With his crumbled, world-weary, boxer’s face, Lino Ventura is perfect as a doomed anti-hero in Claude Sautet’s amazingly bleak, tough French film noir-style gangster film, made in 1960. How did Ventura become a movie star and such a good one? He doesn’t look much, or seem to do much, but he inhabits the space, as somebody more actorish could never do.
Ventura plays Abel Davos, a fugitive gangster, a struggling professional crook trying to get back to the supposed safety of Paris with his family after an exile in Milan, where he does one last little robbery to help him finance his way, killing a couple of men.
In Paris, he has several gangster buddies who all owe him for past favours. Notable among them is Marcel Dalio’s shifty-looking mobster Arthur Gibelin. They’re all bound to help, aren’t they? It’s that honour among thieves thing.
He puts the wife (Simone France) and his two young boys on the train to Nice, and then sets off with his crook buddy Raymond (Stan Krol) in the car, intending to meet up with them there. Somehow, he has to drive through a heavily guarded frontier roadblock to get into France, then another to get into Paris. Getting under the police radar is kind of majorly tricky, because they’re dogging his steps all the while.
A fair old number of dead bodies and quite a bit of fast, casual violence follow.
With lots of immediacy and freewheeling location filming, it has a very New Wave feel, and one of its icons in Jean-Paul Belmondo, so it’s ironic that the reputations of both the film and director Claude Sautet (his debut) were swept away by the Nouvelle Vague. It arrived in England late, at about the time of Breathless in 1964. But it’s not Jean-Luc Godard you think of here but the films of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Belmondo appears late on in the movie and disappears a little before the end, but he is excellent, memorable indeed, as Eric Stark, a surprisingly softhearted, though ultra-tough, young hood.
I don’t want to oversell Classe Tous Risques but I do want to recommend it. It’s not a great movie, or a lost masterpiece, but it’s a very good one. It is credible, thrilling, exciting and vibrantly made. It feels like an insider’s story not the uniformed guesswork of some young Hollywood wannabee. It works vibrantly as a crime thriller, as well as a psychological study and a character-driven drama.
It is intelligently written too, finding fresh angles on the old situations of honour among thieves. Plotwise, it’s not a specially good, or well-constructed story, more a series of ensuing, cause-and-effect situations, more like real life, I guess. It might not always work but that’s good here. It feels vivid and refreshing.
The ending is totally sudden and utterly ruthless. It helps to keep any sentimentality at bay, though there more or less isn’t any anyway. It’s the tough tone and, especially, the location filming that keep it feeling newly minted. The long, fragrant section in the streets of Milan at the start is great – the best in the movie.
Despite a long career, Sautet directed only 12 more films. He managed to come back spectacularly in old age in the Nineties with masterwork films examining inter-personal relationships, especially Un Coeur en Hiver and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, winning the César as Best Director for both. He died in 2000 after making only 14 films in 40 years.
Classe Tous Risques = Class All Risks. But the title’s one of those tricksy puns the French are fond of. Classe Tous Risques = Classe Touriste = Tourist Class.
© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 236
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