Classe Tous Risque

November, 2005, Mystery

Directed by:Claude Sautet

Starring:Lino Ventura, Sandra Milo, and Jean-Paul Belmondo

Classe Tous Risques

The Film Forum Theater on West Houston in Manhattan has more than its share of flaws, (cramped seating, miserable sightlines, minuscule rest rooms and no butter for the popcorn) but it more than compensates for these shortcomings by consistently reviving, for contemporary audiences, a wide range of gems from the past. Such is the case with this fully restored, 35-millimeter print of Claude Sautet's hard-boiled examination of gangland loyalty in the French underworld initially released in 1960. Roughly translated as "The Big Risk", Sautet rebuts the old canard that there's no honor among thieves by providing his audience with an appealing examination of the relationship between an aging career criminal and the young thug who comes to his rescue.

Abel Davos, (Lino Ventura) is a thief specializing in armed robbery. Veteran of numerous "jobs", he's on the run from the Italian police in Milan with his wife, another gunman and two young sons as the movie begins. Deciding to return to Paris and the safety other members of his criminal "family" can provide, Davos and his partner steal a boat and attempt to land on an isolated strip of French coastline. A shootout with custom's officers ensues, leaving Davos' wife and partner dead. Now the subject of a massive manhunt, Davos and his sons seek the assistance of gang members who have profited significantly from their relationship with him in the past. He assumes it's their responsibility to come to his aid; they're reluctant to oblige, but finally send Eric Stark, a young gangster played by Jean Paul Belmondo. Devos hides his disgust for those who won't risk helping him personally while relying on the ingenious Stark to slip him anonymously back into Paris. 

The circumstances of Davos' long-delayed return produce suspicion, deceit and reprisal among the various members of his long-since disbanded team as they either align with each other against him or struggle to retain newfound respectability by staying on the sidelines. With new enemies & vacillating cronies instead of old comrades, Davos struggles to establish a safe life for his boys while dealing with what he sees as the treachery of former friends. Can he weave his way through this criminal minefield to safety? 

In adapting a novel by Jose Giovanni, (with which I'm unfamiliar) the director has taken pains to craft the clipped prose these characters use; Belmondo's laconic lines, delivered with self-effacing modesty, go a long way to explaining his subsequent prominence as a leading man in French film. But it's Ventura's depiction of a devoted husband and father struggling to make a place for his family that really makes this movie memorable. This veteran actor, (with more than 75 roles on his resume) makes Davos wonderfully credible and sympathetic. Working with dialogue as pared down as a well-trimmed sirloin and wearing a sustained expression of pained determination, Ventura creates a doomed hero audiences really shouldn't admire. After all, this guy's a thief and killer, but the actor's alchemy also provides him with a curious moral rectitude. Here is someone willing to live his life in accordance with a set of rigorously clear, if dubious, ideals. He assumes others are obliged to do so as well, so he punishes those who don't and stands by those who do with no regard for the circumstances. 

Yet there's no glorification of criminality here, nor idolization of the cultural renegades of the French New Wave or Hollywood cult movies like Bonnie & Clyde. Davos doesn't represent a socio-economic protest against middle class propriety; he's just a career criminal, robbery's a job, killing an occupational hazard. His objective is building a decent life for his family, nothing more. But he has to do it within the bounds of his own moral standards, however warped. The closest comparison to this hard-nosed depiction of violent criminal values is probably found Sam Peckinpaugh's "The Wild Bunch". In Sautet's hands, the mayhem's somehow humane. 

How refreshing too, to watch a movie as rigorously straightforward as its protagonist; no Scorsese-ian angst here, no coy camera shots, no jump cuts, or jumbled timelines a la Tarantino. Sautet simply presents a man and his family on the run; the movie follows them in a matter-of-fact, linear fashion, allowing the characters to simply unfold the tale themselves, right down to its wistful, low-key conclusion. What you see is what you get--and what you get is masterful storytelling that's compact, brisk and compelling. 

Compare this to the recently released Derailed and you'll have no difficulty distinguishing the genre's gold from its dross. 

I have no idea whether this little gem of a thriller will play commercially anywhere else; there are enough New Yorkers with a passion for this kind of nostalgia to give it a full two week run here and the non-profit status of The Film Forum's structure may make it possible to show films like this when others can't. But surely a restored work as masterful as this will find its way onto disc and video…

 Start looking for it.   


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