Dec 9, 2019

Classe Tous Risques

Admittedly, the older I get, the more François Truffaut’s classic film Jules and Jim (1962) seems like phony bullshit as dreamed up by an effete poser that has never had a genuine masculine friendship and I recently discovered that I was not the only one with this canon-contradicting opinion after reading a tribute to Gallic auteur Claude Sautet (Max and the Junkmen, Mado) by fellow French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. Indeed, in the short yet superlative tribute entitled ‘The Quiet Courage of a Great Filmmaker’ featured in the March/April 192 issue of Présence du Cinéma, Melville soundly argued when comparing the masculine friendships of Sautet’s masterful second-feature Classe Tous Risques (1960) aka The Big Risk aka Consider All Risks to Truffaut’s film, “People often speak of films where the relationships between men, their friendships, have an enormous importance. I believed in the friendship of Abel Davos and Stark absolutely. It is interior, and does not appear by means of dialogue. The two men’s behavior makes explicit their feelings, without either of them having to speak of their friendship. On the other hand, I was not able to believe in the friendship of Jules and Jim, even though they speak of it often.” While Melville opens his tribute by confessing, “I offer my friendship rarely,” Sautet’s film had such a huge impact on the filmmaker that he not only gave his friendship to the fellow frog auteur but also somewhat copied his singular gangster film style, which is somewhat ironic when one considers the source material of the film. Indeed, despite being a French Jew that famously fought with the French Resistance during WWII as he would so painstakingly pay tribute to in his film Army of Shadows (1969) aka L'armée des ombres, Melville would (somewhat unwittingly) take imperative influence from a film based on a 1958 crime novel about real-life French Gestapo agent Abel Danos (alias ‘le Mammouth’ due to this robust/muscular build)—a bodacious bad ass that refused to wear a blindfold upon being confronted with the firing squad that would execute him—as penned by Corsican-blooded card-carrying-fascist collaborationist José Giovanni (real name Joseph Damiani) who was involved in the torture, blackmail, and murder of various French Jews and resistance fighters. In fact, gentleman Giovanni was, not unlike Danos (who he befriended in prison), even sentenced to death himself for three premeditated murders but luckily (and unlike Danos) he escaped the guillotine when his sentence was commuted by President Vincent Auriol and instead he served eleven and a half years of an initial twenty years of hard labor. Fierce fascistic source aside, I suspect that Melville, himself part of a criminal underground, could sense a certain intrinsic authenticity to the less than glamorous crime and grime of Sautet’s film. 

 While Melville arguably had an imperative influence on the filmmaking of French master auteur Robert Bresson with his debut feature Le Silence de la mer (1949) aka The Silence of the Sea—a more or less avant-garde chamber piece featuring a reluctant Nazi officer apparently partly inspired by German Conservative Revolutionary movement intellectual and supposed Nazi-fellow-traveler Ernst Jünger—there is no question that Classe Tous Risques was a crucial influence on the filmmaker’s legendary gangster flicks, including Le Doulos (1963), Le deuxième souffle (1966), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970).  In fact, I would argue that Sautet’s film is more immaculate and enthralling than all of Melville’s flicks aside from possibly Le Samouraï (1967) and apparently I am not the only one that thinks so as source writer José Giovanni himself would once say, “CLASSE TOUS RISQUES is the best film adaptation of any of my books. It doesn’t have any nightclub scenes. It doesn’t treat the subject as folklore. And it has more heart than LE DEUXIÈME SOUFFLE.” Indeed, Melville’s Le deuxième soufflé is also a Giovanni adaptation that stars Lino Ventura, but it spends about an extra 40 minutes to do what Sautet’s film accomplishes more effortlessly in terms of sheer underworld pathos, paranoia, and pessimism. As someone that experienced much of Melville’s oeuvre long before ever even hearing of Sautet, I can safety say that watching Classe Tous Risques felt like the result of the mastering of the Melvillian universe as if all of the ‘excess fat’ and static plodding that sometimes plagues the Judaic auteur's films was carefully cut with the carefully calculated precision of a seasoned Fleishmaster.

