Classe Tous Risques (The Big Risk) is a French gangster movie that doesn't try for style. That's why it has style. Because the movie is so underplayed and so matter-of-fact, it becomes more and more involving. And because Abel Davos is played by Lino Ventura, we wind up emotionally invested in this taciturn, tough killer who loves his wife and kids, has an encounter with customs agents on the shore near Nice at night that neither he nor we expect, and who proves just as willing to shoot a cop or a betrayer with as little emotion as flicking off a bit of lint. We first meet Davos in Italy with his wife and their two small boys, one about 9 and one 4.
"This man was Abel Davos, sentenced to death in absentia," we're told. "On the run for years, he had watched his resources dwindle, even as his anxiety kept him on the move. With the Italian police closing in each day, France was again his best bet. Maybe he'd been forgotten."
Davos was a top gangster in Paris who took care of his friends. That was several years ago. A heist to give him money to return to France goes very wrong. Now he's hiding out with his two kids. He calls his friends in Paris to help him out. He and his kids need to get from Nice to Paris but the police are hunting him and they've set up roadblocks. For Davos' two best friends, time has passed and they've moved on. They don't want to put themselves at risk, and for what? Obligation gives may to caution. So they hire a young thief, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to pick up Davos and the children in an ambulance, then to drive to Paris with Davos heavily bandaged and the children hidden. We're on a journey where Davos' options are increasingly limited, where he must find ways to have his children cared for, where he realizes there are no more ties of friendship, where betrayal seems likely, and where quite possibly his only friend left is Eric Stark.
This somewhat cynical movie works so well because it does its job without fussing about. There are no trench coats with pulled-up collars, no toying with the melodrama of the gangster code so many French directors have loved. Classe tous Risques gives us Abel Davos, a man who once was somebody, who now is sliding down to be nobody, and who reacts with violence and resignation.
Lino Ventura dominates the movie, yet when he is paired with Jean-Paul Belmondo a curious chemistry happens. Ventura as Davos is grim and worried about caring for his sons. He is humiliated by his situation. He is a tough man who sees killing someone, if needed, as just part of the business he's in. Belmondo as the young thief who initially is sent to be an expendable driver and winds up being a friend to count on, provides the brightness that keeps the movie from being just one more ride down the elevator. Belmondo was 27 and looks younger. His unlikely star power as a lead actor -- broken nose, under-slung jaw -- shines right off the screen. He makes Erik a match for Ventura when they share a scene. And Belmondo's scenes with Liliane (Sandra Milo), the young woman who becomes his girl friend, radiate charm and good-natured sex appeal. The ending is bittersweet fate, and without a stylistic posture in sight. We hear Davos say, "Abel's gone. There's nothing left." It would be well worth watching Classe tous Risques to learn what he means.
There are many fine French gangster films. I'd place this one right there with Touchez Pas au Grisbi - Criterion Collection and Bob le Flambeur - Criterion Collection. To see one of Lino Ventura's finest performances, watch Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection. They are all Criterion releases, as this one is. The DVD transfer is fine and there are several interesting extras.