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A French twist on noir, long overshadowed

The French must have been thrown when, in 1960, they had a chance first to see Jean-Paul Belmondo become a movie star in Jean-Luc Godard's classic ''Breathless" then to catch him in a smaller part in Claude Sautet's ''Classe Tous Risques." The two movies, both variations on film noir, opened within a month of each other in France, and it must have been slightly disorienting to go from the revolutionary change-ups in editing and tone in the first to the seemingly more conventional stuff happening in the second. Seeing them in the opposite order would have helped the Sautet film and made Belmondo's amused work in it seem less anticlimactic.

Of course, ''Classe Tous Risques," when it was released here decades ago loosely translated as ''The Big Risk," didn't make a wave in America, probably because it wasn't ''Breathless." There's nothing wrong with Sautet's movie; it's just not Godard's. It deserves to be seen in its own right, and now, with a restored print, it can be.

''Classe" gets going on a clear Milan afternoon. Two well-dressed thugs -- Abel (Lino Ventura) and Raymond (Stan Krol) -- make a quick robbery that amounts to their running by a pair of uniformed men and swiping half a million francs. Naturally, the fallout is tragic. But the glitches do afford us an opportunity to catch Krol flash Ventura the sort of killer smile that movies were made for. We also get to see that a single chop to the back knocks a fella out every time.

Eventually Abel, who has been on the lam in Northern Italy for a decade, is forced to stay there with his two young sons after things go wrong. In a touching scene, he tells the elder one that, as a precaution, he and his brother are to walk far behind their father. And if dad gets pinched, they're to run the other way. Abel phones Paris for help from his criminal organization, expecting one of his buddies to come. Instead, they dispatch a stranger, Belmondo's Eric Stark, to bring him home.

Abel's miffed and disillusioned but figures a ride home is a ride home. Here Belmondo, cool and comic, turns the film on its side. The plan to get past the Italian police is hilarious and involves Eric playing an ambulance driver while Abel plays a patient with his head bandaged up (he's supposed to have a skull fracture). After Eric punches a guy out, he informs Liliane (Sandra Milo, in her foxy prime), whom he picks up on the side of the road, that ''the nice thing about me is my left."

Ventura, though, is unshakably serious. He epitomized what could be sexy about the strong-silent type. As a midlevel star, he was a draw in his own right, and having taken smaller parts in earlier French noirs (Jacques Becker's ''Touchez Pas au Grisbi" and Louis Malle's ''Elevator to the Gallows"), he probably found the lead in this one irresistible. The performance, in fact, is fearless. Ventura makes Abel ruthless and nasty with hurt, using virile fury to blast past the gaps in the character's logic and common sense. (He started out as a Greco-Roman wrestler. And in most of his roles, it showed.)

This was one of Sautet's earliest movies. He died in 2000 and worked sporadically, his last two pictures, 1992's ''A Heart in Winter" and 1995's ''Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud," probably being his best known. ''Classe Tous Risques" is a confident movie, and despite seeming ordinary in the shadow of Godard's ''Breathless," it's an innovative one, too. Sautet applied the sheen of neorealism to a crime genre whose elements dictate a kind of formal rigor. Nevertheless, the movie isn't a goof, and history has proved that to be to its advantage. Even though the film isn't considered a rule-breaking classic, its straight face holds up quite nicely, thank you.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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