like nonsense, but less funny. Sometimes they appear to talk but we hear no words; other times, phrases or names are censored on the soundtrack by what sounds like a telephone ringing. Music starts and stops abruptly.
Cinemaphiles — particularly those of a certain generation — rightfully embrace the availability of any missing piece of Godard’s works (as they would with any beloved and/or influential director). And, yes, it's wonderful to finally get to see “Made in U.S.A.”
But, as is often the case — e.g., the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers,” Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris” — the film’s absence has driven its reputation to a level that the film itself can’t match. In just the preceding two or three years, Godard had made at least four full-on classics — “Contempt,” “Band of Outsiders,” “Alphaville” and “Pierrot le Fou” — each of which had an internally cohesive (if odd) plot. With the consecutive “Made in U.S.A.” and “Masculine, Feminine,” he began to lose interest in anything resembling conventional storytelling, pointing toward such subsequent “film essays” as “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Wind from the East.”
All of which means: This is essential for those to whom Godard is important or even interesting. But it cries out for context; newcomers to Godard would be hard-pressed to find a worse film to start with. It may be rewarding, but it’s also difficult, with very few of the immediate pleasures that buoyed his earlier movies and helped seduce a generation into a love affair with French cinema.