Max et les Ferrailleurs is a noir in colour — bright Eastmancolour in the DVD transfer I saw — fresh as paint, and as brightly coloured as a children’s playground. But it’s a shadowy world that is depicted; one of cops and robbers, bars and cafés, precincts and prostitutes. And if each of the characters that people this world has their reasons for behaving as they do, none of them is saintly and none of their motives are pure.
The film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli), a mono-manically obsessive cop intent on bringing a bunch of two-bit crooks to justice through the manipulations of the psychically bruised but physically peachy Lily (Romy Schneider), the girlfriend of one of the ferrailleurs, the not too bright but not too bad Abel (Bernard Fresson).
As with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet and Jean-Loup Dabadie — and another tightly structured, carefully composed and subtly told tale of morally complex people. But Max et les ferrailleurs is a darker film then either although it’s a darkness that is composed by a layering of subtle shadings. First of all, the crooks aren’t really that bad. They’re just a bunch of guys who prefer to spend all day shooting the shit in a junkyard to working. They dream of a score but are really too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it — until Max sets up his trap for them, a score so easy that they can’t help but fall into it. So who’s the bad guy, the entrapper or the entrapped?
It is no credit to Max that he sets his trap through Lily. We’re told she’s German, born in Bonn, who began street-walking in Munich as a teenager. She’s had a hard life; been pushed into drink and drugs from pillar to post throughout Germany by abusive pimps — to the point where she’s survived a suicide attempt. She’s finally free of all that and is, as Inspector Rosinsky (François Périer) tells Max, if not someone, at least something. She’s in a pleasant, not too involved relationship with the easy-going and rather nice Abel and she’s at home in Nanterre.
It turns out that Max knows the amiable Abel from when they did they did their military service together. Abel doesn’t ask Lily for money and he doesn’t mind that she turns tricks for a living. Max isn’t a bad person, or at least he doesn’t begin that way, but he’s effectively entrapping his friend by paying for the services of his woman. Moreover, Abel is the friendly and nice one. The worse that can be said of Abel is that he’s not ambitious and doesn’t quite stick to the letter of the law. But that is at least as true of Max.
In order to entrap the gang, Max hires Lily. He pays her a lot, too much for someone who pretends he only wants to talk. In fact, it’s through these talks that he begins spinning his web. But he also can’t help looking at her, taking endless photographs and papering the walls of his rented flat with them. She begins to see him as something more than a trick too. They develop feelings for each other as they talk, feelings that they sense but can’t quite admit to; after all, there’s money involved. The camera loves Romy Schneider. Max loves looking at Romy/Lily through the camera. We love what we see, even what he sees, though his looking overlaps into a voyeurism that we share, but tinged with a perversity that begins to make us a little uncomfortable. We love Romy Schneider. Lily’s done nothing bad to Max. Yet, she senses an easy score and is not above setting up a robbery of the bank Max pretends to run.
Max et les ferrailleurs is shot in fluid long-takes. It doesn’t feel as the kind of cinema that blows you away by its use of the medium – it’s certainly not self-consciously ‘cinematic- — until you go over how the story is told in your mind, and think of how subtly, how beautifully, how classically, how economically and how powerfully what is shown and how it is shown affects how you understand and what you feel.
I’ll linger on two scenes here as brief examples. The first (see above) is our introduction of Lily. In a subtle, narrationally motivated way, Sautet gives Romy Schneider a fabulous star entrance. We see her through Max. In fact his face goes in and out of focus as we see what he sees. An iris, meant to stand in for the long end of the telescope, provides a space in which Romy and Abel then appear. We know she’s a prostitute partly because of how she’s smoking and walking and mostly because of what she’s wearing: a ribbon around her neck tied into a jauntily-angled bow (Romy’s signature look for this film, she will wear such a ribbon in different colours in most scenes with Max), high-heeled ankle-strapped shoes, and a shiny black vinyl raincoat that might be a nod to Joan Bennet’s iconic streetwalker look as Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945).
Soon Max’s attention focuses strictly on Lily. His telescope, which began following first the gang and then the couple starts following her movements rather than Abel’s. In fact, his first question to Inspector Ronsinsky is a follow-up for context and background to the interest first aroused scopically. After the Inspector gives Max and us this background plot (the unenviable but inevitable task of ‘supporting players’ in the type of film where stars are, protagonists do, and the rest of the characters tell), we return to look at Lily, and though the images we see at first illustrate what the voice is telling us, that Nanterre has become her home, they also exceed that telling. We see that she’s beautiful, we see that she’s happy, we see that she’s part of a community, her window looks out on a world that calls to her and that she’s a part of; and she’s got Abel, nice Abel, a man who clearly is fulfilling her sexually and supporting her emotionally, in the background, behind her, and to her delight. This is the pleasant and pleasantly functional, if maybe not rapturously joyful, world that Max, with his quest for ‘justice’, will destroy.
The other moment I’d like to linger on is the moment Max succeed in capturing the crooks and goes to tell Lily with the intent of reassuring her that she’s in the clear. A gendarme blows his whistle almost as if to announce the moment. The film then cuts to Max going into a café. The camera follows Max as he goes into the café but then remains outside as he goes towards Lily (the camera first moving right but then left). Why does Sautet leave the camera out? What distance is being created? It’s interesting too that there’s a mirror behind Lily so that his reflection is present in Lily’s reaction to what he’s done. The moment, however, is Piccoli’s as it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t only captured crooks, he’s destroyed lives, he’s de-facto put a death-warrant on Lily, he’s destroyed a potential future for them both, in fact, he realizes he’s worse than the poor sods, too lazy to even devise their own hold-up that he’s just put behind bars. Every nuance of perception and feeling is visible on Piccoli’s face, all understated but understandable. It’s an absolutely great moment in the film.
Max et les ferrailleurs is full of such moments: elegant, outwardly simple, seemingly casual, none of it drawing attention to itself, but capable of expressing all the complexities of what it is to be human in a series of unfoldings that deepen into a highly pitched but silent scream of feeling. A wonderful film.
Brad Pitt’s final monologue in Killing Them Softly, a kind of aria from a gangster that’s a brutal indictment of what America’s become, is absolutely great and is the film’s raison d’être. His last line, the last one in the film, is bound to become as famous as that of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn Leroy, USA, 1932), that iconic movie of the previous Great Depression where Paul Muni’s asked ‘ How do you live’ and the film ends with him responding from out of the darkness: ‘I steal’.
Pitt’s ‘Give me the money’ and Muni’s ‘I steal’ are almost the inverse of each other in terms of meaning: one an imperious public demand for services rendered; the other the furtive and clandestine theft survival requires from those who can’t get work. The juxtaposition of those lines, and indeed of the two films, is interesting in terms of what they tell us about America in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the economic meltdown of 2008, which along with the presidential elections that same year, are the key contexts for Killing Them Softly. Each film shows us the gap between an idea of what America should be and what it actually is. A comparison between what that difference is in 1932 and today, and the different ways in which each film condemns the actual in the light of the ideal is also not without interest.
The film begins and ends with Obama talking in the soundtrack. ‘America’ Obama says at the beginning as the film chops up the soundtrack so that the words seem cut and spliced, as if from different speeches, ‘I say to the people of America (Cut to ominous music) ….This moment is our chance to (more cut-up sound over a visual track ostentatiously edited to seem fragmented, almost broken before settling on the word ‘Killing)..(‘Them’).. enough..(Softly) to make of our own lives what we will…/the American promise is alive…/…that promise that is always setting this country apart/ it’s a promise that each of us has a chance to make of our own lives what we want. ’ The way these phrases are broken up and the particular images, also chpped-up by editing, that they accompany begin a critique of America, a condemnation.
