The picture's crime thriller elements are strong by themselves, but what really makes Max and the Junkmen exceptional is its unusual, intense concentration on the two main characters, their relationship to one another, and the unexpected turns it takes.
Max (Michel Piccoli) is a Paris detective frustrated by a spate of bank robberies where bank employees are killed and the police can do little to catch those responsible. Wearily following a thin lead on the stolen car used in the latest robbery, Max tails a suspect who turns out to be an old friend he's not seen in nearly two decades, Abel (Bernard Fresson). Over drinks Abel, unaware that Max is a policeman, explains that he's been working a dead-end job selling stolen scrap metal, things like giant spools of copper wire and stolen cars.
This gives Max an idea: with the tenuous support of his Chief Inspector (Georges Wilson) and Nanterre chief detective (François Périer), Max goes undercover to entice Abel's small-time crooks into committing a big-time bank heist. It's entrapment, to be sure, but his superiors are willing to look the other way. Max, after all, is one of their best, most respected detectives.
Max learns that Abel hangs out with a casual gang of social misfits and various girlfriends at a café/bar in Nanterre. Abel's girl is Lily (Romy Schneider), who works independently as a prostitute, saving her money rather than turning it over to Abel. Max solicits her as "Felix," a wealthy banker interested in relaxed companionship rather than sex. He pays her generously and mostly they play cards, drink wine, and chat, Max-as-Felix subtly dropping hints about his job at a small bank that takes in huge deposits twice monthly from a nearby meat market. Lily, unhappy that Abel lacks ambition and is often broke, encourages him to consider robbing Felix's bank.
What makes Max and the Junkmen so fascinating is the relationship between Max and Lily. She's initially bemused by his disinterest toward sex, he instead wishing only to relax and chat, a type of client she'd encountered only once before, a journalist. He's generous with his money, kind and gentle if enigmatic. At first Lily thinks she's stumbled onto a gold mine: one time she arrives at the apartment Max has rented to find a huge pile of money on the dining table, he encouraging her to take however much she'd like. She races back to the café showing off her windfall.
Later he takes artful photos of Lily in the bath, concentrating not on her nude body but her face, portraits he displays on the apartment's walls. But then he removes them suddenly and acts disinterested in her attention. What's going on? Why is Felix/Max suddenly giving her the cold shoulder, treating her, if politely, like a servant?
Over time, it becomes clear that Lily is developing feelings for Max, but is he just cruelly using her, or is the affection mutual? How might this effect Max's plans and the robbery scheme Lily has taken to Abel?
The audience learns a bit about Max's unusual life. Independently wealthy - his family owns a thriving vineyard - he first worked as a judge, but quit when he had to rule in favor of a murder suspect everyone knew was guilty. Max's deep cover, including his payments to Lily, are self-financed, clearly, and technically violate French law, but so far removed from the main crime, the bank robbery, that his superiors are willing to look the other way.
Yet, one can't help but feel sorry for Abel's gang of thieves, who live like (and may even be) Roma and commit mostly petty, victimless crimes, but now engineered by Max into committing felonies way beyond the capabilities. Once they acquire guns for the caper several in the gang act like bigshots, but it's clear from the beginning this heist is doomed to failure.
Completely dominating the picture, even over ravenous Romy Schneider, is the great French actor Michel Piccoli, happily still with us at age 94. His performance is extraordinarily subtle, like the best work of Edward G. Robinson and Robert Mitchum, a kind of effortlessness in which Piccoli seems to be doing very little acting but in fact is vividly expressive. Director Sautet often shoots Piccoli in tight close-ups, sometimes showing him only in profile, and sometimes even less of his face is visible than that, yet the audience is transfixed, continually guessing what Max's true motives are.
Is Max an amoral, selfish user, coldly plotting the ruin of Lily and Abel's gang for his own self-satisfaction? Does he even comprehend Lily's growing feelings for him? Is "Felix" all that different from Max or are they one and the same?
Video & Audio
Kino's Blu-ray of Max and the Junkmen, licensed from Studio Canal, who recently undertook a restoration of the film from the original camera negative, looks great, though a few shots here and there seem drained of color and may be sourced from secondary elements. The DTS-HD Master Audio (French mono only) is supported by excellent optional English subtitles. Region "A" encoded.
Included is an original trailer, but the primary supplement is a new audio commentary track by critic Samm Deighan. As with Deighan's other tracks for Kino titles, it's more a reading of the film with less focus on production info and cultural/industrial context, but it's generally good.
Featuring one of actor Michel Piccoli's finest performances, with Romy Schneider also very good, Max and the Junkmen is a real find, a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.