Judge Dylan Charles spends more time talking with glances and gestures than verbally.
"We always think we're clever. But if you stop standing your ground, you're nothing. You slip a little more everyday, until you're nothing."
For years, Claude Sautet had been an assistant director for other men's films and he watched as they had bungled and fumbled their way through production. Then Classe Tous Risques all but fell into his lap and he was finally given his own chance to make a movie. Does his first attempt succeed or succumb to all the problems that he had witnessed before? Find out in the review below!
(Spoiler alert: It's a pretty damned good movie.)
Facts of the Case
Gangster Abel Davos (Lino Ventura, Army of Shadows) has been on the run from the police for many years, but has now decided to return to France with his family. Unfortunately, the men he used to consider his friends are reluctant to help him, and Abel's situation grows increasingly desperate.
Based on a true story, Classe Tous Risques avoids some of the classic traps of the gangster genre. For starters, it's in French. French gangster films have got a flair, a certain something that gives them a stylish edge over other gangster flicks—which usually means we're going to be treated to a 10-minute shot of the main character moodily smoking a cigarette while staring at a caged songbird (thank you, Le Samurai).
Claude Sautet's first film is carefully shot and is very spare. The score rises only when the action does, making itself scarce for the most part. The dialogue is effective and to the point, with Sautet letting the actions of the characters speak for the most part. Ventura and his partner in crime Raymond (Stan Krol), spend more time talking with glances and gestures than verbally. Their caper at the beginning of the film is only made clear to the audience as they enact it.
Sautet does not glamorize the life of a gangster. Davos is always on edge, always looking around the corner. When his back is to the wall, he kills, without hesitation and without remorse. The violence happens so quickly and is over so fast that it more closely mirrors real life. This is not some slow-motion affair, where bullets and explosions dance for the audience. Instead it's all very quick, very simple as Davos and Raymond do just what they need to do and no more. It leaves the viewer breathless. There's only one part where the violence is more deliberate, more drawn out. Davos confronts a man and threatens to shoot him. When the moment finally comes, the camera lingers on the man's face and a gunshot is heard, and then the scene slowly fades. In a movie that does not seem to mind depicting violence, it's an odd bit of shyness that doesn't have much precedent.
Davos's descent is obvious, especially to him, and the fact that he's aware of his own downfall makes it all the more tragic. He can see that he's falling to a point that he can't recover from, and that knowledge is wearing him down. Lino Ventura handles both the physicality of his role and the emotional aspects very well. It's a role that reminded me a great deal of the part he plays in Army of Shadows: an emotionally ragged man who is not proud of what he has become or what he must do.
Davos is set alongside with Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Breathless), a young man following in the same footsteps as Davos. The best scenes in the movie are when the two are together, with the older man doing his best to dissuade the younger from this same fate.
The ending is about as anti-climactic as it can get, with the ending simply written out in a few sentences. I was willing to accept it as a further denouement of the violent lifestyle, that there's no glory, no climactic finale, just a dwindling to the bottom.
Criterion (surprisingly) has done another stellar job with this release. The image is crystal clear, with sharp blacks, an important thing for a film noir to have. The special features give a good look into how Claude Sautet got a hold of the picture and the involvement of Lino Ventura. In short, Criterion did another great job releasing a classic film. Again.
Classe Tous Risques biggest flaw is a lackluster ending that is kind of an anticlimactic letdown for the tense, action thriller. The ending serves the overall theme of the movie, but I don't know how many folks will actually let that slide. Overall, though, Classe Tous Risques is a taut, spare bit of film noir that was a great start for Claude Sautet's career.
Classe Tous Risques is guilty of grand theft auto, larceny, fraud, murder, and assault. But it's entertaining and poignant, so it's free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Excerpts from Claude Sautet ou la magie invisible, a 2003 Documentary on the Director by N.T. Binh and Dominique Rabourdin
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