The first few shots are abruptly cut, drawing attention to Obama’s voice but with a new way of seeing and understanding and with a different, a changing, context for it. They instantly alert you to a new perspective. In the beginning of the film, Obama’s voice is heard first over a square of light surrounded by darkness, the square of light getting larger as the camera moves first towards and then through it, following Frankie (Scott McNairy), a small-time crook through what looks like floating paper flotsam from the election campaign. We then see wide shots of derelict buildings, of badly dressed individuals across lonely de-peopled streets; of election posters.
Obama’s oration, that in America each has a chance to shape their lives, is the claim the film will dramatise and investigate, what we will see Frankie and his mate Russell (Mendhelsohn) attempt and fail at. At the end of the film, we hear Obama’s voice again, this time as cue to a gangster asking for his pay in a bar, and as background to Pitt’s aria. In between, the film takes us on a journey where politicians’ empty promises are background to the lives of another set of gangsters; where politicians use flowery patriotism to throw money at bankers whilst people are killed in the streets of the worst neighbourhoods in a manner that seem almost ordinary if not quite banal. Killing Them Softly has to be one of the most cynical films ever made.
The actors, really good ones such as James Gandolfini, Ben Mendehlson, Ray Liotta, and Brad Pitt, are given great dialogue; and they riff on it; they come alive as they give it life; they bring poetry to the meaning. The sight of Gandolfini, laid to waste like Welles in Touch of Evil, his layers of fat unable to hide the despair and loneliness that brought him there, is one to behold. It’s magical acting, a kind of alchemy great actors bring to parts that enables them to evoke both a real person living a recognizable situation, one that is both immediately transparent and understandable but also evanescent, that seems to resist reason as soon as it’s emotionally grasped whilst also making of the character a symbol for a situation. I can’t remember Gandolfini better and I can’t remember anybody better than Gandolfini is here.
Much of the attention has focused on Pitt and he is very good as the hitman who’s professional to his fingertips but whose very professionalism is a means of making money. He’s like an inverse Hawksian character. But Pitt has been at least as good if not better in other films (most recently Moneyball). Here, his acting is all externals. You get the sense of who this man is by what he wears, how he walks, smokes, the way he speaks and from what he says. When he’s told not to kill, he exclaims in exasperation, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake! Whose fucking running the show…The country’s fucked!’ Yet, he can’t stand feelings. He has to kill a particular way, softly, because he doesn’t want to be involved in all the begging pleading etc that goes on with a more direct approach. He’s a person who finds it easy to kill but hard to get emotionally involved. Yet with Pitt, the performance remains external, you never really get a sense of what’s going on in his character’s head and heart.
Gandolfini and Mendehlson, as the heroine addict, are a class apart. The great tragic performance though is Gandolfini’s. His gangster has menace, he could easily cut up the prostitute as he hints is his pleasure, but he is also so in love with his wife that the thought of her leaving him is derailing him; his love, self-destruction, violence, all seem to appear simultaneously as a smear of damp.
Mendehlson brings a goofy joy to his character; why can’t the world just let him do his drugs and leave him happily to his own devices? He makes us understand, enjoy, feel for that person. The playing between Mendehlson and McNairy, particularly when they get to glide on such brilliant dialogue, is sublime: it’s what dirty straight boys talk about when women are out of earshot; and women won’t like it. The only woman in Killing Them Softly is a black prostitute who’s lucky to leave Gandolfini’s room alive. Women exist in this film, barely, as the cause of men’s ruination or for sex, and even worse, only that aspect of sex that has exchange value.
