With the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1960 and the emergence of Jean-Paul Belmondo as a huge star, the cinema of the French New Wave reshaped the movie landscape with a force still felt today. What was forgotten at the time — until now, some 45 years later — was that Belmondo appeared almost simultaneously in Classe Tous Risques, a doozy of a French gangster pic that, in its beautifully refurbished and pithily resubtitled re-release, turns out to be one of the highlights of the 2005 movie year. Decades before The Sopranos mesmerized viewers with its world of criminals and cops as ordinary and human as they are brutal, filmmaker Claude Sautet created a neorealist, neo-noir black-and-white masterpiece of hard men with accessible hearts. And just moments, it seems, before Belmondo became identified as one of the avatars of New Wave style, he defined gangster-pic charisma.
In a thriller at once ruthless and soulful, Sautet paid attention to men who shot to kill — men to whom loyalty and friendship mattered, along with guns and cash — but also tousled the heads of kids, treated women with respect, and savored the pleasures of sandwiches and beer. Abel Davos (onetime wrestler Lino Ventura) is a tough guy — and a warm husband and father to two sons — who, after a decade on the lam in Milan, wants to get his family home to Paris. Eric Stark (Belmondo) is the freelance thief who helps him after a daring heist goes wrong and former associates of Davos turn on him.
It’s a toss-up as to which is more spectacular — the taut, unsentimental chase that opens the picture after Davos and a partner in crime mug guards who are transferring payroll cash, or the underplayed, equally unsentimental bond that develops between Davos and Stark. Sandra Milo, from Fellini’s 8 1/2, makes a luscious entr’acte as Stark’s love interest, but it’s the elemental male relationships that inspire Sautet’s greatest moments in a great specimen of recovered cinema treasure.