"No ordinary policeman": This is how director Claude Sautet's intriguing 1971 drama "Max and the Junkmen" describes the Max of the title, a Paris officer of the law whose black fedora matches his black tie and black suit, which all match his tensely fatalistic outlook.
The character, and the film, arrived the same year as "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection." But rumors of any stylistic or thematic resemblance are exaggerated. As played by Michel Piccoli — one of the great brooders and minimalists of his time — this policeman explodes outward only once. Thereby hangs the tale.
Sautet's film, a rare bird only now making its U.S. theatrical premiere, has been made available in a fine new 35 millimeter print courtesy of Rialto Pictures, and it's enjoying a weeklong run at the Siskel Film Center starting Friday. Its rhythm and melancholic personality take some adjustment. But the film, based on a novel adapted by Sautet, Jean-Loup Dabadie and the book's author Claude Neron, rewards your patience.
Piccoli's cop has been thwarted once too often by bank robbers he's trying to nab. He feels "useless" and "stupid" and confesses as much in ways you'd never hear from a trigger-happy American movie cop of the same era. An ex-judge, Max has a chance meeting with an old army buddy Abel, one of the scrap-metal dealers and low-level criminals of the title (played by Bernard Fresson). Like a dour puppeteer, the cop manipulates Abel from a distance, getting to know his prostitute lover, dropping 10-ton hints about the money coming and going through his branch bank office (the cop pretends to be a banker). If only Max can make the bank job happen, he'll redeem his name and make the arrests so long denied him.
Does it go well? We know from the prologue that it does not, and if that doesn't clue us in, the nervous waltz theme provided by composer Philippe Sarde suggests the same unhappy outcome. "Max and the Junkmen" isn't really a crime thriller, though. The heart of it belongs to the scenes between Piccoli and Romy Schneider, a soulful life force as the German hooker in league with the junkmen. Lily's well-compensated but oddly non-sexual sessions with her taciturn banker john, impersonated by Max, lead to a bond, and then something like love between the cop and the streetwalker.
More recently Sautet is known to mainstream art house audiences in America for such cool, sleek diversions as "Un Coeur en Hiver" ("A Heart in Winter") "Max and the Junkmen" is rougher around the edges, and a time capsule, satisfyingly so. You know it's a French procedural because everyone's perpetually making time for conversational detours ("Another coffee?") Piccoli and Schneider have the sort of faces, though, you'd follow anywhere, through any small talk, in any movie.