Thursday, July 17, 2008
“End of the Road”: review of Classe Tous Risques
The best film noirs are invariably about doomed characters, men and women who initially rail against, and then make peace with the fact that, as one title put it, “nobody lives forever.” Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960), which was recently released by Criterion, features one such doomed antihero, a crook named Abel Davos played by the great Lino Ventura.
Classe begins with Abel and a cohort successfully pulling off a theft, but inadvertently causing the death of Abel’s wife. The rest of the picture finds Abel struggling with the fact that his future is pretty much nil, but he still has to care for his two sons. Enter a rather convenient helpmate: a young hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps him avoid the cops and also watches out for his kids.
The fact that the melodramatic aspects in Classe don’t drag the film down is a testament to both fledgling director Sautet’s skill at pacing his curiously tripartite thriller, and to the film’s cast, particularly its two leads. For all the strangeness of his role (his character bonds with Ventura a mite too quickly), Belmondo makes a terrific costar — something he was never to do after he became a box-office god. Classe was made shortly after Godard’s A bout de souffle had been filmed, so JPB was still just a young eager performer who happens to get a nice showcase for his talents here, as you can see in the rather lengthy French trailer below. Ventura was a phenomenal talent possessed of an incredible face and a quiet simmering presence just made for noir: he gave two of his best performances for the king of French darkness, Jean-Pierre Melville in Le Deuxieme Souffle (coming out soon from Criterion — after not having played in the U.S. for decades!) and Army of Shadows (already out from… you guessed it).
Speaking of Melville, he is revealed to be a fan of Classe in the notes included with the package. He raved about the film and director Claude Sautet, perhaps because Sautet was not a member of the French New Wave, the group of young filmmakers for whom Melville served as an inspiration, and later became an antagonist (in the 1962 piece included here, he in fact vaunts Sautet by crackin’ wise about Truffaut). Another major fan of the film is consummate film-fan and Funhouse interview subject Bertrand Tavernier, who maintains he wrote his first-ever review about the film, and defended its reputation as a B picture by declaring “Better to be B like Boetticher than A like Allégret!” (thereby slamming a noted French director and praising another Funhouse favorite and interview subject). Tavernier mounts an argument that the film’s seemingly odd construction, including a rather sudden ending, is to its benefit.
Finally, since this is a review of a Criterion release, I have to praise the characteristically terrific obscure TV interviews they’ve dug up. First is a segment from a documentary on Sautet, in which he reflects back on this, his first complete feature as a director (he had taken over a preceding film), and the film’s initial box-office failure is discussed (it evidently was overshadowed by the new crime flicks like the aforementioned A bout de souffle). Ventura is seen being interviewed in both the Sixties and the Seventies, and proves to be as calm and reflective offstage as he was on (only don’t mess with him, alright? One sequence where he picks up a guy up and throws him over a table is explained by talk of his past as a Greco-roman wrestler). The most interesting supplement is an interview with the film’s scripter, Jose Giovanni, who adapted his own novel. Giovanni also wrote Le Trou and Le Deuxieme Souffle among many other films, and was unashamed to discuss his past as a crook (in fact Le Trou was his account of an unsuccessful jail break he took part in). He reveals that Classe was based on a real crook he knew when he was “inside” on death row. Now let’s see other crime-movie scripters compete with that sort of pedigree….
Here is the original French trailer for the film, which gave me a clue as to what the title was getting at, when the narrator pronounces it like “Classe Touriste”: