In spite of working wearily outside of the French New Wave movement, Claude Sautet’s debut feature, Classe Tous Risques (1960), cannot help but evoke the cinematic environment bursting forth around it. While it may seem crass to spend time discussing more well known work in an article about a director whose work has been largely ignored outside of his national audience, it should also aim to show the absurdity of his lack of recognition outside of France in the first place. Sautet may have been poorly served in the past by international distributors but this release may go some way into sparking that much needed interest in the director’s other work (outside of his Criterion release of course).
Classe Tous Risques may have been made in the same year as Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout De Souffle, it may be about very similar themes and characters and may even share an actor (Jean-Paul Belmondo) but Sautet is clear from his debut onwards that he simply does not consider himself part of New Wave pack. As a litmus test, it’s intriguing, not to mention extremely useful, to have Godard’s work sitting alongside Classe Tous Risques just to see how formalism and cinematic modernism treated genres in their different, idiosyncratic ways as well as the various cross over.
Sautet’s debut is a crime thriller but one that, rather impressively, manages to focus more on the consequences of actions rather than simply sharp suits and style. It follows a gang leader, on the run after a job, played marvellously by Lino Ventura. The further he runs, the more he loses and most of the people around him fall by the way-side in various ways before the film has finished. What is really interesting about Classe Tous Risques is its obvious allegiance to cinematic formalism while simultaneously, perhaps even subconsciously, taking in some of the tricks from the New Wave.
During the first robbery, the action that sets of the whole chain of events, Sautet fills the scene with shaky camera work, clearly filmed undercover with the public being natural extras à la Godard. Unlike Godard though, the structure of the scene is far more solidified with smooth cuts and even smoother transitions. Of course, being made in the same year and of the same genre, it can’t help but garner an aesthetic likeness to À Bout De Souffle if only slightly more reserved.
When all has gone wrong in Abel Davos’ life, he becomes reliant on the kindness of Eric Stark (Belmondo) who plays a remarkably similar character to his role in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962). Melville is yet another interesting comparison as his position within France’s cinematic landscape is slightly more aligned to Sautet’s than any of the New Wave players. Like Sautet, Melville sits outside of the movement and, at least in contrast to the more experimental nature of it, seems far more formal just as Sautet does. The comparison is completed when acknowledging Lino Ventura’s later role in Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969).
While it could be tempting to continue trying to fit Classe Tous Risques into the terrain of French cinema, there are several reasons why it seems wholly original and can easily get by on its own merit without a breath of Godard, Melville or any number of other French directors. For the film is emotionally charged like few crime films dare to be. The loss on screen when a character goes can come as quite a surprise, not simply because of its scenario but also because of how skilfully Sautet can sketch characters with a mere handful of compositions. The director manages to coax any number of histories from a single glance; more so than some can through whole reams of monologue.
In the end though, a crime film simply wouldn’t work without some sense of action and Sautet’s formalism means that it comes off as refreshing. Belmondo in particular is a wily action man, throwing kicks and punches in his usual, spidery fashion. Several moments that could loosely be described as car chases are also memorable, seemingly heightening the themes of escape and journey which are central to the film’s affect. In a particularly tense moment, the film’s first encounter with a roadblock leads to a wonderful chase sequence which is equally as pleasurable to watch as is to listen to as the engines of 1960s cars purr and growl around the Milan countryside.
Perhaps most strikingly, and a great example of understated class, is that our main character’s fate (and that of the real character he is based on) is not given screen time to allow for an all out blaze of glory like so many American Film Noirs would insist on. Instead, Abel is allowed to simply wander into the crowd of a busy Parisian street with the voice-over telling the viewer his fate. This stands as a beautiful metaphor and one that goes against so many more typical crime dramas; while cinema so often enjoys portraying the criminal life as a glorious one where the participants rise above the everyman, in the end they can vanish and come back down to Earth with the slip of trigger. Classe Tous Risques not only shows this but ultimately questions whether the criminals ever really rose up above in the first place.
The BFI release comes with its usual booklet of interesting extras and a short but all encompassing documentary on the film’s hard man, Lino Ventura. While this underrated performer’s career is indeed of interest, here’s hoping that the greater success of this release will allow for more Sautet based releases and extras as he’s clearly a director whose time in the shadow is very much becoming limited.
Classe Tous Risques is released by the BFI on the 24th of February.
- Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Brand new restoration
- Monsieur Ventura (Doug Headline, 1996/2014): documentary on the life and career of Lino Ventura
- Original French and US trailers
- Illustrated booklet with newly commissioned essay by the Guardian’s John Patterson