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Classe tous risques

Classe tous risques
Criterion 434
1960 / B&W / 1:66 anamorphic widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date June 17, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Lino Ventura, Sandra Milo, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Marcel Dalio, Michel Ardan, Simone France
Cinematography Ghislain Cloquet
Production Design Rino Mondelini
Film Editor Albert Jurgensen
Original Music Georges Delerue
Written by Claude Sautet, Pascal Jardin from a novel by José Giovanni
Produced by Jean Darvey
Directed by Claude Sautet

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

French crime thrillers have a special flavor found nowhere else. For the past few years Rialto and Criterion have been turning out excellent restorations of French classics from the 1950s: Jules Dassin's Rififi, Jean-Paul Melville's Bob le flambeur, Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi. 1960's Classe tous risques is the taut tale of a criminal on the run, struggling to keep his family together. As directed by Claude Sautet, the film is unusually realistic and unsentimental. The tough characterizations and personal codes of honor operate separately from American noir influences.


Wanted for capital crimes back home, Parisian hood Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) has been living in Italy with his wife Therese (Simone France) and their two small boys. Deciding that a return to Paris is their best option, Davos and his partner Raymond (Stan Krol) carry out a complicated plan to sneak back across the border, but all goes wrong on a deserted French beach. Alone with his boys, Davos calls his old buddies in Paris for help. Instead of assuming the risk themselves, the racketeers send young thief Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a stranger. Stark sneaks Davos north in an ambulance, enlisting the aid of Liliane (Sandra Milo), a girl he meets on the road. Once in Paris, Davos provides for his boys and hides out, wondering what his next move should be.

1960 was a good year for José Giovanni, an ex-criminal who spent time on death row before becoming a novelist. Jacques Becker directed the acclaimed Le trou based on Giovanni's experience attempting to break out of a French prison. Although the gangsters of Classe tous risques are fictional, we sense the authenticity in their behaviors. Lino Ventura, the most consistent icon in gritty French thrillers, presents Abel Davos as a man running out of time, friends and options. Davos' notoriety is such that his friends really can't help him -- the flics know his associates and watch them all carefully.

The movie begins with Abel's two boys and his mother waiting in a train station. As soon as his family is en route to the north, Abel and his partner Raymond pull off a daring midday holdup on a crowded sidewalk, escaping with a banker's satchel of money. Sautet stages some of his action scenes amid ordinary people on the street, and makes good use of cars and boats to show Davos evading roadblocks and French customs police. Davos is a thief and a murderer, but we can't help but take his side. He instructs his boys to walk ten paces behind him at all times, and to walk away if they should see him surrounded by a group of men. The boys aren't fully aware of how desperate the situation is.

Davos is soon joined by Jean-Paul Belmondo's Eric Stark, a cool customer who openly admits to his new girlfriend that he's a thief. She's intrigued anyway. Like Davos, Stark can take care of himself when trouble arises. He's forthright, loyal and likes kids, an interesting contrast with Belmondo's hipster character in Godard's Breathless, released not long before. These French crooks have a keen appreciation for professional finesse, and Davos and Stark form an immediate bond.

Not so Abel's old partners in Paris. Both have gained position and property and won't risk themselves for Davos' sake. Davos reminds them that they literally owe him their lives -- he took a bad rap for one of them -- but it does no good. Once the ruling prince of the Paris underworld, Abel must hide out in a maid's room in Eric's apartment building. Forced to literally give his boys away to trusted friends, Davos' only new acquaintance is a sweet, innocent maid (Betty Schneider).

In a way, Davos seals his own fate. To provide some money for his children, he robs a fence (Marcel Dalio), with the excuse that he's brought the man millions in profits over the years. When his old partners unite against him, Davos shows his mettle by outwitting each of them in turn. But he can't avoid the feeling that his efforts are pointless. He's lost his family and his actions are doing harm to people he cares about.

Classe tous risques succeeds at all levels. The police manhunt story is clever and original. One criminal loses the love of his life while another finds what seems a perfect girl. Eric Stark thought he was through with women but the beautiful Liliane (Sandra Milo of Otto e mezzo) accepts him for what he is. As the police close in, Davos goes into action one more time. Eric does what he can to help.

Claude Sautet covers all of this in a quiet, matter-of-fact style. Classe tous risques takes place in ordinary rooms and city streets as opposed to the nightclubs and other exotic locales usually associated with crime pictures. Its characters are vulnerable and de-romanticized, as seen in the contrast between Jean Gabin's cultured hood in Touchez pas au grisbi and Lino Ventura's demoralized Abel Davos. Gabin represents an escapist tradition of French masculinity, while poor Ventura is just an unlucky guy who knows he's playing a losing game. The film's true conclusion arrives when Davos realizes, without remorse, that his struggle is finished.

Criterion's DVD of Classe tous risques is another near-flawless European classic to reach DVD after a brief theatrical reissue. The enhanced B&W image is very clean, allowing us to appreciate a veritable 'criminal's travelogue' of towns and roads en route to Paris circa 1960.

The extras consist of a docu excerpt (Claude Sautet ou la magie invisible) from 2003, a new interview with author José Giovanni and an old interview with actor Lino Ventura. The insert booklet contains essays by Bertrand Tavernier, Binh, and Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as a reprinted interview with Sautet. Two trailers are provided as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Classe tous risques rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Excerpts from 2003 docu on Sautet, interview with screenwriter José Giovanni, interview with Lino Ventura, trailers; text essays by Betrand Tavernier, Binh, Jean-Pierre Melville; text interview with Sautet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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