Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) is a man on the run, sentenced to death in absentia for his crimes. He is in Italy with his wife and two sons but is aware that the police are closing in on him. He calls upon his old criminal friends to help him return to Paris...
Joseph Damiani was born in Paris of Corsican parents in 1923. Imprisoned in 1948 for his part in a robbery which caused the death of the owner of the robbed house, he was sentenced to death by guillotine, though this was later commuted. He had spent much of his time in jail writing, and on his release in 1956 began to publish crime novels under the pseudonym José Giovanni, noted for their authenticity of subject matter. Inevitably they attracted the interest of film producers, and a week apart in 1960 two films based on his novels for which Giovanni contributed to the scripts opened in Paris. One was Le trou (The Hole), directed by Jacques Becker, which soon attained classic status, deservedly so. The second was Classe tous risques (sometimes known as The Big Risk in English) . That film was a commercial failure and closed within a week. (The BFI's publicity claimed that Classe tous risques was not shown in the UK before its 2013 cinema reissue, but that does not appear to be the case, of which more later. However, I cannot trace any UK television showing and it does not have an entry in Ronald Bergan and Robyn Karney's 1992 Foreign Film Guide. It's certain that I have not had a chance to see this film before now.)
The director of Classe tous risques was Claude Sautet, a year younger than Giovanni. It wasn't his debut feature – that was Bonjour sourire! in 1956 – but his second, but it was the first time he felt able to put a personal stamp on the material. The failure of the film stalled Sautet's directorial career for a while, and he only made one more feature before the 1970s, the decade where he began to flourish.
Classe tous risques is a fascinating example of a crime film that both harks back to the past of its genre while seeming quite contemporary at the time. Sautet, like Louis Malle who had made his own feature debut two years earlier with Lift to the Scaffold the year before, was not really part of the New Wave, but worked as a script consultant for many younger directors, Truffaut among them. Yet, like Malle, he made use of technical innovations that the New Wavers took to, such as faster film stock and portable cameras, allowing shooting outside and on the streets in natural light. No rear-projection here: cars are really being driven here, with the camera mounted on the bonnets. During the filming of the robbery sequence, bystanders were convinced that the crime was really happening and some tried to apprehend the actors playing the criminals. The DP was Ghislain Cloquet, who also shot Le trou and his work here, in black and white, is masterly. Yet Classe tous risques also harks back to currents in French gangster cinema that go back several decades: a sense of romantic fatalism, of the end closing in, an unsentimental pessimism that recalls such 40s classics as Le jour se lève.
Key to this is Sautet's leading actor, the Italian-born Lino Ventura. He was not conventionally handsome by any means – he looked like what he was, an ex-boxer and wrestler – but he was a key and expressive presence in many films like this. Abel is a bad man for sure – he has killed people, and we see him do it again during the course of this film. Yet the film makes him a tragic hero, seeking to settle scores and provide a safe home for his children while his pursuers close in. Coming close to stealing the film is third-billed Jean-Paul Belmondo, who made this film the same year as A bout de souffle and was clearly a future star in the making.
Sautet's key films other than this date from the 1970s onwards, and many will know him for his later character dramas Un coeur en hiver (1992) and his last film Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995). He died in 2000. Lino Ventura passed away in 1987 and José Giovanni was to in 2004.
The BFI's release of Classe tous risques is dual-format, but both Blu-ray and DVD are identical in content. It was the former disc which was received for review.
As mentioned above, Classe tous risques had a brief cinema release in 2013, which this disc follows. However, it does not seem the case that the film had not been released in the UK before. The BBFC cut the film for an A certificate in 1963 – it's now a 12. Going by the rather dismissive unsigned review in the March 1964 Monthly Film Bulletin it was released dubbed. The BFI's disc is of course en version originale, but if you do want a taste of the dubbed version, see the US trailer described below.
The transfer of Classe tous risques is in the correct ratio of 1.66:1 and was taken from the original 35mm negative. It's a good example of how good 35mm black and white can look on disc: grain is certainly present but is natural and filmlike, and contrast and greyscale – both vital for monochrome work – are spot-on. Sautet and his editor Albert Jurgenson rather oddly separate some shots with frames of black, but as the BFI's transfer notes point out, this is part of the original presentation of the film. In short, I can't imagine this looking any better, other than the increasingly unlikely possibility of a newly-struck 35mm print.
The soundtrack, mostly in French with some Italian, is mono, restored from the 35mm interpositive and presented in LPCM 2.0. It's clear and well balanced and shows quite a bit of dynamic range, particularly in a double-bass throb during Georges Delerue's music over the opening credits. The English subtitles are optional, but you can only deselect them via your remote, not from an on-screen menu.
The main on-disc extra is Monsieur Ventura (35:41), a piece made for French television by Doug Headline and Dominique Cazenave. It has a dual copyright date, 1996 and 2014. It's presented in 4:3 and is SD (possibly SECAM) upscaled to HD. This may have you reaching to turn down colour saturation control on your TV – skin tones are definitely biased towards yellow/orange - but I suspect that's the case with the original and not the fault of this Blu-ray. It's a clearly affectionate overview of Ventura's life and career by those who knew him, Charles Aznavour and José Giovanni among them, punctuated with stills, film extracts and some archive interviews with the man himself.
There are two trailers on the disc. One is the original French (3:49), which follows the style of the film in its use of a narrator. The US trailer is shorter (1:59) and is dubbed, giving the film's title as The Big Risk and emphasises the newly famous Belmondo's role in it.
The BFI's booklet runs to twelve pages and begins with an essay by John Patterson. While Patterson's slangy style can set your teeth on edge (“ate the big blade”, really?) he does do a thorough job of detailing the film's making and the varying parts that Giovanni, Sautet and Ventura played in it, including some appreciation of Sautet's mise en scène. Here there be spoilers, though, so read this after you have seen the film. Also in the booklet is a two-page overview of Sautet's career by Geoff Andrew, film and disc credits and transfer notes.