To come across "Classe Tous Risques" is like discovering a bottle of marvelous French wine you didn't remember you had, opening it and finding it every bit as delicious as its reputation promised. That's how good this classic fatalistic French gangster film is.
Directed by the masterful Claude Sautet, "Risques" had the misfortune of being released in France in 1960, when its traditional virtues were overshadowed by the exploding New Wave. A dubbed version, titled "The Big Risk," appeared briefly in this country, but this Rialto Pictures release is the first time the film has been shown in the U.S. in a subtitled print.
"Risques" has long been a favorite of Sautet's fellow directors. Jean-Pierre Melville championed it, John Woo said it was "powerful and timeless" and critic-turned-director Bertrand Tavernier flatly called it "one of the best French gangster films, tense and warm, elliptical and human." No one fortunate enough to catch up to "Risques" during its week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles will feel like arguing the point.
"Risques," costarring the stoic Lino Ventura as a former gangland chief on the run and a lithe, charismatic Jean-Paul Belmondo as the younger criminal who comes to his aid, is a propulsive, adrenaline-fueled film that gets its tension and energy from the desperate state its protagonist finds himself in.
Abel Davos (Ventura), sentenced to death in absentia when he fled France, has been hiding in Italy for nearly a decade. Now, with his wife and two small sons, he is determined to return home. His family will come back by train, but Davos and his partner need much more elaborate plans to cross the border.
Naturally, things do not go as planned, and Davos' situation becomes increasingly desperate. He contacts his ex-partners in the Paris underworld and, after some soul-searching, they find a young man, Eric Stark (Belmondo, who filmed this back-to-back with "Breathless"), willing to go to his aid.
As with all the classic French gangster films, "Risques" explores the criminal code, focusing on the importance of loyalty and honor among thieves and showing us exactly what it is stand-up guys stand up for.
The high-tension situations Davos and Stark go through are too numerous -- and too unexpected -- to detail, with the exception of noting that with someone as handsome as Stark involved, female attachments (Sandro Milo's Liliane) are soon part of the equation.
Ghislain Cloquet's beautiful black-and-white cinematography looks as good in "Risques' " new 35-millimeter print as the day it was released. In addition to its crisp action sequences, the film has an excellent sense of place, showing us Paris, Nice and the small villages and French countryside between.
Filmgoers who know Sautet's name at all may be surprised to find it attached to this kind of film. Though the director started out as an assistant director for such legendary French filmmakers as Jacques Becker and Georges Franju, he's best known for the humanistic character studies such as "Cesar and Rosalie" and "A Heart in Winter" that he made much later in his career.
Yet one of the things that makes "Classe Tous Risques" distinctive are the palpable emotional connections it makes with its characters.
Though he is the hardest of hard cases, Davos cares deeply about his family, and the feelings of regret, sadness and desperation that cross his face are just one of the factors that make this film the classic it is.
'Classe Tous Risques'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Rialto Pictures release. Director Claude Sautet. Producer Jean Darvey. Executive producers Robert Amon. Screenplay by Claude Sautet, Jose Giovanni, Pascal Jardin. Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet. Editor Albert Jurgenson. Music Georges Delerue. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
At Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.