The French Connection 

Gallic crime-movie idols strike sparks in classic caper drama

When my brother and I were in high school, we made a 45-minute drive to Nashville just to catch a rare local screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
When my brother and I were in high school, we made a 45-minute drive to Nashville just to catch a rare local screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. We spent much of the ride home mimicking a gesture Jean-Paul Belmondo’s cavalier hood makes in tribute to his idol, Humphrey Bogart: rubbing his thumb along his lip and murmuring “Bogey…Bogey….” It may be that one of the things we found so appealing about Godard’s reimagined crime movie was the way it dovetailed our love of movies with our craving for excitement. It struck me as a grown-up’s game of cops and robbers. But beneath all the style and movie allusions was a sense of grounding: real streets, real locations, real consequences. It’s part of what the Nouvelle Vague directors took from the gritty French crime thrillers of the 1950s, and it’s one reason those movies haven’t lost their cool. Tough guys, in films like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur and Jules Dassin’s Rififi, are made by tough choices, not by accessories or snappy comebacks. The latest French thriller to get a reissue is Classe Tous Risques, a fast, brawny 1960 gangster drama by Claude Sautet that has the same virtues—among them a reminder that robberies aren’t just recreational sport, and that actions have repercussions more dire than one-liners. Above all, Classe Tous Risques is a study in loyalty, cast with a pair of cult idols in top form. Determined to stop running and settle down with his family, the weary crook Abel—played by policier favorite Lino Ventura, an actor built like a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot with a few busted pieces—attempts to pull off that mythical One Last Job. There is a dire twist that renders that dream impossible, and Abel finds that his old comrades in the Parisian underworld have no desire to risk their necks helping him escape. Instead, they send a kid named Eric Stark—the kind of low-level flunky whose arrival is an insult on sight. But Eric is played by no less a bad-ass than Jean-Paul Belmondo, at the height of his gangly gallantry, the same year as Breathless. The movie’s pleasure comes from watching Belmondo’s jaunty young hood earn the fatherly respect of Ventura’s heavy, tired family man, and from watching director Sautet invest the standard genre theatrics with swift urgency and cold pragmatism. It leads to an ending as blunt as a sap to the skull—a soul punch that points out the snarky emptiness of a toy-gun charade like the current Lucky Number Slevin. “Risk” is the very thing missing from our own pulp-afflicted crime dramas. It’s what Classe Tous Risques wears like brass knuckles—or a ball and chain.

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