By 1960, the New Wave had begun to take hold of films coming out of France. Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge was released in 1958, and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows garnered success in 1959, both in France and overseas. So when Claude Sautet's first feature, Classe tous risques, appeared in 1960 with a story about a gangster past his prime, it probably seemed like a throwback to the noir films the French were producing for the last three decades prior. Even though it came out the same year as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Classe features none of the radical stylistic experimentation that marked many of the films coming from the New Wave directors. In fact, the film instead embraces the classical motifs rejected by directors such as Godard and Truffaut.
Sautet (1924-2000) would become most well-known for his final films -- Un coer en hiver and Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, a pair of moving dramas light years away from Classe -- but for his first feature, he created an entertaining story about the blackness of a gangster's soul. The film follows self-exiled criminal Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), who, after years on the lam in Italy, decides it's time to take his family back to France. In an extended and exciting opening sequence, Abel, along with his wife, two boys, and best friend, flee from cops via car, bus, motorcycle, and boat. After tragedy strikes, Abel and his sons are stuck in a town south of Paris, and he calls on old associates to get him back to the city. Instead of retrieving him themselves, Abel's old buddies send Eric Stark, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo as equal parts stoic tough and playful lover. Godard may get credit for making Belmondo a star with Breathless, but it's Sautet who gives the actor a more nuanced role.
Despite its exciting sequences, Classe tous risques does not break any new ground for noir films. Bob le Flambeur, Rififi, and even Pepe le Moko all featured similar stories: an aging gangster realizing that a life of crime doesn't pay. But Bob has a cop friend to pull him out of it; Rififi's Tony does something unexpected and heroic; and Pepe sacrifices himself for love. Abel, however, just gives up at the end. But to Sautet's credit, the film offers a unique sense of place. He avoids the smoky backrooms of bars, the casinos, the brothels that are so common in the genre. Most of the action instead takes place in the empty hallways of apartment buildings, the post office, a lonely dark road at night. There are a few bursts of violence, but Sautet tempers these with quieter scenes, making the eruptions more unexpected and brutal.
When Abel finally gives up at the end of the film, we do not see it. Neither do we see his trial or execution. There is little back story given to any of the characters, except the spare voiceover at the beginning and end of the movie. Sautet wants to concentrate on this fragment of Abel's life. The focus isn't on who he was and what he becomes; it's on the final desperate hours of this man's life, the decision to give up an existence of crime and what leads up to that decision. According to Sautet expert N.T. Binh, Sautet's first film ends the same as his last film, Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, with the main character disappearing into a crowd, everything lost. It is this step that transforms these characters on screen into just another person around us, slipping away from a life of supposed greatness and into nothing.