Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli star in "Max and the Junkmen." (Rialto Pictures )
What better way to start the new year than with an overlooked classic that is both old and new: directed in 1971 by France's greatly admired Claude Sautet, "Max and the Junkmen" has not been released in the United States until now.
Sautet, who died in 2000, was one of his country's great humanist directors, best known to American audiences for films such as "César and Rosalie" with Yves Montand and Romy Schneider and "Un Coeur en Hiver" with Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Béart in the leads.
But Sautet's first success as a director came with a cops-and-robbers gem, a 1960 policier called "Classe Tous Risques." The polished, assured "Max" is very much cut from the same cloth, but the specific qualities that make it strong — its bleak, melancholy tone and the way it veers toward the tragic — probably kept distributors away from it back in 1971.
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Because Sautet was a filmmaker who was drawn to complex psychological situations, "Max and the Junkmen" ("Max et les Ferraileurs" in the original) is no ordinary crime film. It's also a finely drawn character study that is fascinated by the nuances of personal behavior and, in Michel Piccoli and Schneider, it had the actors to bring it to life.
Piccoli plays Max, a Parisian detective who, as his superior says, is "no ordinary policeman." Not only is he independently wealthy — his family owns a vineyard — but he is a former examining judge who left the bench because he wanted to take more of a hands-on approach to crime.
The film's early sequences show Max, played by Piccoli with an icy, almost monastic hauteur, increasingly frustrated by a class of bank robbers that seem to be too smart to be caught in the act.
Frustrated by the powerlessness of the forces of law and order and the obtuseness of fellow cops who don't care as much as he does — "scum on the one hand, fools on the other" is how Max describes his situation — the policeman becomes obsessed with the notion of capturing bank robbers red-handed, thus insuring that they cannot escape the punishment of the law.
This systemic dissatisfaction becomes laser-focused when Max runs into Abel (Bernard Fresson), an old Army buddy he hasn't seen in many years. Not knowing Max's profession, Abel tells him that he and a gang of friends from nearby Nantes work as crooks who sporadically plunder whatever's not nailed down from local construction sites.
A conversation with Rosinsky (Francois Perier), a police captain from Nantes, confirms that Abel and his pals are ambitionless small-timers, as much overgrown kids as criminals, a flesh-and-blood gang that couldn't shoot straight.
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Max, however, views them differently. He sees Abel and his friends as potential major criminals who can be manipulated into stepping up in class and robbing a bank. And when they do, Max plans to be present so he can personally put the handcuffs on them.
Max's way into the gang turns out to be Lily, a prostitute who also happens to be Abel's live-in girlfriend. As played by Schneider at her most radiant, Lily is the de facto queen of this genial band of outlaws (the criminals in this film have a lot more fun than the lawmen), but her ambition also makes her vulnerable to Max's machinations.
Posing as Felix, a banker with more money than sense, Max purchases chunks of Lily's time (for conversation, not sex) and begins the devious process of manipulation. But this relationship becomes increasingly complex in ways neither Max nor Lily anticipates, leading to consequences no one can foresee.
Sautet, who co-wrote the film from a novel by Claude Néron, is completely at home in this down-at-the-heels milieu. Francophiles in the audience will welcome a return to a Paris where hard guys smoke Gitanes and oversized francs are still legal tender, but everyone will appreciate a film so sure of itself and so good at what it sets out to do.