The film has a wonderful look with wide-angle shots of urban decay. I loved the sensuous, intermittently panicky, somewhat sleepy depiction of Mendehlson coming in and out of his high. The moment towards the end when Pitt walks, seemingly through fireworks, to demand his pay is also very striking. The film feels almost episodic; each scene clearly delineated, little chapters, but fabulous visually. Special note needs to be taken of the music which some have accused of being used too literally (Lour Reed’s ‘Heroin’ over shots of Mendehsohn taking heroin or the use of ‘Money primarily for its lyrics: ‘They say the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. I need money. That’s what I want’; but to me, the songs seem to be a mourning for an American way of life, with the key songs being Great Depression classics such as ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries, and perhaps more significantly, (It’s only a) Paper Moon: ‘‘It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, as phony as it can be’
This obviously relates to Obama’s campaign promises and people have found this aspect of the film heavy-handed and facile. Perhaps they’re right. Certainly the film was not a hit. When I saw it, the audience gasped at the violence, which is sometimes startling, sometimes funny in a quasi-Tarantino-esque way, but too raw to dismiss as cartoony: it induces audience recoil in a way that has become unusual. Three girls left mid-screening clearly conscious that they were in the wrong Pitt movie but also poking fun of the rest of the audience’s clear enrapturement by that which they dismiss.
In the great last scene as Obama is praising ‘The enduring power of our ideals, democracy, liberty, opportunity, an unyielding hope’ and speaking of community, Pitt as the professional killer responds, ‘Jefferson is an American Saint because he wrote the words ‘all men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits; so, yeah, he wrote some lovely words so he could rouse the rabble so they could go and die for his words whilst he laid back and drunk his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.’
What the film’s been showing us throughout is that America is not a country, that it is just a business; that appearance affects business more than actions; and that the key to American business running smoothly is murder. Pitt’s last aria is a set of ideas rarely heard in popular American cinema: they’re great words to a great ending to another movie that is a superb critique of America in this new not-so-great Depression.
Addendum: I was interested to read in Anne Thompsons’s The $11 Billion Dollar Year, From Sundance to the Oscars that Killing Them Softly was classified as a ‘Recouper’, which she describes as films of various budgets that break even or come close to doing so. According to her data, the film had an estimated production budget of 15 million and grossed 38 million at the box office. So it seems there might be a market for this type of film, at least in world terms.
Sofia Coppola has a lovely ripe presence here but she’s too shy and not very good. Adolescence is an awkward time but awkwardness is the one thing she manages to convey — she makes for uncomfortable viewing and thus quite a bit of the film suffers by her presence. Talia Shire to me is as much a face of the 70s, as representative of that era, as bigger stars (The Godfather Films and the Rocky films ensure that). I love the way she grows into a Lucretia Borgia figure in this. I also love the relish Raf Vallone brings to his Machievellian churchman. Andy Garcia , whom I love to look at, is not good enough really (he suffers in comparison to James Caan. James Caan! That’s how insubstantial he is here). Yet, the film is somehow magnificent in spite of its relative inadequacies. It’s only not good in comparison to masterpieces; in comparison to what I saw in the cinema this week, it’s a masterpiece: it looks beautiful, has novelistic texture, it’s about character, has a view of life and a view of society that it articulates with grandeur. I love the helicopter shootout that wipes out a whole gang of mafiosi, and the opera scene at the end (clearly echoing the Baptism scene in the first film though not as good). Keaton has a lovely look in the film, teary, chic but somehow gemutleich and klutzy-chic. Is the steps scene inspired Cagney’s death in The Roaring Twenties? I think that here Keaton outshines Pacino but to me it’s really Talia Shire’s movie, and Coppola’s and that of the gorgeous design that is characteristic of all the Godfather films. The montage of the three films at the end, an unnecessary, elegiac and sentimental coda, seems somehow unworthy of the trilogy.
It was a joy to rediscover this. I was too young to see it when it came out, though I remember the excitement in grade school when they broadcast the first and second film knitted together with additional footage and, if I remember correctly, in chronological order, as a television miniseries. The opening, the closing, the baptism, the killing in the restaurant: all are great and it’s hard to fault the film. It has a beautiful gravitas and is to me a clear example of lean, classic, filmmaking. It is often described as operatic, and of course in a certain sense it is, but very sparse in comparison to the current bombast. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton.