June 18, 2008
Classe Tous Risques
Reviewer: Walt Opie
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Classe Tous Risques ("The Big Risk") is a once underappreciated 1960 French film noir by director Claude Sautet (Un Coeur en Hiver), now finally out on DVD thanks to Criterion, that serves as something of a bridge between more conventional gangster pictures and the French New Wave, although it's much more a product of the former. Considering it was Sautet's true directorial debut, he gets a lot of things right, from terrific casting in even the small roles, including a memorable supporting part for the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the peak of his Breathless powers, to convincing location shots in Milan, Nice and elsewhere. I especially appreciated his touch with filming some of the more violent scenes, which happen suddenly and end as quickly--as they do in real life.
The story, about a smart, burly gangster and family man named Abel Davos (Lino Ventura, a former champion wrestler) with a penchant for explosive bursts of violence as well as a more gentle side, might be an antecedent for Tony Soprano. It's certainly no shocker that modern action directors like John Woo and "Beat" Takeshi Kitano have sung the film's praises, although one wishes that Sautet had done more with the "family" theme he introduces to help develop Abel's humanity a little further. Still, you can't fault Ventura here--he displays just the right blend of menacing toughness and thoughtful vulnerability as he realizes this may be the end of the line for him. "You think you're clever," he says at one point. "And one day you're nothing."
The story initially follows two wanted career criminals on the run in Milan, namely Abel and his pal Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol, who has the perfect nonchalant demeanor for a crook). They are trying to leave Italy but need to carry out one more heist before making their way back to France. Abel sends his wife Therese (Simone France, whose career went nowhere) and two small sons on ahead to meet them on the coast while they pull off the job. We see what happens as their escape plans start to go awry and Abel must eventually flee back to Paris in a sort of "Trojan horse" ambulance. I don't want to give away too much here, but part of it involves Belmondo's character Eric Stark volunteering to drive the ambulance in place of Abel's old cronies who actually owe him from the past for their current successful lifestyles. Once Abel returns to Paris, he finds out that his former cohorts now see him as a liability, and he decides to turn the tables on them for their disloyalty.
This partly becomes a buddy movie between Ventura and Belmondo, with Belmondo's character also finding time for an attractive actress played by Sandra Milo (8 ½) as his love interest on the side. Belmondo even takes a bullet in the leg from the cops as he attempts to warn Abel that they are close to capturing him, and ultimately this helps bring Abel to his last realization before a rather abrupt finale.
In some ways the multifaceted story behind Classe Tous Risques is every bit as compelling as the film itself, including its initial bombing at the box office and then subsequent revival in a 1971 re-release in Paris. The film sprang from the novel of the same title by José Giovanni (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet) based on the life of a real French gangster named Abel Danos, whom Giovanni had met briefly while both were serving time on death row (Giovanni was later released by a presidential pardon). Details of this exchange as retold by Giovanni are featured in an interview among the generous bonus materials included on the appealing new DVD edition just put out by the Criterion Collection. The black and white feature film itself has been beautifully restored using a high-definition digital transfer, and includes newly translated English subtitles.
Posted by cphillips at June 18, 2008 12:28 PM