The story begins and ends in the street. The protagonist first emerges from the crowd, wife and children in tow. By film’s end, he has vanished into the churning mass of pedestrians, utterly alone. In between, a man’s world falls apart as he drowns in disillusionment and betrayal. Welcome to the hard-bitten, understated joys of Claude Sautet’s efficient and moving film noir Classe Tous Risques (The Big Risk, 1960). 

Claude Sautet enjoyed a long career punctuated with gentle, significant films that explored quietly the nuances of personalities and relationships (Les choses de la vie [The Things of Life, 1970]; Cesar et Rosalie [Cesar and Rosalie, 1972]; Un historie simple [A Simple Story, 1978]; Un coeur en hiver [A Heart in Winter, 1992]). He was also a master of fixing a flawed film, and was called in many times to do emergency surgery on troubled French productions. This was Sautet’s first film as director; he had just come from writing the screenplay and serving as first assistant director for George Franju’s classic horror film, Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960). Although he was contemporary with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, he was not a member of the New Wave movement. His approach is the antithesis of experimentalism: he takes a page from the straightforward, unromantic playbook of American noir film of the 1950s. As such, he serves as the link between them and future French noir makers such as Jean-Pierre Melville.

In Milan, a career criminal, Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), his wife and two children, and his pal and accomplice are on the run, out of money. Italy is safe for them no longer. They intend to return to France, but must sneak back in, avoiding border guards and police (Davos has been sentenced to death in absentia). After pulling off a daring daylight heist, the fugitives scramble over the border. Entering France by sea, they run into customs agents, and a shootout leaves Davos’ wife and friend dead. Now the subject of a manhunt, with two small children in tow, Davos seeks help from his old criminal friends. Unfortunately, his former pals want nothing to do with him, insulting him by sending a young gangster, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to bring him from Nice to Paris. Stark is a typical good badman, one who operates by a code of honor, one he shares with Davos. (Only Belmondo’s second film role, his amiable portrayal of Stark was overshadowed by his appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s landmark A bout de souffle [Breathless, 1960] the same year.) “If you stop standing your ground, you’re nothing,” says Davos when faced with his predicament. He intends to stand up for himself, first seeking assistance from, then vengeance on, his erstwhile friends. As he drags through Paris, he leaves more bodies in his wake. Stripped of everything that distinguished him as a man and a criminal, he finds that his code has done nothing but bring misery to all those around him.

The film is adapted from the novel by the prolific writer and filmmaker Jose Giovanni. As Joseph Damiani, he collaborated with the Germans during World War II, and was sentenced to death for his crimes, including murder, only to be pardoned after 11 years in prison. (The character of Abel Davos is based on Abel Danos, another collaborationist Giovanni met in prison.) When released, he began his copious crime writings, many of which served well as the source for films. Two outstanding examples: his novel Le Trou (The Break) was filmed by Jacques Becker in 1960, and Le deuxieme souffle (Second Breath) was adapted by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1966.

Sautet’s style is terse and economical. His characters are underplayed, solemn when they are not silent. The emotions are buried, and the stakes are as stark as they can be – simple survival. (At one point, a character offhandedly and gleefully feeds occupants of an aquarium to the office cat.) This applies to everyone in the film, even the slimy fence (played with relish by the legendary Marcel Dalio) who’s the target of “one last job.”

Embodying the story is Lino Ventura as Davos. Born in Italy but thoroughly French, Ventura started out as a wrestler until an injury sidelined him. He was mentioned by a friend to director Jacques Becker, who cast him as a criminal in the noir Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). For the remainder of his career, Ventura played either criminals or cops. Despite his self-admitted limitations as an actor, he was beloved by French audiences. Ventura epitomizes the tragic dimensions of his character: he is as solid and sturdy emotionally here as he is physically. He never breaks down in the film, but such sights as his silent embrace of his wife’s corpse, and the look on his face when seeing his children off for the last time, show us the devastation of a man who has lost everything he ever cared about. “Walk 10 yards behind me,” he tells his son at one point, as the pain creases his face.

It is Sautet’s ability to quietly observe character that distinguishes this film from the run-of-the-mill noir, an ability that would become foregrounded in his later career. All the beats of the noir are here, but the feeling is entirely different. We do not have a wayward protagonist seduced and betrayed by a femme fatale – we have a thief and murderer who wants to be a family man. The impossibility of that hope, and the mayhem its pursuit unleashes, are the meat of the film. One’s string of luck can only last so long, and then fate overtakes us. 

Behind the matter-of-fact demeanor of those involved is a world of emotion that plays out in violent acts. By film’s end, the merciless scenario has ground down everyone in sight. It plays ultimately not as a crime film, but as a harbinger of existential doom. The only transcendence to be found in the film is the unsullied relationship between Davos and Stark. Their mutual respect and trust is something small but vital, something that lifts them above the petty betrayals of everyday life. Their quiet moments together are miniature reprieves from the inevitable.

Classe Tous Risques (1960 France 104 mins)

Prod Co: Mondex Films, Les Films Odeon, Filmsonor, Zebra Films Prod: Jean Darvey Dir: Claude Sautet Scr: Claude Sautet, Jose Giovanni, Pascal Jardin Phot: Ghislain Cloquet Ed: Albert Jurgenson

Cast: Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Michel Ardan

About The Author

Brad Weismann is a staff member of the Boulder International Film Festival, as well as a writer and editor.

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