Director: Claude Sautet
Writer: Claude Sautet, José Giovanni, Pascal Jardin
Based on a Novel by: José Giovanni
Starring: Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo
Country: France & Italy
Running Time: 109 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
When you've been a bit of a film buff/lover for a long time, it's rare that older titles can come out of nowhere and surprise you. There are of course thousands upon thousands of films out there for people to discover, but most of the classics which are still available to audiences have been so well discussed that you'll often know what to expect from a film before you get around to watch it. When my friends at the BFI sent a press release over for Classe Tous Risques, I must admit I hadn't heard of it though. Other than supporting actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, none of the names in the cast and crew jumped out at me either. I gave it a quick scan on IMDb and it sounded right up my alley so I took the plunge and luckily it resulted in that rare thing, a true 'pleasant surprise'. Not that 'pleasant' is the right way to describe a hard boiled film noir like this.
Classe Tous Risques, which was based on a novel by actual jailbird José Giovanni (who also helped adapt it for the screen), tells the story of Abel Davis (Lino Ventura). Aided by his right-hand man Raymond (Stan Krol – a former cellmate of Giovanni), Abel pulls off a daring daylight robbery and attempts to flee to France. The perilous chase results in tragedy and Abel ends up stranded in Nice with his two young sons in tow. He asks his old gang for help in getting back to Paris and hiding him and his family, but gets snubbed. A friend of Raymond's, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), shows up to take Abel to Paris though and the two become partners as Abel attempts to redress the balance and do best for his boys whilst evading the police.
The opening 20 minutes of this film blew me away and I knew I was in safe hands from then on. Shooting in true city locations, director Claude Sautet (making his 'true' debut feature here) hurls the audience into tense showdowns and exciting chases as we follow our anti-heroes from Milan to Nice. We even get a car chase put together without a street full of stunt drivers, prompting real reactions from passers by and fellow motorists. It's impressive stuff, especially for the time. À bout de souffle (a.k.a. Breathless), released within a couple of weeks of this, may have got all the praise for popularising the French New Wave's use of handheld cameras and location shooting (among other things), but Classe Tous Risques was also using the techniques to truly bring life to an ageing genre.
Unfortunately, the mid-section of the film which follows this breathtaking first quarter is slower and not quite as attention-grabbing, but it's certainly still worth your time. The fatherhood aspect to the story helps create a richer, more sympathetic lead character than most noir thrillers. This is further aided by an exceptional performance from genre stalwart (as I have become aware) Lino Ventura. His physical appearance can be rather threatening so you can believe him as a 'villain', but his striking gaze and understated expression hints at honour, warmth and depth beneath his stony exterior.
Belmondo is at his smouldering best too, with that exuberant energy he has flashing through, including a couple of fight scenes and a steamy romance with Liliane (Sandra Milo). I'm not well versed in French cinema to be honest (which probably explains why Ventura and this film had passed by my radar undetected), but from the couple of films I've seen of Belmondo's I can see what the fuss was about.
As mentioned, the mid-section of the film did sag a bit for me, despite it handling the more 'human' aspects very well for a film of its kind. Luckily the final act makes up for things, as Abel 'tidies things up' so to speak. Without wanting to spoil anything, it's hardboiled noir at its best and made me realise how stupid I'd been in skipping over French noir for so long. I need to work my way through that Melville box set I've had sat on my shelf for a while and hopefully there are plenty more surprising discoveries in store for me elsewhere.
Classe Tous Risques is out on 24th February in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by the BFI. I was sent the Blu-Ray to review and the restoration is stunning. It's beautifully clean and sharp with a clear soundtrack too.
You don't get a lot of features, just a couple of trailers and a documentary, but the latter, a look at the life and work of Ventura, is very good. His friends and colleagues sing his praises but are honest about his quirks.
With the Blu-Ray/DVD you also get the customary booklet crammed with essays and background information too. This makes for great reading as always.