History tells us that the neophyte directors who emerged in sixties France made films that challenged the established aesthetic tradition. It forgets to tell us about a director like Claude Sautet, whose hard-nosed thriller Classe Tous Risques (1960) was thrust into almost immediate obscurity by the formal insouciance of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, released one week earlier. Sautet is most widely remembered now for his psychological studies of romance such as Un Coeur en Hiver and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, but his debut illustrated a gift for bringing emotional complexity to the hardest of genres.
Classe Tous Risques is an essential addition to the long line of French, American-influenced movies featuring ageing criminals exploring the fatal prospect of ‘one last job’ such as Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Rififi and Bob le Flambeur. In the tradition these films established, this is not exclusively about guns and cash, but friendship, loyalty and honour. However, where genre greats like Jean-Pierre Melville sought to cast their protagonists out from ordinary life, Sautet’s criminals display subtle psychological nuances that go beyond the usual preoccupations of French cinema’s laconic thieves. Their doubts no longer concern merely trust among friends, but possess a kind of involution – a turning towards themselves.
These insecurities are embodied in big-boned and big-hearted protagonist Abel, played by Lino Ventura, the quintessential French gangster whose thuggish frame and sincere boorishness Sautet had admired previously as an assistant director on 1959’s The Beast is Loose. Abel is on the lam in Italy and manages to make his way to Paris to see his wife and two boys, with the help of guardian angel Juan-Paul Belmondo. Sautet can also rightfully claim to have discovered Belmondo’s youthful, effortless cool even before Breathless; and, at the very least, began to cultivate – perhaps more so than Godard’s film – Belmondo’s on-screen persona as something more than just an imitation of Humphrey Bogart.
This was the first sign that Sautet had a gift for working with actors in a career in which he would forge lasting partnerships with some of the best French actors of his generation: Yves Montand, Michel Piccoli, and Romy Schneider in the 1970s and 80s, and Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart and Sandrine Bonnaire in the 90s. Sautet represents his characters at an immediately relational level, allowing actors to explore the full range of their emotions. Ventura and Belmondo in Classe Tous Risques are at once small, brutish, loyal, vulnerable, desperate and hopeful, ensnared by all those things known as life. With the help of Sautet, their performances bring new depths of humanism to the French gangster film without compromising its Gallic, rufflesome punch.
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