Claude Sautet (1924-2000) was something of a late bloomer within the French movie industry. Though active as an assistant director, then a screenwriter and script doctor from the middle 1950s, his breakthrough as a director was postponed until 1970, when a tearjerker titled “The Things of Life” opened the door for a distinctive cycle of seriocomic domestic and romantic melodramas about upper-middle-class friendships and estrangements during the remainder of the decade.
After “Cesar and Rosalie,” “Max and the Junk Dealers” (never released in the United States), “Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others,” “A Simple Story,” “Mado,” and “A Bad Son,” Mr. Sautet’s productivity declined in the 1980s. Neither film completed in the ‘80s - “Garcon!” starring Yves Montand and “Quelque Jours Avec Moi” starring Daniel Auteuil - was acquired for American distribution.
His sensibility returned unimpaired to the art-house circuit in the 1990s, when Emmanuelle Beart in “A Heart in Winter” and then “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud” emerged as the most beautiful and stirring of Claude Sautet leading ladies since Romy Schneider in the 1970s.
Although a handful of Sautet pictures remain mysteries to his American admirers, there was a belated rediscovery released five years after his death: the 1960 crime thriller “Classe Tous Risques.” The second movie credited to his direction, it was the first that Mr. Sautet himself acknowledged.
Its initial failure at the box office in France stymied his directing aspirations for quite a while, although the movie was successfully revived two years after the false start. A dubbed version titled “The Big Risk” circulated in the United States with scant notice, but Rialto Pictures’ impeccable subtitled version, now available in a DVD edition from the Criterion Collection, caught up with the movie when it was a 45-year-old minor classic.
Claude Sautet was never desperate for work before he became a major film director. Francois Truffaut described him as “the mender of the French cinema” because he was such a ubiquitous script doctor. According to the welcome but still bare-bones documentary material appended to the DVD, Mr. Sautet regarded it as a creative challenge “to improve the really awful stuff.”
He had attracted the attention of Lino Ventura, who plays the fugitive gangster protagonist of “Classe Tous Risques,” during an earlier production in which Mr. Sautet, as an assistant, deftly took control of a sequence that had overmatched the director of record. Salvage work wasn’t invariably needed, and Mr. Sautet admired several directors he worked for, notably Jacques Becker and Georges Franju, but the aptitude for problem-solving gave him a reputation among peers before he acquired “name” recognition and authority.
Since crime melodrama never evolved into a Sautet specialty, as it did with his contemporary and admirer Jean-Pierre Melville, “Classe Tous Risques” remains a haunting exception in the Sautet filmography.
The raw experience that prompted the movie came from a novelist-turned-screenwriter, Jose Giovanni, an ex-con who acquired the material for both “Risques” and Mr. Becker’s harrowing “Le Trou,” which depicts an attempted prison escape, while he was behind bars. The former revolves around an exiled, condemned gangster, Mr. Ventura’s Abel Davos, whose attempt to return to France from a six-year sojourn in Italy triggers a sequence of calamities. The upshot: fatal shootouts, double crosses, paybacks and Abel’s eventual resignation to doom, clinched during a fadeout so ironically emphatic that it makes a more persuasive “crime does not pay” impression than the genre usually expresses.
“The Big Risk” was a translation of least resistance. If translated at all, the original title would be better served by such renderings as “End of the Line” or “One-Way Passage.” The underworld milieu provides reliable opportunities for apprehension or sudden violence that are systematically complicated and improved by thematic preoccupations with loyalty, betrayal and deluded or self-destructive behavior.
Abel expects a measure of devotion from old confederates that they’re reluctant to sustain when the heat is on. His most trustworthy ally is a stranger, Jean-Paul Belmondo as a freelancing knight errant called Eric Stark whose liking for the hard-bitten older hood is perceived as a mixed blessing, since it’s likely to injure or shorten his own life.
An ominously incisive and brooding manhunt fable, “Risques” often recalls “crime” movies outside the conventional boundaries, notably Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” and Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out.” The emotional rapport between the Ventura and Belmondo characters anticipates the chemistry that Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu achieved years later in “Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others.” A primary subject of the Sautet career - accounting for the feelings that bond or separate human beings - could be renewed whether the characters were criminal or law-abiding.
The failure of “Classe Tous Risques” to catch on when new seems even more absurd when one reflects that Mr. Belmondo had emerged as a star a bit earlier in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.” By all rights, his portrayal of Stark, a more appealing crook in many respects, should have reinforced the breakthrough. Instead, one vehicle overshadowed the other.
Curiously, “Risques” includes a passing reference to a hood called Pierrot le Fou, which became the title of a later, ill-conceived Godard-Belmondo collaboration. The Pierrot who matters in “Risques” is a little boy, the eldest of Abel’s two sons, left to the kindness of strangers by their father’s miscalculations.
TITLE: “Classe Tous Risques”
RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter; occasional profanity and graphic violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Claude Sautet. Screenplay by Jose Giovanni, Mr. Sautet and Pascal Jardin, based on Mr. Giovanni’s novel. Cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet. Decor by Rino Modelini. Music by Georges Delerue. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME:108 minutes
DVD EDITION:Criterion Collection
WEB SITE: www.criterioco.com