The Max of Claude Sautet's 1971 Max and the Junkmen (Max et les Ferrailleurs) is a Paris detective in charcoal topcoat and matching fedora, hovering like an angel of death on the periphery of a criminal underworld whose prize catches keep slipping through his fingers. A former judge who quit the bench after being forced to free a guilty man, he now devotes himself to the pursuit of justice — or at least his notion of it — at any cost. The “junkmen” are a motley crew of scrap collectors in the outer suburb of Nanterre — men of disparate backgrounds (an ex-con, an ex-boxer, an ex-legionnaire), all equally washed up. Perhaps it goes without saying that some of the “scrap” they deal in has had a little help in falling off the back of the proverbial truck.

Chance brings Max into contact with one of these small-time scammers, Abel (Bernard Fresson); a lifetime ago, they served in the army together. So Max begins to imagine what might happen if Abel and his crew were to make a play for a big score, and if he, Max, were there to catch them red-handed. And then Max stops thinking “what if” and starts plotting to make sure that it happens.

That is the broad outline of Max and the Junkmen, though really it's just the tip of the iceberg. By turns a morality play, a heist picture and a doomed, noir-ish romance, Sautet's film keeps reinventing itself with our every successive effort to pin it down.

To will his desired outcome into being, Max thinks like a filmmaker: First, he sets the stage, choosing a small bank that seems ripe for the robbing. Then he casts himself in a leading role: Pretending to be a banker named Felix, he rents an apartment and uses it for a series of rendezvous with Lily (Romy Schneider), a high-class prostitute who happens to be Abel's live-in girlfriend.

Max was the second time Sautet paired Piccoli and Schneider — one of the cinema's great, tragic beauties — following the previous year's The Things of Life (Les Choses de la vie). There, Piccoli starred as a businessman flashing back on his fraught relationships with his wife (Lea Massari) and mistress (Schneider) as he lies dying in the wreckage of a car crash. Here, he is something of a sinister Henry Higgins to her sensual Eliza, their scenes bristling with an erotic frisson made all the greater by Piccoli's refusal to be excited by the sight of Schneider sashaying about in a snug, black, patent leather trench coat. Initially, this asexual aloofness puzzles the streetwise Lily, but the money is good and so she plays along, picking up each bit of information about Max's bank and its inner workings as quickly as he drops them.

When Max received its belated U.S. theatrical premiere in New York last year, 40 years after it was made, some critics noted a connection between Piccoli's amoral crime fighter and two other renegade cops of the same era: “Dirty” Harry Callahan and The French Connection's Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. But in his cool impassivity and barely concealed power lust, his conflation of entrapment and enforcement, Max more closely recalls the fascist stooge, Clerici, who calmly watches as his erstwhile lover is assassinated before his eyes in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist.

Sautet, who adapted Max with author Claude Néron and frequent collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie from Néron's novel, himself once described the film as a study in “the perversity of theoreticians,” before likening the character of Max to a Stalinist apparatchik.

That Max is finally seeing a proper U.S. release, in a new 35mm print commissioned by the venerable Rialto Pictures, is reason to celebrate; that it took so long may be taken as an object lesson in the vagaries of film distribution and, to an extent, film criticism (a den of perverse theoreticians if ever there was).

A former sculptor, social worker and journalist, Sautet began his movie career in the early 1960s with two highly accomplished crime dramas, Classe tous risques (starring Lino Ventura and the young Jean-Paul Belmondo) and L'Arme à gauche, which got swallowed up in the hubbub surrounding the French New Wave. Sautet was a contemporary but never a member of that storied group, making him something of a scourge for the cultural gatekeepers of Cahiers du cinéma.

But The Things of Life proved to be a popular hit and the template for much of Sautet's later work — nominal romantic triangles in which the three sides do not quite connect, and where unrequited desire always casts more allure than that which can be had. Those films, which include César and Rosalie, A Simple Story and Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, all screened at American art houses during the 1970s and earned high praise from the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, but somehow Max (which Sautet considered to be the best of his own films) slipped through the cracks, and today nearly all of Sautet's work is difficult to see in the English-speaking world.

So let us hope that Max is one step toward the wider rediscovery of an artist who knew that matters of the flesh — and the small, everyday details of human interaction — are rarely as tidy as most movies make them seem.

MAX AND THE JUNKMEN (MAX ET LES FERRAILLEURS) | Directed by Claude Sautet | Written by Sautet, Claude Néron and Jean-Loup Dabadie, based on the book by Néron | Rialto Pictures | Music Hall

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