Saturday, March 21, 2009

Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk 1960)

The Gangster Code in Classe tous risques

“I’m telling you because we always think we’re clever, but if you stop standing your ground, you’re nothing. You slip a little more every day until you’re nothing. Like today.”

The 1960 French film Classe tous risques (AKA The Big Risk) is director Claude Sautet’s second feature length film, and while films such as Bob le flambeur (1956) and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954) show their hood protagonists as elegant, glamorized men, Classe tous risques smacks of gritty realism in which all glamour is glaringly absent. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Classe tous risques is based on the novel by José Giovanni. Giovanni was mixed up in a murder and racketeering case, sentenced to the guillotine, and then served a commuted sentence of hard labor. Imprisoned for a total of eleven years, Giovanni wrote a number of novels--some of them completed while still in prison, and a number of which were made into films including: Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960), Classe tous risques (Sautet, 1960), L’Excommunie/Un nommé La Rocca (Jean Becker, 1961) remade by Giovanni as La Scoumoune (1972) and Le deuxième souffle (Melville, 1966). Le Trou is based on Giovanni’s attempt to escape from prison while Classe tous risques is based on the life of gangster Abel “the Mammoth” Danos, a prominent member of the Bony-Lafont gang, the Gang des Tractions Avant, and the Carlingue.

More than twenty years after the film’s release, Claude Sautet discovered that the fictional Abel Davos was based on the real-life of Abel Danos, one of the most notorious French gangsters of the 40s. Sautet admitted to interviewer Michel Boujut that if he had known about the Davos-Danos connection he “might not have made the film.” The real-life Danos was executed by firing squad in 1952 for treason. However Eric Guillon’s recent book Abel Danos: Between Resistance and Gestapo throws some doubt on the absolute demonizing of Danos as a collaborationist. By the time Danos came to trial, there was only one living witness to testify against him, and the witness had an adversarial relationship with Danos. On the other hand, another witness testified that Danos was a member of the Marco Polo Network.

When Classe tous risques begins, sad-faced gangster Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) is not at the pinnacle of his criminal career. Living on the run in Milan, and under a death sentence in France for his crimes, Abel has lived in self-imposed exile in Italy for almost a decade and raised a family there. But now with the money running out and the police closing in, Abel decides to return to France and his network of friends. Ventura who already had a number of solid roles in his impressive resume, plays the role of Abel with a tired, but determined, laconic acceptance.

On one level it makes a great deal of sense for a criminal to return to a familiar network of fences, fellow thugs, and tipsters, and this is particularly true for any criminal existing on the run. In Abel’s case, he also has a family to support, but since Abel is under a death sentence, returning to French soil is a desperate move that brings him uncomfortably close to the guillotine. Abel’s decision to return to France is taking an enormous risk (hence the film’s title), and he knows that if he’s caught, the game is over. At some point in the story, Abel’s risk morphs into self-destruction.

Abel and his longtime loyal henchman, Raymond (Stan Krol) ship off Abel’s wife Therese (Simone France) and two small children by train with the plan of meeting back up and then sneaking into France illegally by boat. When the wife and family out of the way, Abel and Raymond commit one last job on Italian soil with the idea that this heist will set them up for some time. The heist is also emblematic of the reductive progression of Davos’s criminal career. It’s a street snatch and grab--short, simple, and violent, boiling down to a daring daylight robbery, in which Abel and Raymond cosh security guards and make off with a bag of loot while slipping through heavy city traffic.

Abel and Raymond count the loot and are disappointed to discover that the haul is a fraction of what they expected. Splitting the money, the two men separate with a toss of the coin. While Raymond, a crony of Pierrot Le Fou wins the coin toss, he subordinates his safety to Abel and gives Abel the car while he takes the motorbike to the border. Although things go wrong at the border, incredible split-second timing and luck bring the two men back together for the reunion with Therese and the children.

The film’s initial breathless pace underscores the sheer professionalism of these two hoods--men who both have long rap sheets and a slew of bodies in their bloody pasts. But luck also plays a huge role, and luck delivers them to a French beach and dumps them there….

Abel returns to France with the idea that he’s returning to his reliable network of pals--fellow hoods who can help ease him back into the French crime scene. Abel tells himself that perhaps he’s been “forgotten,” and there’s an irony to this hope as while the police still remember him, Abel’s pals would rather he didn’t exist. Stuck in Nice and with cops crawling all over roadblocks, Abel needs help to get to Paris, but his pals in Paris suddenly don’t seem that eager to have him back. They mull over Abel’s request to send an ambulance to Nice, and every one of them comes up with an excuse why they have to hire a total stranger to go to Nice and haul Abel back to Paris.

At this point Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) enters the picture and he takes on the risky job of traveling to Nice and rescuing Abel. But Stark does a great deal more than that. Picking up a new, instantly faithful girlfriend along the way, Stark essentially replaces Raymond as Abel’s right hand man.

By the time Abel makes it back to Paris, he feels betrayed and disappointed in his friends, former gang members Fargier (Claude Cerval), Jeannot, and Riton of the Gates (Michel Ardan). While perennial loser Jeannot is currently out on bail between prison stays, Riton and Fargier have become bourgeois and comfortably affluent. In one great scene that takes place in Riton’s café, Riton’s wife nags Abel while listing the inconveniences he’s caused in their lives, and Riton, who’s too hen-pecked to stop her, lets her ramble on until Abel forces a confrontation and limits the discussion to gang members. At this point, Fargier announces his plan to help retire Abel to a remote place in Brittany. Abel isn’t ready to be put out to pasture and he reminds his pals of the debts they owe him. Shame-faced and unable to look Abel in the eye, Fargier and Riton waffle and ultimately refuse to help him. They’ve done the minimum by hiring Stark, but now that Abel is back in Paris, he’s too hot to handle, and none of Abel’s former pals want him under their roofs. It is left once again for Stark to step in and help Abel--in spite of the fact that these two men don’t really know each other and that Stark doesn’t owe Abel a thing.

Abel’s situation has plummeted from bad to worse. The police are hot on his heels and it’s a matter of time before he’s caught. Considered a pariah by his former pals, without safe shelter and unable to provide for his two young sons, Abel takes his chances robbing a Parisian fence. This act crosses the line as far as Abel’s pals are concerned, and by robbing a fence they use and know, Abel has cannibalized his own network. On the other hand, Abel’s robbery of a former underworld connection is the desperate, self-destructive act of a cornered man who is willing to alienate all of his former contacts to break out of his current untenable and incredibly humiliating position. By robbing the fence, Abel symbolically acknowledges that old debts remain unpaid and that any crumbs of loyalty are worthless. This is an act of war, but it’s also the last possible, self-destructive choice for Abel. He can be cornered, snitched out, and starved out, or he can take action that symbolizes a break with the past and heralds a path of bloody final revenge. But Abel’s final defeat comes in the humiliation of acknowledging his inability to help Stark. The message is that if a man is unable to pay back his friends, then he is nothing.

Loyalty and friendships between gangsters remain a dominant theme in films and books that explore the labyrinthine codes of criminal life. According to the film, Abel funded Riton’s café and got Faurier out of prison. In return, he gets a one-way ambulance ride to Paris, but ultimately his friends abandon him. Abel’s former associates clearly decide to not return favors because he is so powerless and in such desperate need of their help. They elect to abandon him simply because they can. Their failure to help, and their failure to repay Abel at the lowest point in his life, is a betrayal of gangster ideals, and Classe Tous Risques is a magnificent exploration of those abandoned ideals from the view of a gangster who’s tumbled from the top of the heap and now needs a few of those owed favors in order to remain in the game.

Unfortunately Classe tous risques was released just a few weeks after Godard’s Breathless. Overshadowed by the Godard blockbuster, Classe tous risques was a box-office failure, and Sautet swore he’d never make a film again. But luckily for French film fans, Sautet relented and added many films to his resume including the subtly brilliant Un cœur en hiver (A Heart in Winter) and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Ironically it is Breathless that is credited for catapulting Belmondo to stardom while Classe tous risques sank in the dust for many years. Criterion’s 2008 releasewill bring a new audience to this underrated film, and as usual the Criterion print is gorgeous. The DVD extras include excerpts from a documentary about Sautet, an interview with Jose Giovanni, archival footage, trailers and a booklet.

Written by Guy Savage


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