Dragged under by the current of the Nouvelle Vague upon it’s release in 1960, amidst the shadow of burgeoning expectation from an audience treated just 12 months earlier to the one-two of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques lives again thanks to a number of retrospective projects dedicated to the film.
First salvaged by Janus Films in the US in 2008 (though the film did hit the rep circuit as early as 1970, thanks to the reputation of the film’s second player Jean-Paul Belmondo, elevated to the ranks of bona-fide co-star in the marketing of the picture), Sautet’s gangster movie takes in the final couple of weeks in the life of Lino Ventura’s Abel Davos as he seeks to put his affairs, two of which are his sons, in order in the face of a past catching up with him. It’s a film laden with, mined even, from doom. An eery sense of foreboding hangs over the picture, with an omnipresent voice narrating elements of the fiction as and when necessary. His closing remarks, delivered in a manner void of any character reminiscent of the elements of media and notes of record that infect the picture throughout (newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts), brings with it a devastating, if sight unseen, piece of closure; as Davos walks off in the sunset, any light already shielded from the viewer by the concrete dystopia of Paris, 1959, the narrator reveals his macabre fate. It’s tinged with the kind of sadness that comes with the inevitable.
Emotional angle withstanding, Classe Tous Risques is a pretty straightforward gangster movie. Éditions Gallimard provide the source material, as the imprint did any number of crime dramas of the era, while Ventura, something of a staple of the genre, turns in a memorable performance. It’s the sort of film that time might have otherwise forgotten, but for the presence of Belmondo, hot off of Breathless and one of the major faces of the new French cinema. The differences between the two French cinemas, the new and the old, are made beautifully clear thanks to a number of similarities between Classe Tous Risques and Breathless. Both tales are instigated by robberies, with a comparison between the two serving to show up the diversity of what was on offer. What is meticulous in execution in the Sautet movie is fractured and more abstract in the Godard. In the audacious opening segment of Classe Tous Risques two men take down a police blockade, with a car chase splitting in to two, and giving way to a motorbike skit. Escalation is at the fore, and Hollywood comes to mind, with the only sense of the natural coming from the directors reluctance to not resort to non-diegetic music. Otherwise It’s not that far removed from the kind of thing we’d expect to see in the opening pre-credits reel of Fleming and Bond.
Though a more straightforward piece of work than some of its contemporaries, a creative streak worthy of note does run through Classe Tous Risques. Handheld camerawork and a bold use of location lend a dynamic feel to portions of the film, while it’s when a sense of movement is present that the film is at it’s most satisying. The second act of the movie is essentially a road-trip, and it’s during these moments that things really come to life (even if said “road” is a product of back projection for the most part).
Sautet’s film has historically sat in the shadow not only of the movies of the Nouvelle Vague, but also another work based on words from the mind of José Giovanni, the film’s writer. A crook turned cause célèbre, Giovanni penned a number of crime stories during time spent in incarceration after the Second World War. His first novel, Le Trou was the source material for the greatest masterpiece in a trilogy of films derived from his writings, with its incredible post-modern opening, in which that films director Jacques Becker and one of Giovanni’s former accomplices introduce the film. While Le Trou is undeniably a more complex and accomplished piece of art than Classe Tous Risques, that isn’t to say that the latter is somehow damaged by this. With time it’s revealed itself to be an all the more impressive. It’s a picture which exhumes confidence, as able in it’s construction as any feature debut (though Sautet’s second film, he didn’t really consider his debut, 1955’s Bonjour sourire to truly be his own), and a movie that deserves to be considered alongside other staples of the genre such as Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur and Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi.
Classe Tous Risques resurfaces thanks to a strong new Blu-ray presentation from the British Film Insititute, which follows a nationwide theatrical reissue of the picture in 2013. Extra material sheds light on Giovanni, with an extensive essay charting his fascinating path to the big screen, while an on-disc documentary running over thirty minutes examines the work of Ventura, one of the foremost on-screen talents of the mid-century French cinema.