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A French policier to the ‘Max’

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Max Michel Piccoli

Lily Romy Schneider

Abel Bernard Fresson

Rialto Pictures presents a film directed by Claude Sautet. Written by Sautet, Jean-Loup Dabadie and Claude Neron, based on Neron’s novel. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 112 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: February 12, 2013 2:07PM

‘Max et les Ferrailleurs” is a cop film with a distinctly French sensibility. Director Claude Sautet gets into the head of a detective taking an unusual path to put away bad guys: He sets up small-time junk dealers to rob a bank.

Made in 1971, this procedural arrives in a new 35mm print from Rialto Pictures, the same U.S. distributor that released a restored version of Sautet’s 1960 “Classe Tous Risques” in 2005. This run at the Film Center marks its Chicago premiere.

Sautet and co-writer Jean-Loup Dabadie, adapting a Claude Neron novel, open with a Paris police captain (Georges Wilson) typing up a report. “They say he’ll be tested,” notes a colleague. “If he were mad, that would suit everyone,” replies the captain. When this brief scene continues at the end of the film, we learn that a cop (Michel Piccoli) named Max is the subject of the report and the tests. In between comes a lengthy flashback about the bank job and its blindsiding denouement. “Max was not an ordinary policeman,” observes his captain.

We first see Max arrive at a crime scene. It’s the fourth bank holdup that month. He was tricked by an informer. “So I was stupid, one more time,” he broods. Other cops mock him. He can collar only amateurs and not the big-time crooks. “We have to catch them red-handed or not at all,” he tells his captain. It turns out that 10 years ago, when serving as a judge in Lyon, Max had to free a killer for lack of proof. He quit the bench and put on a badge. A crisis in criminal justice is an existential one for Max.

When following a lead on a stolen car used in the latest bank job, Max runs into an old army pal. Abel (Bernard Fresson) now deals in scrap metal, sometimes lifting spools of copper wire from building sites with his gang of drinking buddies. “No matter what you are — grocer, gangster, cop or priest. They’re all jobs,” Max tells Abel. Max, who’s on plainclothes duty, lies to Abel about his own line of work: in a word, “business.”

Through an inspector in Nanterre, Max learns Abel’s girlfriend, Lily (Romy Schneider), is a prostitute. He lies to her that he is “Fe­lix,” a “banker.” In their weekly non-sexual appointments, he uses her to inspire unambitious Abel to rob the branch that Felix supposedly runs.

Max finally catches some bank robbers in the act, but now Lily faces prison as an accomplice. His loyalty to her leads him to commit a crime worse than larceny.

“Max et les Ferrailleurs,” in contrast to this week’s “Gangster Squad,” thinks harder about cops taking extra-legal measures to fight crime. Max’s ethics in seeking evidence border on morbid. Sautet once characterized Max’s mentality as “an almost childish idealism” mixed up with “a false aristocratic point of view.” A former Communist Party member, he cited “the perversity of theoreticians” as an issue of interest.

“Are you normal? Sure you’re a man?” Lily asks Max, who pays her yet never touches her. “I’ve never met a man like you.” He answers: “You didn’t look very hard.”

Sautet does. The payoff is an inquest into moral psychology.

Bill Stamets is a local free-lance writer and reviewer.

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