Claude Sautet’s Class Tous Risques was eclipsed by Godard’s Breathless in 1960, but Jean-Paul Belmondo gets shot in both of them. He doesn’t play such a smarmy prick in Sautet’s film though, which is a starkly cynical and intelligent bit of realist crime completely stripped of flash. It’s about a middle-aged thief named Abel (Lino Ventura) who is banking on one last score to retire. Like most movie criminals with jinxed retirement plans, shit turns sour and Abel has to rely on his shifty underworld cohorts for help.
The film opens in the enormous central train station in Milan, where Abel is sending off his wife and two young sons. He’s already on the lam, having been previously convicted of murder, but he wants to pull off one more heist before fading into retirement. Family is more important to him now than his life of crime. Him and his partner Raymond (Stan Krol) meet up at the station, then head out to the crowded streets. Their plan is to knock over a bank messenger, make a getaway, switch cars, and meet up after crossing the border to France. Abel’s got a lot of friends in Paris who owe him a lot of favors.
The scenes shot on the streets of Milan have a strong feeling of Italian neorealism. Sautet used only a handful of extras, so a lot of the reactions on camera are ones from actual bystanders who think they witnessed a real crime. A lot of people look into the camera too, which heightens the strangling sense of anxiety before the heist, rather than break the realism. The getaway is pretty intense too, with really long shots of Abel and Raymond darting through traffic. There’s a couple times where they almost hit someone crossing the street and it looks totally unplanned. Like the baby carriage bit in The French Connection. Close call, indeed.
Their getaway doesn’t go as planned and Abel holes up in Nice. He calls in a favor to his Paris buddies to get his into France. Instead, his “friends,” bitch back and forth about who should go pick him up. No one seems eager to stick their neck out for old Abel. They decide on a kid who they don’t know very well, Eric Stark (Belmondo), to drive an ambulance into Nice and retrieve Abel. Belmondo was just about to blow – he starred in 10 other films around 1960 and would star in six more that year.
Abel is pissed they sent some goof that he doesn’t know. He feels insulted and like his friends have abandoned their criminal code of honor. Here the movie begins to focus on Abel and Eric’s relationship, which blossoms into a tight friendship. Eric has absolutely no reason to go through all this trouble for Abel – risking his life and freedom. But he hasn’t lost his sense of honor, all he knows is that Abel is one high-class guy that needs help. So he helps him. The friendship they develop feels believable too, not forced in any way. Without saying much or having to explain themselves, they become BFFs.
Once they make it to Paris, the mise-en-scéne suffocates Abel (check out the picture above) – like he’s trapped by his surroundings. It works really well. Abel has an unrooted life but desires a normal life with his wife and kids. His environment and criminal community won’t allow it. It’s tough to watch this seemingly nice guy struggle to pull himself out of the grave, only to have his cohorts throw more dirt on him.
Ventura has a great face for this kinda role. Like he’s been through some shit. Belmondo is chill and he shares some great scenes with his love interest, Liliane, played by Sandra Milo of 8 1/2 fame.
American noir films from the 30s and 40s were immensely popular in France, but Classe Tous Risques doesn’t feel derivative of anything. It’s a wholly original work of art that’s hard and stark, meditative and compassionate. I really dig unsentimental crime cinema, and this one’s definitely a prime example. I’m really glad I finally checked it out.