Max, the sad, obsessive Parisian flic at the heart of Claude Sautet’s Max et les Ferrailleurs, is an especially memorable addition to the international brotherhood of disaffected policemen of the 1960s and ’70s, even if his contributions have, until now, been largely forgotten.
Released in France in 1971, Max et les Ferrailleurs is receiving a belated and welcome Miami premiere. Sautet, a director and screenwriter who died in 2000, is probably best known in this country for Un Coeur en Hiver, his 1992 psychological drama starring Emmanuelle Béart and Daniel Auteuil.
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But if he is something of a footnote in the history of French cinema, Sautet was also a tough and subtle dramatist with a gift for teasing moral complications out of straightforward genre scenarios.
Max et les Ferrailleurs has the matter-of-fact look and careful pace of a precinct-house procedural. The film’s central crime is the robbery of a bank branch by a gang of small-timers, and most of the cops are beleaguered, cynical bureaucrats.
Max (Michel Piccoli) is different. A former administrative judge, he stands out as a somber and aloof figure among his colleagues. Max believes that the only real way to solve a crime is to catch the perpetrator in the act. The problem is that criminal behavior is rarely predictable enough to ensure that outcome. Max’s solution is to manufacture the crime he will solve, indirectly but methodically manipulating an old army buddy into planning a bank job.
The friend, Abel (Bernard Fresson), lives in Nanterre, an unlovely suburb where he and some pals — the “ferrailleurs,” or junkmen, of the title — eke out a livelihood stealing scrap metal and chopping cars. Some of the film’s suspense arises from doubt about whether they will prove too lazy and disorganized to attempt the armed robbery that Max intends to foil.
His secret weapon is Lily (Romy Schneider), a German streetwalker who lives with Abel. Max, pretending to be a divorced banker, becomes her most loyal customer, even though they never have sex. Instead, they drink wine, play cards and lounge around Max’s apartment until their artificial intimacy starts to resemble the real thing.
Max is so quiet and resolute that it takes a while for the monstrous dimensions of his plan to sink in. The legal term for what he does to Abel is entrapment, but under Sautet’s measured, merciless gaze it starts to look like a more profound betrayal of the basic idea of justice.
Max’s cold, single-minded determination is undermined only by Mr. Piccoli’s soft brown eyes, which communicate unspoken and enigmatic hurts. Schneider’s resilient grace keeps Max et les Ferrailleurs tantalizingly poised among comedy, realism and a tragic love story. In the ’70s Schneider (she died in 1982 at 43) was a fixture in Sautet’s films, and the overdue arrival of Max et les Ferrailleurs gives American audiences a chance to rediscover both of them.
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Romy Schneider, François Périer, Bernard Fresson.
Director: Claude Sautet.
Screenwriters: Claude Sautet, Claude Néron, Jean-Loup Dabadie.
A Rialto Pictures release. Running time: 112 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Plays Sept. 11-13 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.