A BFI season celebrating the work of Claude Sautet kicks off with this crackling 1960 debut.
Hyperbolic anatomy proclamation warning: Lino Ventura has one of the great noses in all of cinema. Hell, in all mankind. It's equine and all-vanquishing. At its base, it starts to protrude very high up, right in the upper portion of the forehead. Then it suddenly juts out and then drops at an angle almost parallel to his cheeks, with the nostril flanges spreading wide. During his formative years he was a prizefighter, and his mug looks like a working mould for protective face gear. He looks like a man who has taken some hits over the years, but whose body has evolved a natural form of defence.
His domineering, weather-beaten physical presence, particularly his mighty visage, makes him perfect for the role of a crestfallen goon in Claude Sautet's 1960 gangster picture (his debut), Classe Tous Risques, which is released at BFI Southbank ahead of a full retrospective of the director's work. Based on José Giovanni's 1958 pulp novel, it's a story which adopts the hoary old concept of honour among thieves then flips it on its back and administers a swift rabbit punch to the gut. It sees Ventura's wanted crim Abel Davos running around Italy with his wife, kids and partner, looking to get back to the Euro safe haven of Paris as swiftly and easily as possible.
He makes it as far as Nice before the local lawmakers descend upon him and, with machine guns held aloft, help to (tragically) thin out his escape party. Thankfully his stock among the Parisian criminal fraternity remains high, and so he thinks nothing of calling in a favour and getting himself and his two young sons out of this terrible jam. And why not? He risked life and limb for them, busting one guy out of jail and helping out another with crucial property down payments.
Yet his old accomplices have grown up, paired-up and moved on. They're keen to distance themselves, however they can, from this itinerant savage. Sautet, having let loose with gun play and car chases during the opening plot salvo, transforms his film into a brooding existential potboiler in which Davos must decide whether his chickenshit compadres deserve his clemency or his wrath. It's made all the more exciting by the suggestion that the entirely humourless Davos is merely toying with his "friends", and the point at which they notice he's about to turn on them is far too late.
Where a director such as Jean-Pierre Melville would have focused on the inexorable mechanics as gleaned via glances and internal thoughts in a plot such as this, Sautet emphasises the the explosive confrontations and the bitter directness of cutting words. Davos doesn't simply destroy his enemies, he slowly tortures them first, and does so with the help of similarly-minded freelance crim, Eric (Jean-Paul Belmondo)
It's a deeply cynical and pulverisingly bleak film, one which talks of a lack of ethical backbone present in postwar Europe rather than merely among its band of crooked players. It's robustly directed by Sautet, who wisely lets his actors do much of the heavy dramatic lifting. Top loading the film with thrills and spills makes it a little tough to adjust to when it turns into a more conventionally theatrical exploration of male egos at war, but it's all leavened due to Ventura's enthralling turn as the best-worst screen bad guys you're likely to see this year.
A French gangster rarity unearthed for the big screen.
A splendid showcase for the great Lino Ventura.
Hard men doing hard things.