Sunday, September 25, 2016

70's Bonanza: Max and the Junkmen

A slight parallel can be drawn between Claude Sautet's "Max and the Frenchman" and Michael Mann's 1995 epic crime masterpiece, "Heat". Both leading cops in the film (Al Pacino as Vincent Hannah in the latter and Michel Piccoli  as Detective Max in this one) are singularly determined to bring down a group of thieves. Outside of the domestic upheaval in Hannah's life (and a step daughter who threatens to bring the violence he works with daily in the streets crashing home), he cares about very little other than achieving his goal of solving crimes. Likewise, Max is given even less enjoyable backstory, other than a check that arrives monthly from his family from their riches of wine producing. It's alluded to that he doesn't even need to work, but chose this profession due to some jilted sense of injustice as a magistrate years earlier. The likeness between the films deepens even further when both cops become exposed to their respective "crews" when the progression of confidential information unwittingly gives them leads into a much bigger series of events. The way Pacino as Hannah spins on a dime when his C.I. mumbles, "man, this Slick ain't no joke" is a marvel of "ah hah" procedural that rarely gets noticed in modern movies. Likewise, Max is poking around the garage of a known car theft front when he sees a recognizable face downstairs. The owner of the garage, under pressure from Max and his partner, fingers that man named Abel (Bernard Fresson) as someone whose supplied cars to various thugs in town. Using his past as a fellow soldier to reunite with his old friend, Max slowly perpetrates a series of double crosses and roleplaying with the man's prostitute girlfriend to steer the man and his crew into a bank robbery. Endlessly fascinating for the way in which "Max and the Frenchman" undulates between crime film procedural and slowly invading romance drama, it's an unheralded great film that, besides its marginal re-release here in the U.S. back in early 2013, deserves a wider audience.

But that's where the similarities between the two films ends. While Robert DeNiro and his crew in "Heat" are intelligent, coiled professionals.... ready to drop, kill or run with brutal precision at any moment... Max is chasing a rather lump-headed and sullen crew. Living in the junkyard of their boss (who takes most of their money from their random 'scores' of stealing copper wire), its rather clear where their destinies are headed from the get-go. These are not successful, career criminals. What filmmaker Sautet is essentially after is the relationship that develops between Max and Abel's girlfriend, played to perfection by Romy Schneider. The moral complexity that eventually grows between them is the core of the film, and it's a hugely impactful moment that occurs between them in the film's finale.

French 'policiers' of the 70's have a distinctive flavor and tone. Either they end up as muscle-bound, illogical sleaze-fests such as some of the latter day Alain Delon films, or they strike the perfect balance of intelligence and pathos. Of course, the gold standard are the films of Jean Pierre Melville. And while Sautet's "Max and the Frenchmen" isn't quite "The Red Circle" or "Un Flic", it is a well crafted and devious procedural that understands truth is in the hushed details of a conversation over car chases and grand shoot outs. It does feature a pretty awesome shoot out at the end, though.

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