A train station in Italy. Two small children receive a furtive send off before boarding a train alone with their mother. Their father, a fugitive gangster, has decided that it’s time for the family to return home to France after ten years in hiding, but to finance the move, Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) needs to pull off one last job, a brazen theft in broad daylight in Milan. Of course, that theft only increases the unwanted attention from the police, and Davos’s flight to the border, and eventually to Paris, is a dramatic, dangerous and ultimately tragic grasp at freedom, which underpins Claude Sautet’s fantastic thriller about a once-powerful man now struggling for his survival.
Based on a novel by José Giovanni, written after the author’s release from jail, Classe tous risques (Consider all Risks) gets off to a dynamic start, with Davos’s getaway from Milan relayed in a terrific action sequence, involving cars, motorbikes and a boat landing on the French shore under the cover of night. But when the worst happens, Davos finds he must turn to his former partners-in-crime for help. His ‘friends’ in Paris now live more respectable lives, safe only because he took the fall for their misdeeds in the past, culminating in his exile. But now, years later, they are reluctant to pay their debts. Instead of becoming personally involved, they send Eric Starck, a young man-on-the-make (played by a terrific Jean-Paul Belmondo) to pick up Davos in the south of France and bring him back to Paris.
Davos, who should be more concerned with the welfare of his family, is quietly furious and turns to plotting his revenge, seeking payback for this latest betrayal – with the help of Eric, who goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect Davos and his children. From this point on, despite clear indications of the brutality that lurks below the gangster’s charismatic exterior, Sautet sets up a blend of moral ambiguities and dilemmas, making it almost impossible not to empathise with Davos – even if his actions can’t be condoned.
Classe tous risques is a taut, original gangster film told with simplicity and a compelling directness, with bare-bones exposition and a neorealist touch. But there are also deeper, more thoughtful issues in play with Sautet’s no-punches-pulled exploration of the conflicts between loyalty and family, and the code of honour among thieves. The result is a tour de force, which is rounded out by a soundtrack by Georges Delerue and beautifully composed cinematography from Ghislain Cloquet. In one memorable shot, a woman that Davos and Eric encounter, having only just realised that she might be in the company of criminals, is caught between Eric in the background, while in the foreground, a telephone – a link to the cops – is separated from her by a pane of glass. Her moment of hesitation as she decides between right and wrong is exquisite.
It’s only a shame that Classe tous risques was utterly eclipsed on its original release by Belmondo’s other film, Breathless, coming out in the same year, and the ensuing excitement over the French New Wave. But the real mystery lies in why Sautet rarely returned to the underworld of gangsters and criminals during his career, choosing instead to focus on dramas set in the world of the bourgeoisie – films which, admittedly, brought him more success than this overlooked, but rich contribution to the genre.
Watch the trailer: