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Made in U.S.A.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/25/2009

The stylized tics of pulpy mid-century American genre flicks seeped into the cinematic language of Jean-Luc Godard from the very beginning. So it's with a blithe dash of anarchic whimsy that the French filmmaker's ostensible attempt to make an American crime flick feels more like a weedy bloom of absurdist French theater. The little-seen 1966 Made in U.S.A.--which didn't get an American distribution when originally released, only hitting American theaters now in a restored 35-mm print thanks to Rialto Pictures--is based on a novel from sci-fi and crime workhorse Donald E. Westlake (penned under his Richard Stark pseudonym, the same nom de plume that churned out 1962's The Hunter, which inspired John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank). It's dedicated to "Nick" (Nicholas Ray) and "Sam" (Samuel Fuller), has characters named Richard Widmark, David Goodis, Donald Siegel, and Inspector Aldrich (as in, presumably, Robert), and takes place in Atlantic City. A femme fatale is harangued by shadowy men in suits. A gun seen in the first act will more than likely go off by the third. And police detectives have square chins and expressionless mugs. Crime movie fans know these conventions.

That this Atlantic City, France, looks a great deal like a Parisian exurb is the first in an endless stream of flourishes that twists this crime caper into a surreal world. Paula Nelson (Anna Karina, credited, as is the entire cast and crew, by her initials) wakes up in an Atlantic City hotel room and knows she's being tailed by two men, Richard Widmark (László Szabó) and Donald Siegel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). She's come to find out if her lover, Richard ________ (every time his name is mentioned in the movie, a burst of soundtrack/background noise blocks it out; he's voiced by Godard himself on a series of increasingly politically radical taped recordings) was murdered.

That's about as straightforward as the movie gets. Dialog occasionally dwindles into self-reflexive linguistic discussions. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard's camera frames people as if in print advertisements and circles an entire room just because it can. And, apropos of nothing, Marianne Faithfull shows up in a bar to sing the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By" a cappella. By the time characters named Richard Nixon and Robert MacNamara pop up, all semblance of a crime picture have been jettisoned for something far more daft.

Whether or not it completely works isn't that important. The movie begins with Paula waking up and ends with her falling asleep; in between is a bizarre dream world, one French artist's love/hate response to the cultural hegemony America exported via its wars, pop culture, and entertainments in the 1960s.

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