Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 02, 2020 11:12 am 
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Honor among thieves

Claude Sautet is the French director remembered for the wonderful Un Coeur en Hiver (one of the triumphs of Daniel Auteuil), from 1992; the well-loved Nelly and M. Arnaud, from 1995; earlier, The Things of Life, from 1970, a vehicle for the late lamented Michel Piccoli. With Piccoli, and the not inconsiderable help of Yves Montand, Serge Reggiani, Gérard Depardieu and Stéphane Audran, in 1974, Sautet made a favorite of mine, the midlife-crisis movie Vincent, François, Paul and the Others. I haven't even mentioned César and Rosalie, with Yves Montand and Romy Schneider, which Pauline Keel called "a wry ode on the fluky, imperfect nature of romantic love."

But before all these, in this filmmaker's long career, there is the moody French gangster classic, Classe Tous Risques. It stars Lino Ventura, of The Army of Shadows,as well as a hot young actor called Jean-Paul Belmondo. It was 1960, the same year as Belmondo's most famous film, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. For a recent revival, Peter Bradshaw described Classe Tous Risques as a bridge between postwar neorealism and the Nouvelle Vague. That in-between-ness has made it tend to get lost, but its inclusion in the Film Forum virtual theater roster brings a gem back to light.

Belmondo looks younger and fresher here and has less swagger than in Breathless, but he has a couple pairs of boxing gloves in his room and he's still an utterly cool and original new star. Ventura is, as always, tough and world-weary and he has a lot to deal with. He plays Abel, a gangster who has been hiding out in Italy for a decade. He and another man, and their wives, and his two little kids, Pierrot and Daniel. There seems to be no quiet way for Abel and his accomplice to make it back to Paris. After two shootouts, there's no one left but Abel and the two boys. The violence is in the news, and it turns out some of Abel's former close allies, notably Farbier and Riton, won't go near him. Luckily, a young thief, Eric Stark (Belmondo) steps forward and is willing to go down with a DeSoto ambulance the others have purchased and drive Abel into France disguised as a patient with a cracked skull. Along the way Eric rescues a pretty young actress called Liliane (Sandra Milo) from an abusive agent and she agrees to dress up as a nurse, making the front more complete. Pierrot hides in a compartment of the vehicle when necessary. Pierrot, though only 8 or 9, is a real French child, perfectly disciplined and grownup.

Those other Sautet films embody a wise and world-weary outlook that isn't missing here just because Classe Tous Risques is an actioner. French gangster noirs from this period are steeped in a jaded and pessimistic view of life. This film is typically about a born loser (and "loser" has become a French word now) who, nonetheless, at best acts by a firm code that cloaks him in a kind of stoical, fatalistic heroism. At one moment Eric tells Abel he had better forget Farbier and Riton and he says, "I've already forgotten them." They were his best friends. Who can you trust? There are lots of betrayals in these pictures, but they're about sifting out the trustworthy ones. This is as much about friendship and learning to be a grownup as Vincent, François, Paul and the Others. Here, it's a starker and more pessimistic world, an atmosphere of simmering resentment and betrayal leavened by the new friendship with the young man who gives his new girlfriend his occupation as "thief," but for Abel, proves true-blue. Only, Abel faces a state of existential emptiness. "Y a plus d'Abel," he says, "There's no Abel anymore." His elegance is his unsentimental acceptance of doom.

Classe Tous Risques, 103 mins., is adapted from a novel by writer and scenarist José Giovanni. It debuted Mar. 23, 1960 in Paris. It had rereleases in the US in 2005 and the UK in 2013. There is a Criterion edition. The version on Fllm Forum virtual theater Jun. 5, 2020 is from Rialto Pictures. Metascore 84%.

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