February 15-21, 2006

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'Classe Tous Risques'

A classy re-release of a 1960 French crime thriller

By Richard von Busack

First-time director Claude Sautet described this excellent crime drama as "a film about the end of the traditional underworld and its flamboyant ways." Certainly, it's a film about the end of the traditional underworld movie.

The muscular yet soulful Lino Ventura stars as Abel Davros, a criminal legend hiding after a robbery and escape that left several dead. The police dragnet is closing in, and the fugitive's old associates (who owe him) have gone soft, respectable or afraid. But Abel is given a last reprieve from Mme. Guillotine by an insouciant boxer turned thief, Eric Stark (lead-billed Jean-Paul Belmondo), who impulsively volunteers his help.

For those who would rather look at mid-1950s Paris than mid-1400s Florence, the film is heaven. Bresson's cinematographer Ghislain Cloque photographed it. And the piquant argot is newly translated by Lenny Borger.

Sort of a beard, but a beautiful one, is Stark's girlfriend Liliane (Sandra Milo, who was, according to Sautet, the girlfriend of one of the producers). Like her fellow Tunisian Claudia Cardinale, Milo is ripe and dark. In some actresses, beauty is accompanied with a sense of humor or patience. In a few, there's a sense of disgust, as if the lady has been harassed one too many times—the kind of clouded beauty Ingrid Bergman had in Under Capricorn.

That's what Liliane has, and when she turns on the full wattage of a smile on her new squeeze Stark, the movie gets a burst of levity. Stark is slightly weightless from love; the couple glides into the frame in a plunging elevator; Stark hops over a short flight of stairs, just thinking about her.

In the constant change of scenery, and the lash-like outbursts of splendidly choreographed violence, Classe Tous Risques looks forward to the Bond films as much as it looks backward to the age of Bogart and Jean Gabin.

Though Sautet did a spy adventure later on (he directed one of the OSS 117 pictures), his concern is, as always, with the human side of the story. The director of Nelly et M. Arnaud supplies unfussed-over poignancy, which stings the viewer—consider Abel's unspoken farewell to his children, who are last seen framed through the arch of a car's side window; or the motherly woman who pronounces Abel's obituary: "I always hoped for something good for him. I don't know what it was, but I always hoped it."

Barely released, dubbed and concealed under the title The Big Risk (supposedly "Classe Tous Risques" means an all-risk insurance policy), this classic gangster movie never got a fair chance in America. J.-P. Melville (director of the similar Bob le Flambeur) praised Sautet by saying that if Classe Tous Risques had starred Robert Ryan, it would have got the attention of Hollywood.

Such judgment shows the way Parisians of the day understood Hollywood cinema: how they expected that Ryan was the biggest thing in the movies of the day (as he should have been) instead of realizing he had the status of a B-actor, compared to nonpareils like Pat Boone and Troy Donahue.

Movie Times Classe Tous Risques plays at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco.

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