Indeed, whereas most of Melville’s films are something I might be inclined to revisit every couple of years, Sautet’s second feature is a seemingly flawless flick of the good and hearty sort that demands to be re-watched regularly and can be re-watched when you’re in any sort of mood despite its rather bleak and pessimistic subject matter. Of course, being the kind of person that prefers Once Upon a Time in America (1984) to all of Sergio Leone’s other films combined, The Fire Within (1963) aka Le feu follet to any of Malle’s other films, Taxi Driver (1976) to Scorsese’s later Goodfellas (1990), La Bête Humaine (1938) to Renoir’s purported magnum opuses La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), and even Luca Guadagnino’s ostensible Suspiria (2018) remake to Dario Argento's 1977 original, Classe Tous Risques is like the cinematic equivalent of ‘cold comfort food’ as a rare gangster flick of almost Spenglerian pessimistic proportions that dares to question humanity as a whole in its delightfully despairing depiction of a foredoomed gangster on the run that quickly loses everything that makes life worth living.  Indeed, if any film acts as an apt eulogy for the gangster genre, it is Sautet’s underrated black-and-white masterpiece.

 Notably, Jules and Jim is not the only obnoxiously overrated La Nouvelle Vague film that would eclipse Classe Tous Risques—a film that still has not completely gotten its due despite now being regarded as a masterpiece among certain cinephiles and film historians—in terms of sheer popularity. Indeed, as French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (Death Watch, Coup de Torchon)—a loyal protégé of both Sautet and Melville—explained in a tribute to the film entitled ‘Beautiful Friendships’ in regard to its unfortunate history, “Sautet’s film was also eclipsed by BREATHLESS, released just a few weeks before; all the credit for bringing out the talent of Jean-Paul Belmondo went to Godard, despite the fact that in CLASSE TOUS RISQUES, Belmondo shows us a completely different side of his great gift as an actor, his remarkable versatility, by making credible an authoritarian character with radiant charm, by stunningly fusing virility and childlike innocence, in a performance that is in a totally different register from the one he gives in BREATHLESS.” Admittedly, due to my general loathing of Godard’s debut feature and especially the lead character, I initially disliked Belmondo and would not really realize his brilliance and effortless charisma until seeing him in relatively mainstream films like Georges Lautner’s The Professional (1981) aka Le Professionnel and against-type arthouse roles like in Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961). In short, Godard neutered Belmondo in films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou (1965) as if to make the actor more autobiographically autistic. In Classe Tous Risques, Belmondo does what Belmondo does best by being both the ultimate man’s man and lady’s man as a suave young cocksman that knows exactly how to fight and fuck (despite the film technically not depicting much of either). 

 Not surprisingly, both Melville and Sautet were completely unaware of the covert fascist flavor of Classe Tous Risques, which is probably a good thing as the film probably would not exist otherwise. Indeed, as Sautet stated in an interview featured in the book Conversations avec Claude Sautet (1994) by Michel Boujut when asked if he know that the film’s lead was based on an infamous fascist, “If I had known, I might not have made the film. I was not aware that Abel Danos—Davos in the film—had belonged to the Bony-Lafont [collaborationist] gang during the occupation. It was only after the film was released that one day, in a bistro, some underworld types tipped me off: ‘It’s great that you made a film about Abel!’” In fact, apparently Sautet did not even realize that his screenwriter, José Giovanni, who he described having “got along perfectly” with, was also an (ex)fascist as the novelist (and, later, filmmaker) was not revealed to be a collaborationist until October 1993 after being exposed by two trashy Swiss dailies. Undoubtedly, Giovanni’s experiences as a once-condemned man certainly informs the decidedly desperate and even sometimes downright nihilist tone of Classe Tous Risques, which ultimately concludes with the lead antihero passively accepting his date with death despite technically getting away with his crimes as the character has been condemned by fate after losing virtually everything that meant something to him, not least of all his pride and dignity. 

