I have often thought that there was a great book to be written about why it is that particular genres catch on in particular places and times. What is it about post-War America and Victorian Britain that made Science Fiction so vibrant? What is it about 1980s Japan that so perfectly fit the mood of Cyberpunk? How was it that post-War France seemed capable of producing one classic piece of hardboiled crime fiction after another? An answer to this final question can be glimpsed in the life of one Jose Giovanni.
Giovanni was an educated man who spent the War as a rural guerrilla. When France was liberated, Giovanni decided to put his Maquisard skills to use in the Parisian underworld where his presence at the scene of a murder lead to him being sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting Madame La Guillotine, Giovanni made the acquaintance of a man named Abel Davos, a gangster and collaborator who went on the run with kids in tow. In 1947, Giovanni attempted to escape from prison but while the escape ultimately proved unsuccessful, it did not prevent either the lifting of Giovanni’s death sentence or his eventual pardon and successful retrial. Upon release from prison, Giovanni began writing and rapidly produced books that would go on to be adapted for the screen as:
- Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960)
- Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960)
- Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)
All three films draw directly from Giovanni’s life story and all three films are classics of cinematic noir. While I have a good deal of affection for both Le Trou and Le Deuxieme Souffle, the most puzzling and least generic of all three films is the long-forgotten and recently-rereleased Classe Tous Risques directed by Claude Sautet and starring Lino Ventura as a man on the run with kids in tow.
The film opens with one of those sequences that are prone to sticking in the mind. Ventura’s Abel is arriving from the South of Italy with his wife and child in order to meet with his fellow fugitive who is travelling along with their other son. The two men meet and promises are made to the wife and children and from there we are thrown into a smash-and-grab heist for what turns out to be a disappointing amount of money. Though we never learn what it is that turned Abel into a perpetual fugitive, we know that he was sentenced to death in absentia and has spent the last decade hiding out in Switzerland and Italy. Predictably the crimes he committed in order to fund his flight from justice only served to make matters worse by inclining the local authorities to work together and tighten the net to the point where sneaking back into France now seems the least risky course of action.
As ever, Ventura is a tower of wounded strength. A man so at ease with violence that he seems less concerned about dead bodies than he does about the need to find somewhere for his family to settle down. Though initially humanising, this desire for familial stability is soon revealed as little more than an excuse as Abel never considers either giving himself up or taking less risks, indeed there’s a nice scene late on in the film where Abel mentions that someone offered him the chance to make a new life by investing his money in a boat-building business but the option didn’t seem to appeal to Abel who shrugs off the memory without shame or regret. Abel’s fundamental selfishness is most evident when he decides to force his way into France by stealing a boat and literally running up the beach with both guns blazing. This insanely risky course of action results not only in the death of Abel’s friend but also of his wife. Tellingly, when Abel finally decides to talk to his sons about the death of their mother, the only thing he has to say is that they will have to walk ten paces behind him lest he be recognised by the police.
Stranded in Nice with no money and no means of transport, Abel reaches out to his old Parisian gang only to find them semi-retired and reluctant to commit themselves to a rescue mission. Unwilling to turn down an old friend but unwilling to stick their collective necks out, the group hire a man named Stark to drive an ambulance down to Nice and bring back Abel.
Fresh off the set of Godard’s Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Stark with a warmth and swagger that is both largely unsupported by the script and utterly perfect for the role. Unattached and unaffiliated, Stark takes the job because he feels sorry for Abel and this unfathomable warmth soon blossoms into real friendship. Brilliantly, Stark meets Abel at around the same time as he meets an attractive young actress and Sautet uses the couple’s whirlwind romance as a placeholder for an unspoken but growing bond between two crooks.
Abel’s return to Paris predictably provides him with little safety and so the film’s focus shifts from Abel’s increasingly abstract escape plans to the state of his relationships with friends and family. Now aware that a ruthless cop-killer is in town, the police begin to apply pressure to Abel’s known acquaintances and the long-dormant friendships buckle under the pressure. At this point in the film, we know that Abel is an evil and selfish man, but we also know that he is capable of humanity. However, Classe Tous Risques is less interested in fantasies of redemption than it is in the realities of damnation and so the second half of the film is given over to the sight of Abel burning his bridges and sacrificing his friendships until there is literally nothing left for him to live for. Even with a small fortune in his back pocket and a one-way ticket for America booked and paid for, Abel is still an irredeemable scumbag, the only question is whether he ever comes to realise this and the film’s magnificent scratch ending provides no easy answers.
One of the key differences between the Noir and Hardboiled sub-genres is that while both take place in worlds filled with corruption and moral compromise, Noir protagonists are traditionally victims of that system rather than sympathetic outsiders. Abel is a classic Noir protagonist in so far as he is faced with nothing but a succession of hideous moral quandaries that he tries, and fails, to resolve with two-fisted violence. Damned from the start, Abel’s selfishness only serves to poison the lives of those he professes to love, which keeps returning us to the central moral quandary of the film: Wouldn’t the world be a better place if Abel just gave up and allowed himself to be killed by the state? Doesn’t Abel have a duty to give himself up? Doesn’t Abel’s refusal to give himself up only show how terrible a man he really is? There is no great score that can make Abel a good man. There is no gunfight that can undo all of those deaths and the more deaths and losses that Abel experiences, the harder it becomes to imagine why it is that he keeps going. Sometimes, as the computer says, the only way to win is not to play and yet playing is what people do and it is this that ultimately humanises Abel and makes his story so compelling.