The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Classe Tous Risques

Having seen a handful of movies starring Lino Ventura, I feel safe saying that the guy just can't play anything else than a villain.  That's not a dig or a criticism, just an observation.  He's really good at playing the bad guys.  Even in a movie like Melville's Army of Shadows where he's a French resistance leader fighting the Germans, Ventura puts off this aura of intimidation and fear that makes you think he's a villain even as you're rooting for him.

In 1960's Classe tous risques, Ventura's part certainly treads that line between good and bad.  He's a gangster, but he's also a dad looking out for his two young sons, ages 8 and 5.  But in looking out for his kids, Ventura's Abel character breaks the law left and right, pulling off robberies, knocking off a couple guys, whatever it takes.  There are moments where his character is incredibly sympathetic, but it's not long before he reminds you he's a killer and a gangster.

After four years on the run, infamous gangster Abel Davos (Ventura) is sneaking back into Paris with his family.  Sneaking into the country proves to be more difficult than planned and his wife and partner are killed in a shootout with customs officials.  Stranded in the middle of Italy with little money, no resources and his two kids, Abel turns to members of his old gang now living in Paris for help.  They recruit a young thief, Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to drive an ambulance to pick him and the kids up and bring them back to Paris.  It's during this rather tense journey that Abel forms a quick friendship with Eric, but he's got other things on his mind.  Abel starts to question why didn't his friends come help him personally instead of sending this youngster?

Directed by Claude Sautet, 'Classe' (translated as Consider All Risks) has all the elements of a high-quality noirish gangster movie.  It's filmed in black and white and the French and Italian locations look phenomenal, both the scenes in the cities and countryside.  There's something to be said for filming on location, and that's a big appeal of the French new wave.  They feel incredibly realistic with a gritty on the street look.  So whether the movie is good or bad, there's always something enjoyable to notice.

All that said, I didn't love this one.  There is little action involved with an extended chase occupying much of the first 30 minutes or so, on foot, in cars, and in boats so all the biggies.  But the remainder of the story is more of a slow burn with the threat of being captured providing some tense moments.  That's the issue though, the detective (Jacques Dacqmine) is hot on Abel's trail but never too hot.  An unnecessary subplot with Belmondo's Stark and a young actress (Sandra Milo) is added that seems ridiculous in this story.  Driving through Italy, Stark picks her up on the side of the road and offers a ride. Surprisingly enough, they fall for each other, and much of the last 30 minutes is spent on their budding relationship.  So when the story should be focusing on the noose tightening around Abel, we get a date between Stark and Liliane.

As pointed out before, I'm all for the downer endings, especially in stories with gangsters and gunfighters.  How often does it end well for killers and thieves in real life? But in movies they always seem to make it.  'Classe' has its equivalent of a downer ending, but not in a good way.  All this great tension is built up, and then there's no pay-off.  It just ends, like that.  Cue the credits, or in this case 'Fin.'  It does work for the story, but it's dispatched with too quickly.  Some quick narration explains what happens in two or three sentences, and that's it.  I felt kind of cheated out of a better ending.

The relationship between an older vet of the biz and a relative newcomer is nothing unique to movies.  Name a genre, and you can probably pick an example of that storytelling technique.  It works especially well here because Ventura and Belmondo are such strong, reliable actors.  Their ages differ by many years, but they're similar in many ways and seem to live by the same code and principles.  Improving the movie would have been easy for me, add more about Ventura's Abel and Belmondo's Eric.  The rest of the cast is solid, especially two of Abel's old cronies (Michel Ardan and Claude Cerval) and a fence (Marcel Dalio) who's worked with Abel before, sometimes more willingly than others.

'Classe' falls in the middle when comparing some other French gangster movies.  The cast -- especially pros like Ventura and Belmondo -- is worth recommending, and the cinematography does not disappoint.  Composer Georges Delerue provides a nice score that's both appropriately loud when needed and soothing in the quieter scenes.  While it's not a classic, it's still good.  And an average movie that strives to be great tends to be better than an average movie that just settles for the status quo.

Classe tous risques <----trailer (1960): ** 1/2 /****

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