CLASSE TOUS RISQUE (The Big Risk) B+
France Italy (110 mi) 1960 d: Claude Sautet
To love American cinema is fine; to try to make French films as if they were American is something else again, very much open to argument. I am not going to attack anybody for it, having myself fallen into that trap two or three times. Jean Renoir learned a lesson from Stroheim and Chaplin when he was making Nana and Tire au flanc, that is to say, he reinforced the French side of his films while he absorbed the Hollywood masters. In the same way, Claude Sautet understood, after the unavoidable detour through crime films, that he should, in Jean Cocteau’s words, be a bird who sings in his own genealogical tree.
—Francois Truffaut, from his memoir The Films in My Life, 1975
Along with Truffaut, Claude Sautet must be considered heirs to the humanist traditions of Jean Renoir, known for making sensitive movies about the French middle class, offering sincere portraits of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, or architects, all reevaluating their place in a postwar society, becoming more prominently purposeful and significant in French life. Popular audiences loved his bourgeois take on modern relationships, particularly his self-critical rendering of a modern world, much like Woody Allen’s films are viewed today, beautifully expressed by an intriguing pairing of Yves Montand and Romy Schneider, probably Sautet’s favorite actors, or Schneider with Michel Piccoli. A graduate of the highly influential Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies, currently known as La Fémis, early on Sautet worked in sculpture, then painting film sets, even writing music reviews before finding work as an assistant or second unit director, developing a reputation as a script doctor, where Truffaut, among others, valued his ability to bring to life relatively mediocre scripts, largely through his editing talent of cinematic montage, suggesting he was an excellent technician. Unlike other fiercely political directors of his era, such as those that ushered in the French New Wave, Sautet never pretended to fight for political or social change, content to evaluate couples in the midst of a midlife crisis, exploring relationships between men and women over forty, typically scrutinizing all aspects of existence, love, work, friendships, ambition, and disillusionment. But before he developed this go-to artistic sensibility, he took a swing at French gangster classicism, producing an expertly staged debut feature that deserves to be considered alongside other fatalistic film noir efforts like Jacques Becker’s TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (1954), which incidentally was actor Lino Ventura’s first film, Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956), where the film so impressed Melville that he basically took the baton in his own single-minded pursuit of resurrecting the French gangster genre. Of interest is the scriptwriter, José Giovanni, a pseudonym for Joseph Damiani, a Corsican Nazi sympathizer who collaborated with the Nazi’s during the Vichy Occupation, whose father was a professional gambler who owned a hotel in the French Alps, sentenced to a year in prison for running an illegal gambling casino. Damiani was a member of a Nazi Youth Group, eventually joining his brother in the criminal underground, extorting money from Jews during the Occupation, while after the war they posed as French Intelligence Officers, targeting a series of rich merchants, torturing them into confessing where they hid their money before murdering them. Eventually he was captured and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to twenty years of hard labor, eventually released by none other than French President René Coty after serving eleven and a half years. Interestingly, Damiani became “the” French screenwriter for crime films in the 50’s and 60’s, proudly writing from his own personal experiences, which included 21 novels, 33 film scripts, and even directed 15 of his own movies. His first novel under the pseudonym of José Giovanni was Le Trou (1957), about his own attempts at a 1947 prison break, immediately turned into a 1960 film by Jacques Becker, and the rest is history. While his real identity was eventually revealed, Damiani was age 70 at the time and allowed to live in peaceful obscurity in Switzerland, not far from the site of his father’s hotel.
Certainly one reason few have seen or even heard of this film is the timing of its release, coming just one week after the release of Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960), which simply dominated the headlines, along with a rush of stories about the French New Wave (which all but ignores Sautet), where in France, at least, Godard has been treated as a demi-god ever since, while Sautet has been relegated to the dustbins of history, resurrected by the monumental achievement of Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage à travers le cinéma français) (2016), supposedly part of a larger twelve-hour effort to re-examine French cinema, including relative unknowns like Sautet who are seen right alongside established greats. What’s immediately noticeable is the bleak, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact style used by Sautet, expressing a gritty, near-documentary realism, very much in the cinéma vérité New Wave manner, captured in Black and White photography by Ghislain Cloquet, who also shot the Resnais Auschwitz documentary NIGHT AND FOG (1956) as well as LE TROU (1960), where there is brilliant use of actual street locations throughout (Milan, Nice, and Paris), becoming something of a road movie for much of the film. This is a movie that elevates what was a second tier actor Lino Ventura into a starring role, an Italian actor who was a former wrestler known as “The Gorilla” who became a beloved figure in France, the centerpiece of Melville’s somber homage to the French Resistance in Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres) (1969), where who can forget a long tracking shot of Ventura running down the street? (L'armée des Ombres YouTube 1:38). The film opens where Ventura, as Abel Davos, is a gangster on the run avoiding a death sentence, who after a decade of living in Italy, even starting a family, is running out of money, so he decides to move with his wife Thérèse (Simone France) and their two young sons back to France, but not before he pulls one last heist with his partner in crime, Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol), a daring theft