Film noir often revolves around the execution of a meticulously planned heist. Classe Tous Risques begins with a meticulously planned escape: Abel and Raymond are criminals on the run from the law in Italy, fleeing to anonymity in France. First, they steal some money. Next it's a getaway car and a motorcycle: At a roadblock, the guy on the bike will draw fire from the police while the guy in the car pushes through. They toss a coin, and Abel loses. So Raymond says, "I win," and gets on the bike.
This is an elegant statement of the inverted noir mentality and its world of risk fatale. Sautet's drama reminds us of a reason we like film noir: It doesn't waste our time. It's sudden, like death, and yet, like death, it sometimes doesn't hurry. The wait can be agonizing. Sautet actually films very little of Classe Tous Risques at night, so it's often brilliant with Mediterranean sunshine. His frequent use of traveling shots creates both narrative energy and an often dazzling travelogue of its French and Italian locales.
Because Abel (Lino Ventura) has a wife and two young sons, there's more at stake in Classe Tous Risques than in a more traditional noir film. Abel promises his sons that they'll never be apart again when they get to France. He might as well have just said goodbye, and then jumped off a cliff. When they all arrive in Nice, there's a shootout with some customs officers. Only Abel and the kids survive. So Abel calls his colleagues in France for help in getting to safety, and another plot emerges: The gangsters discuss the mess with their wives ... they can't risk going themselves to pick up Abel ... and eventually they find an ethical young hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo, newly post-Breathless) to fetch Abel and his boys in an ambulance, which draws less attention.
What unfolds then is a strange story of friendship, family and fidelity in the underworld ... like The Sopranos, with a low-keyed mix of domesticity and danger. When the escapees encounter a man slapping his woman around by the roadside, Belmondo pulls over and lays the brute out, then gives the woman a ride ... and confides what he's transporting in the back of his ambulance. The woman, grateful for her safety, and a little shady herself, understands. In French, with subtitles.