The aging mobster (Lino Ventura) is a muscular mug with unexpected spiritual resonance and a death sentence over his head. Perpetually on the move, he sees his family off at the Milan central station and with his pal (Stan Krol) robs a pair of bank couriers on a crowded street at daylight: The getaway is a tour de force of movement, with its various switched vehicles and the camera placed on the hood of a car as it barrels toward the frontier, but it’s really in the shades of taciturn tenderness between the underworld figures that Claude Sautet finds his groove. The beach that would become a placid bourgeois crux from Les Choses de la Vie on is here a place for a nocturnal rendezvous, as well as an abrupt shootout that leaves Ventura alone with his kids (Robert Desnoux, Thierry Lavoye) in Nice. His former associates aren’t thrilled at the notion of his return, the plan to smuggle him into Paris involves a bogus ambulance (with room for a machine gun) and a bogus driver (Jean-Paul Belmondo), along the way they add a bogus nurse (Sandra Milo). The gangster’s shifts from lethargy into ferociousness (with a pause to usher the children out of the room) show the novice filmmaker’s apprenticeship on Touchez pas au Grisbi, the execution of the double-dealing fence (Marcel Dalio) in the car anticipates Le Deuxième Souffle, the little maid from Umberto D. is also remembered. In the middle of this gangland existentialism, Sautet stages a shapely compression of romance: Belmondo picks up Milo after her theatrical rehearsals, cut to flirtation at the seafood restaurant, cut to his apartment for deeper feelings over caged birds, dissolve to an empty frame as the elevator carrying the two plunges into view, they’re kissing. (On happiness: "You stop believing it, and then it happens.") The protagonist is too exhausted to survive in the year of À Bout de Souffle, his exit into the Paris sidewalk receives the full heft of Sautet’s shrugging ambiguity, already piquant, already piercing. With Michel Ardan, Simone France, Claude Cerval, Michèle Méritz, and France Asselin. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce