As re-releases of neglected masterpieces like I Am Cuba and Army Of Shadows have shown, cinema history is littered with great movies that, for one reason or another, were out of step with the times and thus unfairly relegated to the dustbin. Thank to companies like Rialto Pictures, forgotten classics like Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques (The Big Risk) can finally see the light of day. Though it starred Jean-Paul Belmondo, the charismatic New Wave figurehead who was making a name for himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Sautet's film didn't quite fit into the French New Wave box, in spite of its evident love for American gangster films and a subtle impulse for tweaking their conventions. What Classe Tous Risques lacks in ostentatious New Wave flair, it more than makes up for in rueful, unexpectedly touching twists on the familiar "honor among thieves" theme.
Looking every bit the blocky underworld kingpin, aging gangster Lino Ventura has been living for nearly a decade with his family in Milan, having been exiled from France for his exploits. In spite of the death sentence hanging over his head there, Ventura wants to bring his family back to France, but his old mob cronies are reluctant to stick their necks out for him. Stung by their betrayal, Ventura turns to an unknown young thief (Belmondo), who agrees to escort him from Nice to Paris in an ambulance, in spite of the police roadblocks along the way. The two become friends, with a bond that transcends an increasingly hopeless situation.
The title to one of Sautet's later works, the excellent 1992 drama A Heart In Winter (Un Coeur En Hiver), could be applied just as well to Ventura's sad character, a once-powerful man who's entering the final phase of his life considerably weakened. In order to get out of Milan, Ventura and a crony are reduced to the sort of petty street theft that's more befitting to a young punk starting out than a gangster of his stature. Ventura hasn't entirely lost his ability to intimidate and terrorize, but Classe Tous Risques reveals a man of quiet desperation, and sympathizes with his plight in spite of his past and present viciousness. And in the magnetic Belmondo, Sautet gets a bright counterpoint to the doomed Ventura, someone who brings a measure of dignity and honor to a very human gangster at the end of the line.
Key features: With all the principals dead, the liner notes carry the bulk of the supplemental goodies, including Sautet tributes from fellow directors Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Melville. The disc contains relevant excerpts from a 2003 documentary on Sautet, as well as an interview with Class Tous Risques novelist and screenwriter José Giovanni.