BIG RISK, THE (CLASSE TOUS RISQUES)
(director/writer: Claude Sautet; screenwriters: Pascal Jardin/José Giovanni/from the novel by José Giovanni; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Albert Jurgenson; music: George Delerue; cast: Lino Ventura (Abel Davos), Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric Stark), Sandra Milo (Liliane), Marcel Dalio (Arthur Gibelin), Michel Ardan (Riton Vintran), Stan Krol (Raymond Naldi), Claude Cerval (Raoul Fargier), Simone France (Therese Davos), Robert Desnoux (Pierrot Davos), Thierry Lavoye (Daniel Davos), Philippe March (Jeannot), Charles Blavette (Bénazet), Corrado Guarducci (Ferucci), Jacques Dacqmine (Commissioner Blot), Michèle Méritz (Sophie), Frances Asselin (Denise Vintran), Jeanne Pérez (Jacqueline Chapuis), René Génin (Chapuis), Betty Schneider (Chambermaid); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jean Darvey; Criterion; 1960-France-in French with English subtitles)
“It ranks among the best of the French New Wave noir films.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A gripping existential gangster B-film noir that was influenced by Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now (1956), in that they share a similar ellipsis and taste for heroic downtrodden characters with wicked pasts that they can’t escape from. Claude Sautet (“A Heart in Winter”/”The Things of Life”/”Cesar and Rosalie”) keeps the almost played out noir genre freshened by coming up with an amazingly shot innovative daylight street robbery in Milan that looked authentic, decent chase sequences involving getting around roadblocks when traveling across Italy and France, and an invigorated world-weary gangster noir character sporting an incredible sense of doom, an instinct for survival and suffering from a sense of betrayal and of personal loss. It ranks among the best of the French New Wave noir films, along with Becker’s Grisbi (1953) and Melville’s Bob the Gambler (1956). The film is based on the novel by French-Swiss crime writer Jose Giovanni, who spent several months on death row after being convicted in a racketeering plot schemed by his brother and uncle that turned deadly. He penned this grim novel after pardoned by the president of the republic. Giovanni, using writing to reform, also wrote the books for Becker’s The Hole (1959) and Melville’s The Second Breath (1966). This was the best film adaptation from any of his novels.
Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) after ten years on the run, living in the Swiss Alps in Lake Lugarno, comes out of hiding in Milan, where the stoical, barrel-chested, hard-nosed former gang chief, with a death sentence hanging over his head in France, plans to put his innocent adoring wife Therese (Simone France, Giovanni’s sister) on a train to Paris with his two sons–the 8-year-old Pierrot and 4-year-old Daniel (Robert Desnoux, Thierry Lavoye). The homesick fugitive needs money to return home, so Abel and his partner Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol, spent time in prison with Giovanni) while still in Milan pull a daring daylight mugging of two bank couriers walking on the crowded via Orefici. They flee with the dough by car and join Abel’s family in Ventimiglia, where they change plans because of roadblocks and go by a hijacked charter boat to the French border. When spotted by two Italian border guards, there’s a shootout on the beach near Menton and the two cops are killed; also killed are Raymond and Therese. Abel takes the kids to Nice, where a shady acquaintance who owes Abel a favor, Bénazet (Charles Blavette), reluctantly puts them up in a hotel he owns while Abel calls his former gang members in Paris for help. But the old gang no longer wants to help him, unwilling to take any risks for him and afraid of disturbing their now rich and respectable lives. Though they get lucky when a stranger, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), they recruit from a nearby bar, volunteers to drive the fugitive who will be feigning a skull fracture in an ambulance from Nice to Paris. Riton (Michel Ardan) owns a bistro, financed by Abel, and has a nagging wife Denise (Frances Asselin) he adores, while former safecracker Fargier (Claude Cerval), whom Abel once freed from jail, now owns a hotel and lives with his obedient wife Sophie (Michèle Méritz) under the veneer of bourgeois respectability.
On the road, the energetic, youthful charmer Eric meets aspiring amiable actress Liliane (Sandra Milo) and a romance blossoms when they reach Paris. In Paris the story kicks in about Abel’s old friends being backstabbers and how he makes his way around the Paris underworld, missing his wife, wanting to do the best he can for the children and realizing, perhaps for the first time, that he’s a loser. The questions about honor among thieves arises, as the only loyal old friend of Abel’s is Jeannot (Philippe March) but he’s been in and out of jails the last ten years and is in no position to help. Eric puts Abel up in his spare maid’s room in his cheap hotel and turns out to be the only one who helps him out of sheer friendship and respect for the criminal code.
It’s a bleak tale about the difficulty of relationships, the meaning of loyalty, and a soul searching character study of the aging career criminal who realizes his days are numbered and questions how many more deaths he wants to be blamed for in his quest for revenge before packing it in.
During its release it was a commercial flop in France, but this little seen gem has built a great rep among France’s elite New Wave filmmakers when discovered by them some two years later and had a successful re-release in Paris in 1971 (on a double bill with King Vidor’s Man Without A Star). The film has such a big heart, that despite its downer tale it’s a special film that separates itself from many other gangster films mainly because the main protagonist when he’s not shooting cops and others seems like a nice person who has deep feelings for his family and those he considers his friends.
Giovanni’s model for the Abel character was a disreputable French Gestapo collaborator who belonged to the Bony-Lafont gang during the occupation. The filmmaker said he didn’t know this until after the film, when an underworld figure tipped him off. He said if he had known, he doubts very much if he would have made the picture. It’s a good thing he found out when he did, as once again it’s proven that timing is everything and that movies have a way of blurring reality that is not always a bad thing to do.
REVIEWED ON 6/26/2008 GRADE: A