 Although his crimes are never made clear, French gangster Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) has been tried in absentia and sentenced to death, so he is now hiding in Italy with his wife and their two little boys after being forced to flee Switzerland. After committing a successful holdup on a busy Milan street with the help of his rather agile accomplice Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol)—a completely fearless fucker that demonstrates complete loyalty to his comrade—that concludes with an insane getaway that involves motorcycles and carjackings, the group decides to, somewhat curiously, head back to France. Rather tragically and quite unexpectedly both Raymond and Abel’s wife are gunned down by custom agents just as they arrive at a deserted beach cove in the middle of the night in an almost surreally nightmarish scenario that marks the beginning of the end for the seemingly forsaken antihero. Virtually trapped in Nice, France with his two extremely young sons, who are clearly scarred for life as they witnessed the coldblooded murder of their mother and family friend Naldi, Abel is seriously screwed in more ways than one, but luckily some people owe him a “debt,” or so he naively assumes as a man of honor that seemingly never heard the timeless sentiment that there is, “No honor among thieves.”  Indeed, Abel might be a violent crook, but he has a strict moral code that gets put to the test when his old comrades break said moral code.

Abel expects to have good help from his old underworld buddies as Henri ‘Riton’ Vintran (Michel Ardan) owes him a big favor for funding his successful bistro and Raoul Fargier (Claude Cerval) practically owes him his life for somehow getting him out of prison, but unfortunately it never occurred to the antihero that his old pals are nowhere near as honorable, grateful, or respectful as he is. While a third friend, Jean ‘Kid Jeannot’ Martin (Philippe March), wanted to promptly arrive in France with a machinegun and ambulance to smuggle him back to Paris, he is talked out of it by Riton and Fargier as he is on parole and cannot risk such a precarious move. Since Fargier is a self-centered coward and Riton has been emasculated by his nagging barmaid wife, the ‘old friends’ decided to do what amounts to the bare minimum and reluctantly agree to hire a young stranger, Éric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to pick up Abel and his sons. Needless to say, Abel is highly offended to the point of feeling deeply betrayed when a total stranger as opposed to his old friends arrives in Nice, but, unbeknownst to Fargier, who hired him, Stark is actually an old comrade of Raymond Naldi or as he confides to the protagonist while trying to alleviate his worries, “I had a friend named Raymond Naldi. They don’t know in Paris. I didn’t want to tell you either, but with what you’re thinking, it’s better if I did.”  While technically a mere hired mercenary, Éric ultimately proves to be the only real friend that Abel can count on in a relationship where the young up-and-comer learns to respect and protect an old pro in decline.

 It is immediately apparent that, despite their age difference, Abel and Éric have great chemistry and become immediate friends despite not saying much to each other as if the two have an instinctive understanding of one another. While Éric acts as a phony ambulance driver as Abel pretends to be an injured patient, he happens upon a beauteous beauty named Liliane (Sandra Milo of Federico Fellini's (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965)) being beaten on the side of the road. Naturally, Éric promptly knocks out the pathetic woman-abuser and then boasts to Liliane, “The nice thing about me is my left.” After Éric tells her a phony story in regard to their ambulance masquerade, Liliane agrees to join the group as a phony nurse and even maintains the charade after noticing a hidden machinegun inside the vehicle. Needless to say, Éric has not only found a new friend but also a new lover, as Liliane immediately starts a hot and heavy romance with the young gangster despite her quite different background as a theater actress.  As for Abel, he may have acquired a new young friend, but he has lost two old ones as he ruthlessly berates both Riton and Fargier upon being reunited with them.  Indeed, as Abel states to his old comrades with a certain visceral intensity, “But who sent a total stranger to Nice for me? It was you. And you. You two are pretty sly. You figure I didn’t have much of a chance. So it starts off with a driver you hope not to find, and it ends with a cousin in Brittany.” While Fargier remarks “He hasn’t changed a bit” after Abel throws a violent fit that concludes with him smashing a large mirror and then storming out of his ex-pal's bistro, both he and Riton have become bourgeois bitches of the superlatively soft and pathetically self-centered sort. When Éric tries to comfort Abel by remarking, “You know…Riton and Fargier…you should forget them,” the antihero calmly replies, “I already have. They don’t exist any more.” Since there is no way that he can provide a safe or healthy life for his poor now-motherless children, Abel decides to give them to his friend Chapuis’ sister and then he proceeds to live a lonely life where he spends most of his time silently brooding in a tiny maid’s room located inside the same apartment building where Éric lives.  Needless to say, it is only a matter of time before Abel cracks or, more specifically, completely gives up on life altogether.

