50 Years Ago This Week – Claude Sautet’s Second Try

In 1960, Director Claude Sautet released Classe Tous Risques, an outstanding escaped-killer-on-the-run drama featuring Lino Ventura and an unknown Jean-Paul Belmondo.  For his efforts he won the enormous respect of his peers (Jean Pierre Melville grabbed a hold of Ventura and made a similarly themed if very different picture, Le Deuxieme Souffle) but not much professional traction.  It would be a full five years before the release of Sautet’s next feature, The Dictator’s Guns (L'arme à Gauche), which made its debut on June 18, 1965.  Also starring Lino Ventura, Guns is an odd duck of a movie: its first section has an international-intrigue, exotic-location soft-James Bond feel to it, as decent-guy Lino (a wayward French nephew of Bogart’s Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not) gets caught up in some shady business.  The second half, ship-bound, plays out as an isolated-hostages versus tough-guys-with-guns psychological drama.  That part of the movie is especially well executed and inventively shot (at night, cases of those Dictator’s guns, salvaged on a deserted atoll, look like Stonehenge), but it sticks pretty close to genre expectations and ends pretty much as you’d expect.   

Guns, like Risques, was not a hit, and Sautet’s future prospects as a director were very much in doubt.  But he became a valued behind-the-scenes presence.  According to Bertrand Tavernier, “Sautet was the greatest script doctor and edit fixer in French cinema . . . He invariably put his finger on what wasn’t working and swiftly found a solution.”  (Sautet was also mobilized to meet with Tavernier’s parents, urging them to allow their son to abandon political science and pursue a career in film.  We all owe him for that one.)

The third time would prove to be the charm for Sautet, as the writer-director resurfaced in 1970 with The Things of Life, starring Michel Piccoli (and the first of five collaborations with actress Romy Schneider), which established Sautet as a singular voice: a master of understated observational dramas, usually involving implicit emotional rivalries between friends and lovers.  Things inaugurated a string of seven critically and commercially successful films Sautet would make over the next decade, working with a closely-knit production team and numerous long-term friends.  Other standouts from this period include Max and the Junkmen (Piccoli and Schneider, again) and Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others (Yves Montand, Piccoli, and Serge Reggiani, respectively—to quote Larry David, not too shabby).  

Sautet’s output slowed in the following years, but he ended his career with two triumphs, A Heart in Winter and Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud—each time winning France’s Cesar Award for Best Director.  “My goal is  . . . to find multiple levels in relationships,” he told one interviewer. “I always try and create an imbalance, an edge to friendship.”  In America his following has always been relatively modest, possibly because of his tendency to observe his characters, rather than explain their behavior.  But at the time of his death in 2000, French President Jacques Chirac remembered Sautet as the director who “held out the mirror of our times.”