Male bonding in cinema particularly in crime drama is a long tradition. There's an endless list of buddy films where gun-toting fellas forge lifelong connections under a hail of violence. But let's face it (gay cowboy movies aside), true emotional intimacy between men rarely makes it to the screen.
The basis for director Claude Sautet's 1960 crime noir is familiar enough: an aging gangster on the run. But what's surprising is the way Sautet humanizes his tragic characters. Woven into the Classe Tous Risques' genre conventions are the first stirrings of the French new wave. Instead of romanticized violence, a sense of human waste and fatalism emerges, reminding us of the high personal costs of living a life of crime.
Sad-eyed Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) is a thug on the lam. Hiding from the death sentence that awaits him in France, he's spent the last decade living in Italy with his wife and two little boys. When resources dry up, he and his best friend stage a desperate robbery. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned, and Davos is forced to seek help from former colleagues in Paris.
The mob dispatches Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young, inexperienced driver to escort Davos home. On the road back, the two gangsters learn to trust one another, forming a friendship that re-establishes the idea of honor among thieves. Davos, struggling to escape his past, is drawn back in because of his newfound loyalty to Eric. But it's a bad bet, since betrayal lurks in every corner of the criminal underworld.
One of the joys of discovering a forgotten gem like Classe Tous Risques is watching the influences of two very different film movements (noir and new wave) colliding to make something special. Director Sautet creates a strong sense of melancholy and angst, turning a criminal game of cat and mouse into an emotionally affecting tale about male relationships.
As Davos and Stark grow to depend on one another, they trade macho bluster for simple honesty. They are men at opposite ends of their lives struggling with issues of trust, betrayal and self-loathing. It's a delicate dance and Sautet does a masterful job of making clear what's at stake.
Classe also has marvelously understated visuals and a slick sense of storytelling. The scenery changes rapidly, and the film's forward momentum is irresistible. Sautet knows how to take things to the breaking point, punctuating the tension with outbursts of violence. The film's opening half hour is a rush of action that carries you from a sudden daylight robbery in Milan to a high-speed chase through police roadblocks, finally arriving at a shootout on a secluded beach in Nice.
If you're a fan of Rififi or Le Deuxième Souffle, see Classe Tous Risques while you can. With its seedy view of loyalty, existential dread and unexpected sensitivity toward male bonding, Sautet's film may very well have been a death knell for the era of noir machismo. After all, it takes a real tough guy to admit his true feelings.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 24-25, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 26. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].