A young French car thief, with shades of Humphrey Bogart, goes on the run with his American girlfriend after he kills a policeman.
In 1959, a group of enthusiasts who had all worked as film critics before lifting up a camera, got together to turn out this rapidly-shot picture, dedicating it to Monogram, the Poverty Row studio that churned out endless Bela Lugosi or Charlie Chan quickies in the '40s.
The result started a bunch of big-screen careers and kicked off the French 'nouvelle vague', which proceeded to be the most exciting film movement of the early '60s. Before the decade was out, the jump-cuts and dizzying camerawork of this movie had percolated into the gene pool of Hollywood, eventually becoming the stuff of TV adverts and pop videos that its makers would despise. Plus ca change...
Belmondo cops a Bogart attitude as a charismatic but vicious petty crook (first line: "I'm a cunt, okay?"), on the run after gunning down a gendarme, while gamine Seberg sports a serious haircut as the hood's ironic, intellectual and ultimately treacherous American girlfriend. Later, Godard would take interesting stories and distance himself from them through anti-cinematic techniques; here, he takes a tawdry anecdote and makes it exciting with unorthodox edits, improvisational jazz, actuality footage of bustling streets, film buff references and cool clothes.
It stops for a lengthy spell as the main characters are shut up in a room and argue with each other for a subjective eternity, but even this sequence (the epitome of what you're not supposed to do in a first film) finds its own rhythm and becomes gripping. Fast and loose, with a buzzing sense of the potential of the cinema undercut by the beginnings of Godard's intellectual rigour, this is at once a homage to the American gangster film, and an attack on the very ideas of Americans, gangsters and films.
An enervating intro to the French New Wave, this remains one of Godard's finest films.