 Since he needs escape money and future funds for the care of his children, Abel decides to do one more job that involves robbing a sleazy fence named Arthur Gibelin (Judaic Renoir regular Marcel Dalio), but unfortunately the miserable miser makes the ultimately fatal mistake of getting Fargier and, in turn, the police involved in a desperate attempt to get his stolen money back. Indeed, a certain police officer named Inspector Blot (Jacques Dacqmine) begins making threats against Riton and Fargier and they know they are next after Abel kills Gibelin. Leading a revenge campaign the begins with the murder of Gibelin after discovering that he hired a private investigator to follow Éric (whose identity he got from Fargier), Abel then kills Fargier by shooting him outside of his house in what proves to be a fittingly anticlimactic shootout between a virtual rabid bull and a bitch. Unfortunately, Fargier’s wife Sophie (Michèle Méritz)—a beloved figure among the gangsters—dies in shock of a heart attack upon finding her husband’s corpse, thus inspiring Abel to stop his revenge campaign just before he kills Riton. Aside from Sophie’s shocking demise, Abel is also demoralized after Éric is shot in both his legs by Inspector Blot and arrested while in the process of warning the protagonist about the cops. Completely consumed with guilt and seemingly wishing for death, Abel tells his old friend Kid Jeannot that he is done for good because, as he states with a certain manic intensity, “… I’m calling it quits. This is goodbye, Jeannot. Thérèse. Naldi. Sophie. And now Stark. I can’t do anything for him. Understand? […] Abel’s gone. There’s nothing left. Get the hell out, Jeannot. Do me a favor. Get out of here.”  In fact, Abel's proclamation of defeatism is so decidedly unbecoming and uncharacteristic that it even deeply disturbs a hardened criminal like Kid Jeannot who scampers out of his friend's hideout like a shocked child.  Indeed, in the end, Abel disappears into a crowd of people on the street just as he once appeared at the beginning of the film.  As the narrator notes in regard to Abel’s patently pathetic and ultimately uncharacteristically passive acceptance of total defeat, “A few days later, Abel Davos was arrested. He was brought to trial, sentenced and executed.”  As for Éric, one can only hope that his love affair with Liliane works out and that he quits organized crime as the last honorable gangster, Abel, is dead.

 While regarded as both a classic and masterpiece among many Francophile film fans today, Classe Tous Risques was such an abject failure upon its initial release that its auteur decided to give up filmmaking altogether, or as Sautet scholar N.T. Binh once explained, “That CLASSE TOUS RISQUES turned out to be a commercial failure was such a bitter disappointment to Sautet that he announced the abandonment of his career as a film director. But only two years later, when the film was discovered by a group of young cinephiles (including future director Bertrand Tavernier) and was rereleased on the art-house circuit, it had a spectacular reception and quickly became a cult favorite. Meanwhile, Sautet had returned to another career—as a clandestine adviser and script doctor on other directors’ projects (including films by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Louis Malle, Alain Cavalier, and Robert Enrico).” Speaking of Malle, although quite different aesthetically as a pastoral war drama, his film Lacombe, Lucien (1974) certainly makes for a great double-feature with Classe Tous Risques as a rare piece of cinema that dares to ask the hard questions and brings unexpected nuance and inordinate empathy in terms of depicting the desperate decline of an underworld collaborationist that eventually finds death in the end (notably, neither film depicts the execution of its antihero, as if it would be in ‘bad taste’ to depict the state-sanctioned murder of a strangely likeable fascist thug).

Despite its age, Classe Tous Risques also deals with timeless themes that still inform the philosophical essence of film and television today, not least of all The Sopranos (1999–2007) where one soon discovers that, typically, the only way out of a life of organized crime is either prison or death. Indeed, as Abel attempts to warn Éric, “Let me tell you something else, if you ever decide to do something else, something where you’re sure to sleep in your bed every night, I’ll be glad to hear it, wherever I am. 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…until you’re nothing. Like today.” Of course, the lead antihero of the hit HBO show spoke similar words and that is why it would not be a stretch to describe Abel Davos as the (proto)Tony Soprano of French (ex)Gestapo agents, albeit slightly less sociopathic (of course, it does not hurt that guido lead Lino Ventura has a bull-like build comparable to Amero-wop James Gandolfini). Undoubtedly, my only complaint in regard to Classe Tous Risques is that it does not conclude on a similar note of disconcerting ambiguity as The Sopranos, even if it is not hard to predict what Abel's fiercely foredoomed future might be like. 

