Emotions between men are rarely expressed on screen with much subtlety in Hollywood. Most common are buddy movies, where bonds are forged through shared risks and violence (the Lethal Weapon series, for example). Though the characters often experience brief moments of vulnerability, a general atmosphere of joking and posturing prevails. Even when the relationships are less reliant on adventure and action, there is always a shying away from any type of real emotional intimacy - whether it’s for fear of homoerotic readings or simply a concern about how to effectively show connection between men on screen, this avoidance of intimacy ultimately makes it hard to find truly deep male friendships at the movies.
Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques, though, was made far from Hollywood; perhaps as a result, it is full of subtle, powerful moments between men. Sautet’s film tells a typical gangster story: man makes one final score before quitting a life of crime; something goes wrong and loved ones are killed; man faces betrayal by those he trusts. In summary, however, the majesty of the film is lost - though these events do occur, Classe Tous Risques isn’t really about them. Instead, it’s about men, and what happens when the relationships change. About how men look when they realize they’ve found someone they can trust, and when they’ve been betrayed. And it’s about what happens when men realize they can no longer stand who they’ve become. In the end, it’s a gangster movie film about relationships.
Ex-wrestler Lino Ventura plays Abel Davos, a career criminal who has spent year on the run from a death sentence (handed down in absentia) in his native France. Finally sick of running, he and a a partner plan an outrageously audacious daytime street robbery of a courier with a large amount of cash. Once the grab is completed, they will meet Davos’ wife (who is fully aware of his plans) and kids (who are not) for the trip to Paris. Not surprisingly, things go wrong. Though the initial getaway is successful, the group is spotted by customs officials upon arrival in France. A firefight breaks out, and both Davos’ wife and his partner are killed, leaving him alone with his two young sons.
Desperate for help, Davos contact his old criminal gang in Paris, all of whom have moved on from their lives of crime and up society’s ladder: one is a hotelier, while another owns a bistro with his wife. Clearly wanting nothing to do with either Davos or his trouble (he’s near the ocean and needs secure transportation to Paris), his old friends hire someone (Erik Stark, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) to go pick him up - thus, their guilt is assuaged without having to get their hands dirty.
The moment Davos and Stark meet, there is an obvious connection between them; Davos trusts this stranger immediately, and Stark is instantly at his disposal. Their conversations are diametrically opposed to what we are used to seeing pass between men in movies - instead of relying on either macho bluster or jokey mocking, the two are always simply, honestly straightforward. Though their discussions are rarely extensive, neither man shies away from expressing his true feelings about the other. This level of comfort and openness is surprising from both, but particularly from Stark, given his youth and tendency towards macho posturing. Davos, on the other hand, seems to have arrived at a point in his life where it’s no longer worth it to him to pretend. He lets the younger man know exactly how hopeless he feels, and makes no effort to hide his reliance on Stark.
The bond between Davos and Stark is a delicate one, because it is conveyed more by their bodies than by their words. Their exchanges would seem strangely empty and flat were they not accompanied by changes in posture, broken eye contact, and slight variations in vocal tone - happily, though, Ventura and Belmondo are more than equal to the task. Ventura in particular is extraordinary. Though his early career was spent playing mostly heavies, here his easy manner and incredibly expressive eyes are a revelation. For someone unused to being the center of a film’s attention, Ventura is incredibly at ease with silence - even in his quietest moments, he effortlessly commands the screen, and always seems to somehow control those around him as well. His sorrowful eyes, meanwhile, suggest a vulnerability and depth that his physical presence belies. There are moments - and they occur with increasing frequency as the film proceeds - in which Davos’ every emotion is present, totally unfiltered, in those eyes. When he first makes contact with Stark, for example, his sudden, slightly embarrassed relief at the end of his isolation flits across Ventura’s face so quickly you think you imagined it. When you look closely, however, you can see such vulnerability in his eyes that he is close to tears. Ultimately, it is this profound emotional honesty that makes Ventura’s performance so effective.
As an actor, Belmondo is in many ways Ventura’s opposite. While the latter is a huge, disarmingly subdued man whose emotions are visible only in his frighteningly expressive eyes, Belmondo is a skinny, macho kid, whose instinct in any situation is to take charge of it through bluster and charm. As Stark, he is a contradiction - when he’s seated and still, your eyes slide past him in search of something of interest. When he goes into action, however, it’s almost impossible to look anywhere else. Whereas Davos is brought to life by Ventura’s subtle acting and blunt honesty, Stark draws his power from Belmondo’s wild, eager energy. Even when he’s trying to remain aloof, Stark’s posture tells viewers everything they need to know about his attitude - when he’s engaged, he’s incapable of interacting without leaning forward, as he needs to physically absorb words and thoughts from his counterpart.
While Davos is fundamentally serious, Stark is desperate for moments of small joy; anything that will allow him to flash that outrageous, jubilant smile. In the relationship between the two, then, Stark is the one who is often propping the other up, supplying the older man with the drive and desire that he no longer can find within himself. Put simply, Stark loves Davos. And there is nothing erotic about it, just simple respect, and an affection so deep that he will, without question, give the other man everything he can find within himself. Anything he needs.
As Classe Tous Risques progresses it becomes increasingly impressive, changing from a solid French gangster film to one about bonding; from a film about one last score to one about male relationships; from a movie about a criminal at the top of his game to one about a man consumed by self-loathing. It’s an incredibly accomplished work from everyone involved, particularly young director Sautet (who would later go in a very different direction with the equally powerful Un Coeur En Hiver and Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud), and stars Ventura and Belmondo, both of whose performances easily match the best of their long careers.
Thanks to Rialto Pictures, this remarkable film can now be seen in the US for the first time since 1960, and for the first time ever in its original French. It begins a two week run at New York’s Film Forum on Friday, and will then proceed to Los Angeles and Chicago. After the the theatrical run is over, a DVD from Criterion is likely.