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Made in USA [DVD] (1966)
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Jean-Luc Godard pays homage to the gangster movies of American directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller with this comic book-influenced crime thriller. A journalist, Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) arrives in Atlantic City, France, in search of her missing ex-lover. She soon discovers that he has been murdered by an unknown assassin, and begins to suspect that he was involved in some political intrigue. In her quest to uncover the truth, she meets a sequence of shady characters from gun-toting gangsters to corrupt police officers.
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Characters in the film are named using such real-life people as Don Siegel, Kenji Mizoguchi, Richard Widmark, Robert McNamara, David Goodis and Richard Nixon. Paula Nelson is probably named for Baby Face Nelson, about whom Siegel had made a film starring Mickey Rooney. The film starts with trench-coated Anna Karina in Atlantic City (a provincial French town), there to track down boyfriend Richard P...'s (phone, plane or car noise constantly blur the last name) whereabouts.
With the hotel visit by dwarfy, dubious Mr Typhus, bodies start dropping, amid encounters with Typhus' writer nephew David Goodis (here an "independent" character, not the author of Tirez sur le pianiste), and Doris Mizoguchi, Goodis's singing Japanese girlfriend. Jean-Pierre Léaud and László Szabó play secret service or army characters pursuing Karina, and there is an ironic Hegelian discussion in a café between Karina, a worker and the barman of considerable intellectual charm and humour.Read more ›
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There _is_ a DVD extra -- the "visual essay"/concordance -- that helps explain a lot, but since it is a separate from the film, the details are covered out of the context and flow of the film. Unless you are fluent in French and familiar in detail with much of the politics, current events, pop culture, and high culture of the decades leading up to the mid-60s, you'll find "Made in USA" a barrage of references that keep you from seeing the forest for the trees.
All the details from the concordance, and more, belong in a commentary track, so that the viewer can take them in as he or she is watching the film. To really do it right, Criterion should have included both an audio commentary and concordance-based captioning with customized screen placement so that the viewer has half a chance of keeping up with the mixture of foreground and background details that are scattered throughout the film.
Paula (Anna Karina), a journalist, goes to a small town where her estranged boyfriend Richard has died in mysterious circumstances, surely murder. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she takes on the air of a hardboiled detective, wielding a pistol and wearing a Bogartian trenchcoat. She meets the doctor who did the autopsy and has a run-in with the police, but mainly we see her tangled up with two gangsters, played by László Szabó and Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Godard maintains just enough conventional dialogue and action to let the viewer know where we are in the crime novel's plot, but most of what transpires before the camera must be understood as only abstract metaphors for what would have happened in the book. The interaction between his characters mainly has other purposes. They have absurdist conversations with a great deal of wordplay. They allude to French politics in a time when Godard was worried about the compromised values of the French Left and the spectres of fascism and consumer society. The Ben Barka affair, where a Moroccan dissident was murdered in France in 1965 with the apparent involvement of the French security services, looms very large over MADE IN U.S.A., almost elbowing Westlake's original story out entirely. As if aware that he had stripped the plot down to such a degree that he now had too much time to be filled, he gives little asides like Marianne Faithfull singing "Tears Go By" a cappella in a cameo and Kyôko Kosaka strumming a guitar and singing in Japanese.
This is not one of Godard's best films. For one, Godard reused many of the elements of his masterpiece Pierrot Le Fou from the year before. PIERROT LE FOU was itself assembled as a sort of a collage of shots from Godard's prior films, which worked well as a wonderful summing up of his early career. But when he does the same with MADE IN U.S.A., it is to greatly diminished effect. But even if this is weak by Godard standards, it is nonetheless a moving experience. Shot in colour and in Cinemascope, this is a feast for the eyes. The very best of what the 1960s had to offer in terms of fashion and product design is on hand here and it just jumps off the screen. The image feels electric. (It is a pity that Criterion's edition is only on DVD, as a Blu-Ray would have yielded even greater pleasures.) Godard's longtime cameraman Raoul Coutard gives us some elaborate long takes that impress. And of course it's Godard's last major celebration of Anna Karina's beauty and poise, which really was something for the ages, still stunning half a century later.
Criterion's edition comes with some useful extras. In MADE IN U.S.A. Godard included a number of literary quotations, and plus nearly all the names in the film are allusions to other films by other filmmakers, literary figures, etc. We get a a 17-minute featurette here that explains all the allusions. In another featurette, this one 25 minutes long, film scholars Richard Brody and Colin McCabe discuss where MADE AND U.S.A. and, another film he shot at the same time, Two or Three Things I Know About Her fit in his career. There's a 2002 interview with Anna Karina, but this is just her general reminisces about working with Godard (and her telling for the umpteenth time how they met) instead of anything about MADE IN U.S.A. specifically. More interesting for longtime Godard aficionados, I think, is an interview with László Szabó.