The French didn't invent "film noir," although a French critic coined the term in 1946. The so-called "black film" originated in the United States as a pulpy expression of the cynicism brought on by the one-two punch of the Great Depression and World War II. Film noir's cinematic shadowlands contained gumshoes, triggermen and femmes fatale, most unencumbered by a moral compass.
Possibly for the stylish cigarette smoking alone, the French loved film noir, and having christened the genre, it was only fair for them to take a shot at it. Mostly famously, the deconstructed crime dramas of the 1950s and '60s New Wave practically invented contemporary filmmaking technique. The New Wave overshadowed a spate of low-key but superb mysteries and heist pictures from the same two decades, many of which are enjoying a renaissance. Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques from 1960 may not quite qualify as a neglected masterpiece, but its restored print and new subtitles establish it as a compelling cautionary tale about living outside the law.
Terse, just-the-facts narration at a Milan train station introduces us to veteran stick-up man Abel Davos (Lino Ventura). Weary of being on the run for nearly a decade with his wife and two sons, Abel wants to make a big score and retire. With his craggy-faced partner, Raymond (Stan Krol), Abel executes a sudden, shocking mugging on a crowded street. The near-documentary style of the subsequent getaway conveys the spur-of-the-moment action of actual larceny, such as Raymond driving a motorcycle over a field to divert a roadblock. When the pair reunites a few hours later, Raymond looks so jubilant we wonder if the money is just the justification for the thrill.
Their joy proves short-lived, and an attempt to sneak ashore on the French coast leads to a bloodbath, forcing Abel to hide out with the boys in tow. Abel reaches out to his old gang of fellow thieves and cell-mates, and Classe Tous Risques opens a window to the quirky rituals of the underworld network, with standard operating procedures for safe havens and cross-country rescues. None of Abel's former cronies will willingly risk themselves, so they send a new guy, Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to deliver him back to Paris.
Belmondo and Ventura make a striking contrast as the two strangers learn to rely on each other. Then-rising star Belmondo (who starred in Godard's landmark New Wave film Breathless) carries himself with the unflappable charisma of James Dean and the young Brando. Former wrestler Ventura, instead, looks every bit the fugitive thug, his dark eyes quickly shifting from wounded to wrathful. You can easily imagine that a generation earlier, Abel was as cocky as Stark. When Stark takes up with a pouty gamine (Sandra Milo) who becomes a willing accomplice, we realize that she's doomed to as unhappy a future as Abel's wife.
In contrast to Abel's newfound hostility toward his old partners, he and Stark establish strong bonds of trust under pressure. Crime films frequently hinge on issues of loyalty and betrayal, and you can see the influence of films like Classe Tous Risques in more recent fare like Reservoir Dogs. The gang members distance themselves from Abel not out of such usual noir motivations as greed, but out of self-preservation and instincts to protect their families and social standing. "The past can awaken overnight," someone remarks, and they'd prefer that the inconvenient Abel would just go away. His name, "Abel," evoking Cain's ill-fated brother, doesn't bode well.
Abel particularly carries the weight of his children's plight. Finding sanctuary in a church, he softly tells his sons that from now on, they have to follow 10 yards behind him, rather than be seen with him on the streets. Classe Tous Risques' last half-hour turns into a more conventional revenge-based drama, putting aside the subtler treatments of character, and the film builds to an unexpectedly forceful "crime does not pay" message. Rebuking the excitement of the earlier chase scene, Classe Tous Risques turns out to be the rare film noir that's as concerned with real-world consequences as much as the seductive pleasure of dirty deeds.