 In a somewhat recent review of Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s Befrielsesbilleder (1982) aka Images of a Relief, I expressed my interest in films depicting the misery and desperation that typically haunted fascist types after World War II and I would certainly argue that Classe Tous Risques is one of the greatest of these films despite the director apparently having no clue it was based on a real-life French Gestapo hood. Additionally, I would argue that the novels of José Giovanni—a man that remained vocally ‘right-wing’ his entire life and clearly paid tribute his fascist comrades via his books—are a sort of wonderfully lowbrow post-fascist continuation of the grand frog tradition of so-called ‘literary fascism’ as associated with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Lucien Rebatet, and Thierry Maulnier. After recently re-watching Classe Tous Risques, I was certainly reminded of an unforgettable quote from P.P. Pasolini’s swansong Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) when the fascist ‘Duke’ played by Paolo Bonacelli declares, “We fascists are the only true anarchists.” And, of course, such an innately anarchic spirit explains how José Giovanni could have a successful artistic career after prison without anyone initially realizing his less than kosher background, hence why a Jewish (ex)Resistance fighter like Jean-Pierre Melville—a self-described “right-wing anarchist”—could so thoroughly identify with and deeply respect a work dreamed up from the mind of a man from the opposing fascist side. As for commies, they apparently were not interested in Sautet’s deceptively meaty masterpiece or any of the great frog gangster flicks of the era as they preferred soulless social realist twaddle, or as Tavernier once explained, “Yet CLASSE TOUS RISQUES’s strength and orginiality were underestimated upon its initial release. It is true that gangster films had never been particularly popular with a whole segment of the French critical establishment. Journalists loyal to the Communist cause followed Georges Sadoul’s lead in routinely panning them, even those like NIGHT AND THE CITY and TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, directed by filmmakers close to the party, insisting it was better to take an interest in workers and tradesmen than in criminals.” 

 Of course, as a film that puts a premium on true masculine friendship, honor, respect, loyalty and masculine virtues in general, the film would certainly be considered ‘fascistic’ by today’s exceedingly effete and self-destructively feministic film critics who despise any male character that is not a virtual eunuch. In that sense, Classe Tous Risques is not only a sort of crypto-fascist film noir, but also—in the Peckinpahian sense—a visceral Gallic celluloid ‘death poem’ on the twilight of French masculinity, so it is only nature that Sautet would go on to direct lavish arthouse dramas like A Heart in Winter (1992) aka Un cœur en hiver and Nelly and Mr. Arnaud (1995) aka Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud featuring exceedingly emasculated and broken (yet ostensibly ‘misogynistic’) proto-nu-male protagonists that have less testosterone in both their entire bodies than the technically-defeated Abel Davos has in his dehydrated piss. Of course, it is also no coincidence it is effeminate guys like Fargier and Gibelin that betray Abel as they are symbolic of a new spiritually neutered post-Vichy frogland where hos and dough come before true bros.  Luckily, Sautet at least had an eclectic collection of friends including Giovanni, Tavernier, and Melville that supported his film and ultimately got him out of early retirement as a cinematic auteur. Although Sautet would go on to more ‘highbrow’ material like A Heart in Winter about the perils of being a romantically-retarded autistic introvert and receive much warranted critical acclaim for such films, Tavernier was probably right when he once wrote during his pre-auteur days as a film critic, “People say CLASSE TOUS RISQUES is a B Movie. Better B like Boetticher than A like Allégret.”  Likewise, better a männerbund than a mangina, hence the difference in quality and testicular fortitude of the gangster films of Sautet and Melville to those of an overly-intellectualized autist like Godard who even managed to make Über-bro Belmondo seem like a buffoonish bungling bitch that probably dreams of blowing Bogart.   Of course, Abel Davos would have thought old ‘Bogie’ was a dick-downing queer.

-Ty E

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