One of the most refreshing things about Classe Tous Risques is that everybody knows what they’re doing. After one impetuous, unnecessary and fatal mistake made by one of the characters early on, there are no stupid errors, no blundering misjudgements. The characters and the script are too smart to rely on easy-ways-out, and as a result we get a crime film that is as convincing as it is visceral, emotional and stylish.
That Sautet’s 1960 masterpiece is a crime film is incontrovertible. Criminal impulses drive the two male leads throughout the entire film, and we’re never far away from witnessing the terrible, saddening consequences of crime. But to pigeonhole it thus is reductive. It is that rare thing: an existential drama that doesn’t prioritise style over substance, and which focuses as much on warmth and humanity as it does on alienation. Antonioni and Melville would pioneer the existential thriller, but neither would create anything quite as emotionally involving as this.
The plot isn’t too labyrinthine: two buddies, Raymond (Stan Krol, who appeared in three films in his whole life) and Abel (hulking ex-wrestler-turned-actor Lino Ventura), pull off what’s meant to be their last heist. It’s a bravura plan that very nearly works, until Raymond, in the film’s only unrealistic moment, shoots a policeman dead, precipitating a bloodbath and setting in motion the events of the film. Abel, wanted by the authorities, hides out in Nice with his two sons, and contacts old friends named Faugier and Rinot who owe him a favour, asking them to come and pick him up safely. More worried about associating with a wanted criminal than about honouring their debt and their friendship, they send a total stranger, Eric Stark (the dependably charismatic Jean-Paul Belmondo), who looks up to Abel and befriends him. All this happens within the first half-hour.
Why does the film lodge itself so forcefully in the mind? Why is it so indelibly convincing? I’ve mentioned the fact that there’s only one mindless error to stretch credibility, but there’s something else too, an almost intangible factor. It’s something in the way the film is shot. Sautet and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (who has worked with Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Robert Bresson) are adept at creating expansive but realistic action/chase scenes and quiet familial drama in equal measure. We see heists, assaults and misdemeanours of all sorts, caught up in the rush of the pellucid, all-seeing camera; but then, in cuts or zooms, we home in on the effects wrought on the protagonist and his loved ones. It sounds unsubtle, but it accurately reflects the way life works: when accidents or catastrophes occur, the personal impacts are sudden and often violent.
The film is wonderfully shot, and tightly executed. It manages to be highly stylish – with a good deal of humour – and fast-paced, while also maintaining a phlegmatic tone that imbues every frame with meaning. Sautet’s efficiency is laudable: not a single second is wasted. If there’s a shot or scene that doesn’t contribute to the plot, it’s one that develops our understanding of the characters or themes. For instance, there’s a scene in which the police, in looking for Abel, interrogate the hotelier who was temporarily harbouring him. The hotelier practically gives himself up, not resisting or denying a thing. No predictable escape plan, no shoot-out, no begging, informing, or low-life behaviour. It’s a small scene, possibly a minute long, if that. It fulfils no plot function, and adds nothing to our understanding of Abel, except to reinforce the fact that his actions have unfortunate consequences, a fact we already know. So why is it there?
It’s there to provide a subtle counterpart to the behaviour of Abel’s erstwhile ‘friends’, who actually owe Abel. The hotelier symbolises honour and loyalty, as well as awareness of the risks and acceptance of the consequences. Betrayal and loyalty are key themes throughout the film. Often, it’s pretty clear-cut: Abel’s illustrious old friends are pretty disloyal as per the code, while Eric Stark – a total stranger to Abel at the film’s outset – becomes his closest friend. That this loyalty and true friendship is symbolised through behaviour, facial expressions and body language rather than through any clunky sentences are testament to the convincing, nuanced depiction of masculinity in the film. Ventura and Belmondo are superb, and with names like those, you’d better believe they’re pretty damn cool, too.
However, throughout the film, the waters of loyalty and morality are thoroughly muddied. We’re forced to ask ourselves how much can we sympathise with Abel. During the first ‘heist’, his quick thinking and obvious intelligence compel our sympathies; as an audience, we feel safe in the company of a man who knows what he’s doing. But when we see innocent loved ones killed, his kids mere flotsam and jetsam in his choppy criminal wake, we question our identification with this man. He’s no longer a suave thief: he’s someone who is willing to have children suffer collateral psychological damage. The kids don’t have many lines, but their facial expressions (again, subtle – the kids are often in the background) tell us what we need to know.
The moral complexity is also configured in the film’s structure. There are three semi-discrete spheres, intercut with each other: Abel’s, Eric’s, and that of Abel’s friends. All have their hands dirty in different ways: Abel murders people, and causes the deaths of several others, but is obviously a caring, tortured man who sticks to a code of honour. Eric is libertarian, but not amoral – he also has a code. Faugier and Rinot don’t seem to want anyone killed, but they probably wouldn’t have any qualms giving the order if it came to saving their own skin. They rationalise, and betray the code, and so the film paints them as the most immoral. It’s complicated.
While we’re on the subject of structure, I’ll briefly point out that structurally, the film is wonderful. I can’t say too much without giving away key plot-points; suffice to say that for example, the film is practically bookended by two crowd scenes that together exemplify Abel’s journey from hunter to hunted. Watch the film, and you’ll see what I mean.
One of my favourite things about the film is the female characters. In the vast majority of crime films, women are stereotyped as crowing hens, femmes fatales, or sappy limpets. Here, we see two primary female characters. Abel’s wife, Thérèse, carries an obvious psychological burden (partly induced by looking after the kids in a precarious, putative environment), advising caution as well as trusting her husband. Liliane, Eric’s girlfriend, is also a highly watchable character – smart, funny, not particularly intrusive but hardly naïve. Both are loved-up but mature, sticking by their men but fully cognisant of the risks. Both are real, not ciphers or stereotypes.
This film is essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in crime films. It’s hard to believe it’s over half a century old, but the seeds of many subsequent films – The Godfather, Road to Perdition, L’Armée des Ombres, Le Samouraï – might be glimpsed therein.