taking place on the crowded streets of Milan, intersecting a courier carrying a money pouch, a meticulous act of Bressonian precision that depends upon the element of surprise, each escaping in separate directions, eventually meeting up afterwards in what has to be considered a success, though their take is considerably less than anticipated. Their plans to make their way across the border runs into unanticipated difficulties, eventually stealing a boat, landing on an empty beach at Meston in the south of France, where they are surprised by two well-armed customs men. In an ensuing shootout on the beach, both guards are killed, but Raymond and Thérèse are also shot dead, occurring right in front of the trembling eyes of his own children, where immediately he’s back on the run again, this time lugging his two kids around with him, recalling an early Marlene Dietrich film, BLONDE VENUS (1932), where she goes on the lam with a kid in tow. As presented, it defies one’s beliefs, as what kid could seemingly get over it so quickly and retain their composure instead of being reduced to a quivering mess? But here, Davos instructs them to always walk ten feet behind him as he stealthily moves through city streets, taking a bus to Nice. The film also leaves out several interesting details from the book, as Davos is actually modelled after a criminal Gestapo hitman named Abel “The Mammoth” Danos, a character Joseph Damiani came in contact with while serving time in Santé Prison, not long after the Liberation. The real-life Danos was executed by firing squad in 1952 for treason. But rather than reveal his despicable past, the film turns Davos into a sympathetic figure. Perhaps even more remarkable, one of Danos’s criminal associates was the infamous Pierre Loutrel, aka Pierrot le Fou, the name attached to a Jean-Paul Belmondo character in a later Godard film, Pierrot le Fou (1965). As a result, one line that’s sure to get a snicker out of the audience is when Davos is identified by the cops as “an old pal of Pierrot le Fou.”
The focus of the film changes when Davos contacts his old pals in Paris, starting with Riton (Michel Ardan), expecting a kind of honor amongst thieves, where he expected returned favors for getting many of them out of tight jams in the past, where they might well be in prison were it not for his actions. What we witness instead is a lot of excuses and procrastination, as this once mighty criminal boss has all but been forgotten, as people have moved on without him. His unexpected return sends them all into a panic, each not knowing what the other will do. Finding it too risky to head to Nice themselves, they send a total stranger driving an ambulance, an excellent way to transport passengers safely without any police hassle. Then who should arrive? None other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Godard’s BREATHLESS, a film where he becomes an instantly recognizable star, but in this film he hasn’t yet been discovered, so it’s fun to watch him in an early performance where he’s just another character, Eric Stark, unattached and unaffiliated, a lone wolf who boasts of working alone, “Nobody’s ever made decisions for me.” Wearing an oversized overcoat, with a cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth, the guy breathes spontaneity, bringing plenty of brash energy and hard-boiled style to the picture. On route to Paris, he witnesses a guy harassing a girl on the side of the road, stopping to intervene, knocking the guy out with a single punch, turning to the girl in distress, none other than Sandra Milo as Liliane, and offering her a boyish smile of charming innocence, “The good thing about me is my left.” With that, he invites the girl along for the ride, discovering she’s an aspiring actress, playing nurse to Davos, his head covered in bandages, supposedly from head trauma. After crossing one of those wondrous bridges over the Seine River, the shot of them dropping her off in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower perfectly centered in the background, is priceless. But instead of being happy to see him, Davos notices his former partners are reluctant to get involved, growing angry and irritated at the their squeamishness, finding it completely disgusting. These are guys he once risked everything for, and now they’re too scared to move a muscle. Tragically, this scenario only grows worse, so Eric, out of respect, sets him up in an empty room in his building, allowing him time to figure out what’s next. The contrast between the two is interesting, with Belmondo continually flashing his youthful charisma, especially in his romantic adventures with Sandra Milo, while Ventura is weighted down by his own self-inflicted scars, bruised by the grim reality of his profession. Finding an old army buddy of his father’s working in a maritime museum, a retired sea captain provides a safe home in the country where his kids can live. Eric even offers to partner up with Davos, having just lost his regular partner, but now it’s the old man who wants to work alone, too proud apparently to accept the offer, but also sensing his world is constricting from the police moving in, interrogating his acquaintances, putting the squeeze on. But first, Davos makes the rounds himself, putting the muscle on those that refused to come through for him, turning on them with a vengeance, becoming a Hellish picture of damnation, where at least in his eyes, there’s nothing worse than betrayal, where the souls of all his former associates are damned. By him! Even with a small fortune in his pocket and a one-way ticket to America, the guy is doomed, sadly sensing the end is near, walking around like there’s already a noose around his neck. This bleak and melancholic film is all about developing the claustrophobic interior world, where there are no longer any wide open spaces left, just the dreariness of a few small rooms. One of the more touching scenes involves a chambermaid (Betty Schneider), perhaps his last friend in the world, who cautiously offers him assistance during a police raid. It’s a completely unsentimental moment, set up by an earlier scene where he showed her some kindness, but the moment is fleeting, with only a voiceover narration drawing the film to a close, offering a sense of quiet resignation. According to the author, Joseph Damiani, “Classe tous risques is the best film adaptation of any of my books. It doesn’t have any nightclub scenes. It doesn’t treat the subject as folklore. And it has more heart than Le deuxième souffle.”