Tuesday, March 17, 2009

CLASSE TOUS RISQUES ("The Big Risk," 1960)

Do the French call their own crime movies films noirs, or do they reserve that label for American films? I know that they refer to their own hard-boiled crime fiction as romans durs (dur=hard or tough), so a film like this one could be a film dur. "Hard-boiled" or "tough minded" pretty well describes the attitude of Claude Sautet's movie. But it's a different kind of hardness or toughness than the American style. Rather than wisecracking irreverence in the face of disaster there's a matter-of-fact fatalism to this movie, and to most of the French crime films I've seen -- an attitude that says, "This is how it is. No use complaining." But there's also a tragic sense to this movie that reminds me of American noirs. It's based on a novel by Jose Giovanni, a onetime denizen of Death Row who also did the source novel for Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Deuxieme Souffle. If anyone's translated these books into English, I want to read them.

This film (the title translates more correctly to something like "Consider the risk") opens in Milan, where Abel Davos is arriving at the train station with a child in his arms. He and his friend Raymond meet Abel's wife and his other son. They send Therese with the kids on board the train and head back up to street level, where a narrator introduces them to us as career criminals, Davos being a fugitive. They have eyes on two security guards transferring money, and make their move in broad daylight.

They evade the Milanese cops by ducking into a subway station as the idiots run past, then popping out and hopping into their getaway car. They divide their 500,000 lira haul and split up at a gas station, Raymond taking a motorcycle and Abel keeping the car. This launches a fast-paced getaway scene as they go separate ways at a roadblock, clobbering cops and carjacking folks along the way until they reunite. "We're the greatest!" Abel says before they inconspicuously catch a bus to next rendezvous.

Now they have to hire a boat to get from Italy to France. With Therese and the boys below deck, Abel and Raymond throw the captain overboard (along with some life preservers) before planning their clandestine landing at Meston. They arrive at night, but blunder right into a customs patrol. Therese and Raymond are killed, as are the guards. Abel and his boys are on their own.

Investigators cover the scene the next morning. The boat captain has been fished out of the sea and gives them a good description of Abel and his kids, who are now on a bus bound for Nice. In the city, he explains to the boys that they have to walk at least ten yards behind him in the streets from now on, since a man and two boys together will attract suspicion. Now he places a call to Paris and waits for his pal Henri Vinton (alias "Riton") to arrange a way to smuggle him up to the capital.

This is where the real story kicks in. Riton and his cronies all consider themselves friends of Abel Davos, to whom they owe various moral or monetary debts. But they all find it too risky to themselves to go down to Nice and fetch their friend. Instead, they seek out someone with nothing to lose to drive a dummy ambulance south, while Abel stews and his boys grow anxious. He's thrown out of one safehouse because it's getting too hot in Nice, but Abel has nowhere to go but Paris, and no way to get there on his own. Finally, the Paris gang finds their man.

Eric Stark is a lone wolf operator who boasts, "Nobody's ever made the decisions for me." For money, he agrees to take the ambulance to Nice, where he manages to find Abel with little trouble. Stark is a spontaneous character. He stops the ambulance along the edge of the woods when he sees a man harassing a woman. He pummels the man and invites the girl, Liliane, along for the ride, telling her that the "patient" in the back is on the lam without telling her why. She's a good sport and an aspiring actress, playing a nurse tending to Abel when cops inspect the ambulance at a checkpoint, while the boys are hidden in convenient trick compartments.

The ambulance makes it to Paris with little trouble, and Abel's friends are happy to see him, but the feeling isn't mutual. He doesn't care for their excuses for the delays. He stuck his neck out for them in the past. Couldn't they do the same. After a rare display of temper, he stalks off in disgust, Stark still trailing behind. Initially uncertain about his driver, Abel is warming toward the one person who was willing to take a risk for him. Stark likes Abel, too, offering him a spare room in his apartment building. Unfortunately, Abel has to turn his boys over to a retired sea captain who was a friend of his father.

As the investigators slowly follow the trail north, it looks like Liliane is being interrogated, too. But it's only a rehearsal for a play as Stark drops by to renew their acquaintance. They look like a promising couple, a vindication of both character's spontaneity. Meanwhile, Abel is going a little stir crazy in the apartment. Stark gets him some fake papers so he can walk the streets, but Abel declines his offer of a criminal partnership. The tragic irony of the film is that while a surrogate family of Stark and Liliane seems to be growing around Abel's truncated family, and while he burns bridges to those who weren't willing to risk anything for him, Abel is sadly reluctant to build closer ties to his new friends because he doesn't want to risk losing them the way he did Therese and Raymond earlier. As his world constricts from the sweeping scope of the exhilarating early sequences to his self-entrapment in a succession of small rooms, Abel Davos is figuratively dwindling away until he says, "Abel is gone. There's nothing left." Finally, as the nets close in on Stark no matter what Abel does, and after a halfhearted stab at vengeance on his former cronies, Abel literally disappears into a crowd (in a scene that reminded me, of all things, of the end of Sam Raimi's Darkman), leaving the narrator to wrap up the story.

* * *

There was a time some years ago when I would see the same trailer every time I went to the Spectrum Theater, Albany's outstanding art-house multiplex. It was for a film called Un Coeur en Hiver, which I decided from the evidence must be one of the most boring films ever made. Back then I had no idea who Claude Sautet was, but this was one of his later films, after he had abandoned the crime genre for romantic dramas. Now, having seen Classe Tous Risques, I'd like to see that other movie. If it has any of the vitality and emotional weight of Sautet's debut, I'll offer a quiet apology for my sneering youthful self. The Criterion DVD is a beauty, with lots of crisp location shooting and the kind of urban detail I really enjoy.

But while credit is due the director, and to Jean-Paul Belmondo, who signed up to play Stark just before Godard's Breathless made him an international star, the reason I wanted to see this film was Lino Ventura.

Ventura was a blunt object of a man, Franco-Italian, a former boxer and wrestler who became a star in the 1950s playing, among other parts, a recurring role as "The Gorilla." He's a badass without being "badass," a modest monster who seems perfectly at home in the milieu of French crime films. He was capable of more, from playing a French Resistance leader in Melville's Army of Shadows to a two-fisted Chicago priest who battles Fred Williamson in Three Tough Guys. He had charisma without glamour, power without overstatement, emotion without emoting. Le Deuxieme Souffle may be his two-gun apotheosis, but Classe Tous Risques is the best work of his that I've seen to date. I've liked him in everything I've seen so far, and there's much more out there -- how much on DVD I don't know. I recommend him to any crime film fan or European films in general.
Here's the French trailer, with English subtitles and a sample of the light yet tense score by Georges Delerue.

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