A generational culture clash between the old and new wave in this French crime masterpiece.
Unfairly dismissed at the time of release in 1960 – critics looking unfavourably on the ‘old fashioned’ style in comparison to the New Wave antics of Jean Luc Godard – Classe Tous Risques has subsequently been reassessed and hailed a masterpiece, which is certainly closer to the truth. It’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t recognise the qualities of the film in the first place, unless they were so dazzled by the new and exciting that they adopted some sort of punk rock, Year Zero approach to cinema.
This is, effectively, French noir – perhaps a little outside the film noir traditions, but still essentially sticking to the format, with its lead character caught in a downward spiral that he is unable to escape from. In this case, it’s Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), a gangster who has spent a decade on the run in Italy, avoiding the death penalty that awaits him in France. But with the police finally closing in, he decides a return to France is the only option. He attempts to finances this in the only way he knows – through violent robbery. This results in a police chase and Davos and his accomplice fleeing towards France, meeting his wife and kids midway. But a shoot out leaves both his wife and his partner dead, and Davos having to turn to former colleagues for help both in escaping and ensuring his two boys have a safe future. Unfortunately, his old associates are rather reluctant to become involved in what is an increasingly dangerous situation, and so send a stranger, Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to collect him. For Davos, this is an outrageous betrayal by the men who he has helped in the past, and so once his kids are in a place of safety, he begins to exact his revenge against his old friends, while all the time being forced into smaller and smaller hiding places as the police relentlessly close in.
Classe Tous Risques is a film about desperation – Davos’ need to avoid capture while at the same time doing the right thing by his family, even if one of those needs will inevitably interfere with the other. Davos is a man who is no longer free – he might not be in a prison cell awaiting execution, but he’s unquestionably trapped, by his past, his family and his need to even the score with those he feels have betrayed him, even though by doing so he is making his eventual escape all the more unlikely. As he hides out in tiny rooms that have the feel of prison cells, constantly on the move, this is a man who is doomed the moment we meet him. He is a tragic figure, but not an especially sympathetic one – this is a nightmare of his own making, for actions that took place before the film begins and for those he carries out during the narrative. This is not, by any means, a nice man, and you understand why those former friends – now looking for a quiet, relatively straight life – are reluctant to be involved with him anymore. His temper, his murderous rages and his lust for vengeance – not to mention his violent criminal activity – ensure that he is not someone that we should feel any sympathy for.
That we do is mainly down to Ventura. Perfectly cast, he has the look of a man who has seen his fair share of violence, and he plays the character with a coldness and barely controlled aggression. Yet beneath this, we can still sense a certain vulnerability. He gives Davos a tragic air and in doing so makes us believe that this man really would risk all for his kids. Even monsters have loved ones, after all. Few actors manage to be both physically imposing and emotionally frail convincingly, but this is a magnificent performance.
Jean-Paul Belmondo – who made A Bout de Souffle the same year – is more laconic and laid back, a chilled-out criminal who is not on Davos’ level, but becomes the only person he has left to turn to. There’s an interesting relationship between him and Liliane (Sandra Milo), a girl he first rescues when he sees her being assaulted at a roadside as he smuggles Davos to Paris. You wonder if she will be the saving of him, or he will be the corrupting of her, especially with the mostly unrepentant gangland boss looming over them. But their relationship possibly hints at the redemption and salvation that Davos will be denied.
Written by José Giovanni, a real-life criminal who penned his numerous novels from his prison cell and based them on stories told to him by fellow convicts, the film is directed in a clean, dramatic but unfussy manner by Claude Sautet. You can almost understand why critics enamoured by the New Wave would be dismissive of this, but the sharp, no-nonsense style is exactly what the film needs. The opening act is non-stop drama, action and tension that is the equal of any thriller you can think of, and every few minutes, there’s an interesting visual, a dramatic moment that makes you realise that this is something special.
This is a perfect crime drama – solid, unpretentious commercial movie-making that nevertheless manages to be more than the sum of its parts. As both a gangster film and a classic slice of French cinema, it’s unmissable.
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