Claude Sautet’s 1960 picture Classe Tous Risques is one of the best French noir crime movies you’ve probably never seen. Thankfully, after it’s theatrical release last year, it’s coming to DVD and Blu-ray for the first time ever in the UK, released in a BFI Dual Format Edition.
Unsuccessful at the box office when it was first released in 1960, Classe Tous Risques features a first top notch cast in an emotionally charged examination of devotion and duplicity, highly notable for its desolate yet poignant pragmatism. The equal of any picture made by Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket or Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Classe Tous Risques is in a class of it’s own. Classe Tous Risques draws upon the cinematic trend of Italian neorealism that preceded it and anticipates the full-blown eruption of the French New Wave, which disastrously drew a long shadow over Claude Sautet’s masterwork upon it’s opening at the dawn of the 60s.
Parisian gangland boss Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) has been on the run in Italy for ten years in order to escape a death sentence. The police finally close in upon Davos with terrible results. In hiding, Davos turns to his old criminal partner friends to aid him and his young family’s safe return to Paris. With nobody willing to come to his aid, a nonconformist outsider, Eric Stark (coolly played by Jean Paul Belmondo in the same year as his breakthrough performance in A Bout de souffle), is hired by Davos’ reticent former partners in crime, to come to salvage the situation. This Stark does, momentarily.
Claude Sautet’s directorial debut withstands comparisons with any of the great crime pictures, produced upon either side of the Atlantic, due to Sautet’s unflashy, incisive direction and the humanity of its source material: the novel by death-row-inmate-turned-writer José Giovanni. As Guardian film wrier John Patterson relates in the booklet for this BFI DVD, Giovanni had fought with the Maquis gang against the German forces of French occupation during World War II.
After the war, José Giovanni’s talents for mayhem and skullduggery were used by the Parisian underworld. In 1947 Giovanni was the getaway driver in a disastrous robbery, arranged by his uncle and brother, which left the pair of relatives and three victims dead. After a failed attempt to escape Le Santé prison, which formed the basis of his first 1957 novel, Le Trou, José Giovanni was sentenced to death – though he had not taken part in any killing during the heist. Waiting for his guillotine execution for ten years, Giovanni wrote.
While in prison, he had some cell-to-cell conversations with infamous gangster Abel Danos, a hood who had been a member of the Bonny-Lafont outfit who had collaborated with the Germans. Danos had for years lived in Italy with his family on the run from a death sentence in France. These conversations with Danos, relating the tribulations of a bad man trying to do right by his young family, inspired Giovanni’s second novel, Classe Tous Risques, and the writer, whose sentence was commuted, became a celebrated figure with the intellectuals of the Parisian Left Bank.
Both Giovanni (who obviously views gangsters as tragic figures) and Sautet, picked to direct by the picture by star Lino Ventura, never forget that their leading character is a terrible man – like his real life inspiration, Ventura’s Davos was a member of the Bonny-Lafont collaborationist gangsters – yet they manage to evoke deep sympathy for him and his relationship with his children. In this they are of course ably supported by a towering performance by the tough but tender Ventura (this BFI disc contains a fine 36 minute documentary about the actor, Monsieur Ventura), who is as utterly compelling in this picture as he was in Melville’s 1969 French Resistance film, Army In The Shadows. Belmondo remarkably matches Ventura as the street smart fixer but strangely innocent Erick Stark, who introduces himself to struggling actress Sandra Milo, after he has adeptly punched out cold a man who is beating her up, with the memorable line, “The only good thing about me is my left.”
Sautet opens the movie with a stunning hit and run robbery on the teeming streets of Milan, which apparently was so convincing that bystanders gave chase to the actors executing the scene. Filming out on the street, guerilla style (Ghislain Cloquet’s photography is stunning throughout the film), Sautet clearly showed the way for the New Wave filmmakers to follow in numerous pictures. Thrillingly, the flight of Ventura and his partner from the scene of the crime, and the country, takes place for the next twenty minutes of the movie. Yet Sautet conveys the feeling that Davos is inevitably racing towards tragedy, a mood that is underlined throughout by the great French composer Georges Delerue’s beautiful, bittersweet score.
Unforgettable and profoundly moving, Classe Tous Risques is an essential edition to any serious Film Noir DVD collection.
Classe Tous Risques is released in a BFI Dual Format Edition.
Review by Ian Johnston. Find his Louder Than war archive here.