Classe Tous Risques
(Claude Sautet, France/Italy, 1960, 35mm, 103 mins.)
Until I caught up with the long unavailable Classe Tous Risques, I thought of Claude Sautet (1924-2000) as the elder statesman behind the exquisitely restrained dramas Un Coeur en Hiver (1992) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995), both featuring this month's Sight & Sound subject, Emmanuelle Béart. For each, he was awarded the coveted César, the French version of the Oscar.
Written by ex-con José Giovanni (Le Trou), the film, which got lost amidst the New Wave, reveals another facet of the filmmaker. Originally released in a dubbed version as The Big Risk (according to J. Hoberman, "the title is an untranslatable pun on tourism and insurance"), Sautet delves into the same Gallic underworld on which Jean-Pierre Melville--one of my all-time favorites--made his bones. It may not be as sleek as Le Samouraï, but it's as unpredictable as Le Cercle Rouge.
Shot by Ghislain Cloquet (Mouchette), Classe is often described as a film noir, but plays more like a neo-realist thriller, with most of the illegal activity--lira-snatching, carabinieri-whacking--taking place during the day. Further, it's virtually devoid of music, just a few brief, but effective bits from Georges Delerue (Jules et Jim). There's also a quintessentially French narrator, who pops up on occasion.
Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is likely to be the most familiar name in the cast, former Greco-Roman wrestler Lino Ventura (Melville's Army of Shadows) takes the lead as career criminal Abel Davos. Davos is the kind of guy who won't hesitate to plug a foe--and many will soon get plugged--but dotes on his wife, Thérèse (Simone France), two bambinos, and partner-in-crime Raymond (Stan Krol).
When a robbery goes wrong, however, several of those nearest and dearest to Davos lose their lives. It's his fault and he knows it. Until that time, it's been one chase after another: by foot, car, bike, bus, and motorboat. The pace lets up after that, although the tension remains--and intensifies.
Not until the midway point does the post-Breathless Belmondo materialize as a mysterious cat named Eric Stark, who offers to help Davos escape from Milan to Paris and to hide him until things cool down. The retired boxer seems like a nice enough fellow, but can he be trusted? With Belmondo in the role and a suspiciously generic name like "Eric Stark," who's to say?
On their illicit journey--by ambulance--Davos and Stark run into damsel in distress Liliane (Tunisian-born Sandra Milo, 8 1/2) and offer to take her with them to France. Like Davos, she's not sure whether she can trust Stark, but doesn't have anywhere else to turn. Plus, the attraction is instant--and mutual.
Sautet continues to introduce new characters right up until the end. It's a risky move, but one that pays dividends, especially with a third-act walk-on from a duplicious fence's sullen daughter, who pouts in a most hilarious fashion (the bit with the cat and the fish is priceless). She may not be essential to the story, but Ms. Insolent's saucy appearance helps to elevate Classe from good to great.
Not long afterwards, Classes Tous Risques is over. The end, when it comes, is surprisingly sudden. Bertrand Tavernier has described it as "abrupt, unsentimental and poignant." There's a happy ending for one man, a not-so-happy one for the other. You could say Sautet hedges his bets--the film isn't a tragedy, but nor can it be described as uplifting. Somehow, he pulls it off. The result is a thriller that may not surpass Melville for cool, but rivals him in the hood-with-heart department.
Classe Tous Risques, in a fully restored 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum May 12-18, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 3 and 5pm). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.