- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

There are several haunting aspects to the French crime melodrama “Classe Tous Risques,” in revival at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. It has taken almost half a century for the movie to be distibuted in a complete and subtitled version.First released in France in April 1960, it made a barely discernible American appearance as a dubbed import titled “The Big Risk.”

More reflective than sensational, it’s an account of a hood on the run who has aged handsomely, preserving a model of low-key rapport between two actors who were about to enjoy major starring careers:Lino Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The former plays a fugitive gangster, Abel Davos, who is running out of time and self-respect; the latter is cast as a young associate, Eric Stark, a freelance underworld Galahad who comes to Davos’ aid and provokes a crisis of conscience.

This was the movie Mr. Belmondo shot right after making “Breathless” with Jean-Luc Godard.The films also were released back to back; “Breathless” created a big stir a month before “Risques” got lost in the shuffle.

The extensive location shooting in “Risques,” principally drawing on Milan and Paris but augmented by ports of call in Ventimiglia, San Remo and Nice, has provided a time-capsule authenticity that seems priceless for its own sake.

Not an immediate success in France, the movie enjoyed a rousing comeback in 1970. It had rallied admirers from the outset. One of them, Bertrand Tavernier, became a film director; he championed “Risques” while still an undergraduate and amateur critic.

Jean-Pierre Melville, already a maverick professional destined to specialize in the crime genre, also was a major booster. He found it convenient to use “Risques” as a rebuke to new wave titles he thought overrated.

By the time of the 1970 revival, the director of the “lost” film, Claude Sautet, also had bounced back. Always in demand as a screenwriter and script doctor, he re-emerged as a specialist not in crime fiction, but in a genre of exceptionally observant and often melancholy romantic comedy-melodrama.

For the next 25 years he became identified with such films as “Cesar and Rosalie,” “Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others” and “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud,” his final feature, in 1995.All of them were art-house favorites in Washington.He died in 2000 at the age of 75.

“Classe Tous Risques” alludes to a kind of insurance policy, definitely out of reach for a protagonist as homicidal and doomed as Abel Davos, who is condemned to death in his native France before we encounter him as an exile in Italy.

The movie was based on a pulp novel by an ex-con named Jose Giovanni, already embarked on a thriving career with crime fiction.He had collaborated on the prison escape thriller “Le Trou” with Jacques Becker and the heist thriller “Rififi” with Jules Dassin.

Perhaps past associations gave Mr. Giovanni more familiarity with criminal codes at their most ruthless, fatalistic and rueful. As a practical matter, the film is atmospherically and thematically persuasive. Immersed in character, milieu and nuance, it sells the proposition that Davos embodies some kind of hard-bitten, sinister integrity.

We observe him resort to schemes that backfire calamitously as he struggles to return to Paris.So much wreckage and miscalculation pile up that the only honorable alternative in the last act appears to be a severe self-judgment. It’s confirmed with such disarming finality that the movie’s fadeout became a classic among the French.

The opening sequence is set at the Milan railway terminal, where Davos’ wife, Therese (impersonated by Mr. Giovanni’s sister, evidently a non-pro) and two little boys catch a train toward the border.Dad and his crony Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol) hang around a bit longer and stage a daylight mugging of a railway payroll agent.

They escape with a measly stake in lira, then hasten north themselves with a getaway car and getaway motorcycle, abandoned by Naldi at the first roadblock. Their getaways seem haphazard in the extreme, but the filmmakers also observe that improvising on the run is a perverse stimulant for these hard guys.

A subsequent shootout with customs agents leaves Davos with an abundance of blood and regret on his hands. He expects former cronies in Paris to ride to the rescue.

Now semilegit, they’re reluctant to oblige but find an outsider, Stark, who is willing to carry out the mission, which involves driving an ambulance rigged with hidden compartments.Stark collects Davos and the boys, not to mention a girlfriend (Sandra Milo) acquired on the return trip through another act of gallantry.

Davos carries fatal grudges back to Paris, but the loyalty of Stark and the awareness of his budding romance, which seems to reawaken shame in Davos about the way has failed Therese, eventually brings a halt to his wave of revenge.

He arranges for the boys to be relocated safely and calls it quits before having more deaths to ponder. You get the impression that he’s had far too much practice in parting company, confronting doom and running away from the law.

***

TITLE: “Classe Tous Risques”

RATING:No MPAA rating (made in 1960, before the advent of a rating system) — adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and graphic violence)

CREDITS:Directed by Claude Sautet.Screenplay by Mr. Sautet, Jose Giovanni and Pascal Jardin, based on a novel by Mr. Giovanni.Cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet.Music by Georges Delerue.In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

WEB SITE:www.rialtopictures .com/classe.htmMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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