In the early 1950s Joseph Damiani, a French criminal, was on death row for his role in an extortion racket which had led to several deaths. Damiani was not however, a murderer and his sentence was later commuted to hard labour before he was released long before his time had been fully served. On his release, he wrote Le Trou (The Hole), under the pseudonym José Giovanni. It is the story of a real-life prison break attempt and was eventually published with the aid of Albert Camus. Today I’d like to reflect on Giovanni’s transition from hardcore criminal to writer and screenwriter and in particular on the extraordinary Classe Tous Risques (Consider All Risks), which he later made into a film with French director Claude Sautet. Not just any film, but one of the best gangster films of all time.
In the death row cell next to Giovanni was Abel Danos, a giant of the French criminal underworld. Danos told Giovanni about his life, about the betrayal he had suffered, and about how he would now be executed as a result of that betrayal. When Le Trou was published in 1957 Giovanni was offered work by the editor of Série Noire, an imprint from French publishing house Gallimard which specialised in hardboiled detective thrillers in the mould of Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. Giovanni wrote three books for Série Noire, one of which is Classe Tous Risques (1958) and it recreates the last days of Abel “The Mammoth” Danos based on the snatches of conversation they shared in prison. Giovanni had not thought about the conversation since his release. When he returned to it in the face of his editor’s deadline it led to something extraordinary. Giovanni relays the story of two men on the run at the mercy of their gang members in order to get back to Paris. As the Police close in, the gang members disappear leaving their former colleagues to fend for themselves. It is gripping.
Works like Classe Tous Risques and Rififi (based on the 1953 novel Du rififi chez les hommes by Auguste Le Breton) are blacker and bleaker than the large swathes of American noir that dominated the pages of Série Noire. The sense of despair and the ever-present fatalism that pervades these works is more enhanced, and yet, these sensations don’t dominate. What shines through most are the themes of friendship and honour-among-thieves. When that honour is betrayed, as it is in both works, the effect is stark and very powerful. In Classe Tous Risques, the disintegration of honour, and of hope is etched onto the face of the actor Lino Ventura who brings to life the conversation Giovanni had on death row.
Only a writer who truly understood the criminal underworld could come close to transferring this conversation to the page, and then the screen. Fortunately for us, José Giovanni doesn’t come close, he gets it spot on and to stunning effect. The film is outstanding, in every way. The characters are compelling, the story is fast and taut, and the sense of betrayal palpable. There is no happy ending. It is noir, and black. Following a screening in Los Angeles in 2006, two years after Giovanni’s death and nearly 50 years after being on death row, the LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan summed up his efforts using these words,
To come across “Classe Tous Risques” is like discovering a bottle of marvelous French wine you didn’t remember you had, opening it and finding it every bit as delicious as its reputation promised. That’s how good this classic fatalistic French gangster film is.
Of the many things, I love about Classe Tous Risques the main one is that arguably it isn’t even Giovanni’s best work. Following his release from prison, he wrote 20 novels, two memoirs, and over 30 screenplays. In addition, he directed 15 films and whilst his success was down to hard work, natural talent and an unerring ability to tell a story, it was also because of a criminal background.
Ironically, maybe crime does pay.