By the time Claude Sautet's Classe tous risques was released in 1960, what many consider to be the classic film noir period in Hollywood was already over. If Orson Welles' Touch of Evil served as a sort of grand finale of the movement, one could possibly call Classe tous risques the denouement. This is what happens when the party's over.
Abel Davos, played by granite-jawed Lino Ventura (Touchez pas au grisbi), has been on the run for nearly a decade, having been convicted of multiple crimes back in France and sentenced to death. He has moved his wife, Therese (Simone France), and two children all over Europe, from France to Switzerland and down to Italy, trying to stay ahead of the law. Having had enough of the fugitive life, he plans to return to Paris and hide in plain sight. He puts the family on a train in Milan, with the intention of pulling one last job in order to score enough cash to get them over the border. He and his partner Raymond (Stan Krol) knock over a couple of bank couriers and high-tail it for the coast. A daring chase ensues, their adrenaline pumping, the joyful rush of being bad running through their veins.
It's a feeling that can't last. The cops catch up with the crooks, and Raymond and Therese end up dead. Abel and the boys are stuck in Nice, and the running man has to call on his former colleagues to provide him transport back home. Unable to come themselves, they send a fresh face whom no one knows, a local tough named Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Pierrot le fou). Eric turns out to be a stand-up guy, and he transports the family back to Paris in the back of an ambulance. It's a white-knuckle drive, the situation as touchy as it would be if his cargo was dynamite or unstable nitroglycerin. Nerves are tested even further when Eric stops the car to get between what looks like a lover's spat, punching out the man, and offering the girl, an actress named Liliane (Sandra Milo, who also played an actress in 8 1/2), a ride the rest of the way.
This first part of Classe tous risques is as tough and full of bravado as any Hollywood noir. First-time director Sautet, who later helmed Un coeur en hiver, works with multiple writers, but the main one is Jose Giovanni. Giovanni wrote the source novel and was the real-life criminal who is perhaps better known as the author of Le trou, which was based on his own failed prison break. Together, these two see something even more bleak at the heart of the genre than their more stylistic American cousins usually allowed for. The gunning down of Abel's wife and best friend is a shocking event, and it's one that Abel can't recover from. He asks Eric to put on a brave face for the kids, but for him that's all it is. There is no joy left in his life. To match this sadness, Sautet and cinematographer Ghislain Clouquet abandon any flashy demonstrations of style. While Milan moves with the crackling pace of a regular crime thriller, including some incredible scenes racing through the streets of the Italian city with the camera set up in the first-person position, putting the audience behind the wheel, Paris is an altogether different landscape. That high-speed flight with Raymond is the last time you will likely notice the camerawork at all. Once Abel lands in his old stomping grounds, the business turns somber.
Though Abel has spent the last several years constantly moving, he hasn't changed at all. One of his friends, the hotel owner Raul Fargier (Claude Cerval), even says as much. Ironically, all of Abel's former cohorts, who have stayed exactly where they always have been, are not the tough customers Abel once ran with. They've settled into their quiet life and gotten soft. Both Fargier and barman Riton (Michel Ardan) have married and are living a cushy, honest life. Only their friend Jack (Jean-Pierre Zola) has remained in the game, and he is the worse for it, having lost his nerve and spent most of his time in jail. Abel knew that something was up as soon as he saw they had sent Stark to rescue him and not come themselves, despite the incredible debt they all owe him. Adding this to the loss he suffered to get there, he realizes that there is nowhere left to run. The straight life is out of his reach and apparently without honor, but Jack is a living example of what can happen to a man who doesn't know when to get out. The criminal life has left Abel with few options.
For the rest of the movie, Abel soberly tries to put his affairs in order and find a way out of Paris so that he can leave his sons with a new opportunity for a life out of their father's shadow. The title Classe tous risques translates as "consider all risks," which is far more accurate a description of his mission than the original U.S. title, "The Big Risk," which both simplifies and romanticizes the task at hand. It implies Abel is in a good place, when he's anything but. Rather, the fugitive is all alone.
The only person that remains for Abel to trust is Eric, and though they develop a pseudo-father/son relationship, rather than the master imparting his wisdom to the apprentice, Abel keeps Eric out of his schemes and even encourages him to walk the straight and narrow. Classe tous risques was made and released right on the heels of Godard's Breathless, the film that would make Jean-Paul Belmondo a star, but without seeing the actor as Eric Stark, you don't really see the true depth of his talent. It's interesting that in the Godard film he played a swaggering wannabe gangster, wowing audiences with his macho posturing, but in Sautet's movie, when he's playing the real thing, the character is far more self-assured and practically meek. He doesn’t have to show off, nor does he have to hide his sensitive side. He's good with the kids, and his romance with Liliane is sweet. Though Belmondo would often trade on the cool image Breathless earned him, Classe tous risques proves there was more to him than bravado.
No less should have been expected from a film as grounded as this one, either. As a travelogue, there are few films of the period that will show you the same perspective of its various locales. The first shots of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, comes across as surprisingly intimate, reflecting the mood of Abel's homecoming. Were it a happier occasion, Sautet could have shown us more flamboyant aspects of the city's considerable charm, but that would inject joy back into the proceedings. If crime doesn't pay, it also can't be a tourist taking a fancy vacation. Plus, as viewers, we're not meant to enjoy the sights, either. Bucking the normal noir convention of first person narration, which would usually give Abel a chance to reflect on his life and misdeeds, Sautet uses a cold, expository third person narrator that establishes a distance between the viewer and the events on screen. We are mere voyeurs, and as such, are meant to watch Abel's actions with the same coldness with which he executes them.
Not that we aren't supposed to feel sorry for Abel--I think Sautet actually wants us to like him--it's just that he's going to ration the kinder moments like a rare delicacy. Abel may be a brutal killer, but he's also, strangely, a sweetheart. He is at his most human when he is with his family, and after being separated from them, the lone glimpse of this quality comes when he is waiting by the faucet with the young doctor's assistant in Eric's building. Abel is gentle and joking with her, and she repays this kindness later by providing him with an escape when the dragnet is closing on him. It's like Sautet is showing him--and therefore, us--that good deeds are paid back in kind, just as bad deeds lead us to where Abel is now.
And where Abel ends up is a pretty dark place. There are many ways that Sautet and Giovanni could have concluded Classe tous risques, many endings they could have concocted for Abel, both glorious and ignominious. The fact that they choose to end it the way they do, once again pulling away from the action and letting the third-person narrator explain where their protagonist is heading, is all too fitting. To put it any other way would be to restore the glamour to the gangster genre they spent the previous 107 minutes removing.
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