Monday, February 9, 2015

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Producer-director Norman Jewison described his 1968 crime thriller The Thomas Crown Affair as an exercise in style over content and that sums it up pretty well. It has plenty of style, and zero content. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is a wealthy Boston businessman who decides to pull off the perfect crime. He recruits five guys to rob a bank. The five guys don’t know each other and in fact they never meet until the time of the robbery. They also do not know the identity of the man they are working for. The robbery occurs very early in the film and it’s something of a stylistic tour-de-force. It makes extensive use of a multiple screen technique, this being a technique that seemed to fascinate American film-makers at this time. A similar technique is used (quite successfully) in several of producer Ross Hunter’s movies, notably Pillow Talk (1959) and Airport (1970).

The Thomas Crown Affair is arguably the movie that makes the most ambitious use of the technique and it uses multiple screens rather than just a split screen. It works very well in the robbery sequence and it neatly emphasises the key point of Thomas Crown’s plan, the use of people who have never met before and are therefore playing their parts in the heist more or less independently.

Lieutenant Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) is the cop assigned to the case and he has few clues to work with. The insurance company that is now facing a major pay-out assigns its own investigator, the beautiful and glamorous Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway). She and Eddy agree to work together but it soon becomes apparent that they are not exactly on the same side.

Vicki’s standard investigative technique seems to be to go to bed with the men she’s investigating. Having identified Thomas Crown (more on the basis of instinct than evidence) as the chief suspect she proceeds to do just that. The chess seduction scene is one of the cleverest in the movie and is an object lesson in how the sexiest scenes in movies are the ones where the characters keep their clothes on.

Naturally Vicki gets a little more involved with Crown than she had intended and pretty soon she seems to be wondering if she really wants to bring such a hunky romantic criminal to justice.

The centrepiece of the rather thin plot is the three-way cat-and-mouse game played out between Vicki, Thomas Crown and Eddy Malone. The romance between Vicki and Crown is the movie’s main focus. The actual hunt for the criminal is of lesser importance because the audience, Vicki and Eddy Malone all know who pulled off the heist. All Vicki and Eddy need is the evidence and to be honest the ways in which they go about gathering this evidence are not very interesting.

Boston lawyer Alan Trustman had never written a movie before and his screenplay is little more than a predictable wish-fulfillment fantasy. To be fair to Trustman he did go on to write the script for a later (and infinitely better) Steve McQueen hit, Bullitt.

McQueen had the reputation for being something of a director’s nightmare and Jewison described him as the most difficult actor he’d ever worked with. McQueen had been very keen to land this rĂ´le although he hardly seemed the ideal actor to play a wealthy sophisticated Boston aesthete. He handles the part fairly well although he never seems entirely comfortable. To be fair to McQueen this may reflect the fact that the part is seriously underwritten and Thomas Crown’s motivations are ludicrously unconvincing. He wants to rob a bank to strike a blow at the Establishment, man. This rather juvenile motivation is one of the movie’s major weaknesses, although it’s the sort of motivation that would certainly have appealed to a middle-aged Hollywood film-maker like Jewison in the late 1960s. Thomas Crown seems initially to be a very shallow character and as the movie progresses he becomes even more shallow.

Dunaway is fun to watch but Vicki’s motivations are equally dubious. Like Thomas Crown she’s acting out a tedious middle-class wish-fulfillment fantasy. Paul Burke is more impressive as the cop although again the script offers us no insights whatsoever into the character.

The whole movie has a rather smug feel to it. In many ways it typifies everything that was worst in Hollywood in the late 60s and the 70s, with its desperate pandering to the infantile counter-culture of the time. We’re supposed to see Thomas Crown as a handsome romantic rebel but really he’s just a self-indulgent narcissist, but then Hollywood loves self-indulgent narcissists.

Listening to a director’s commentary track often makes me appreciate a movie more but in this case listening to Jewison talk about the movie simply made me more irritated with it.

With all these faults it has to be admitted that The Thomas Crown Affair is extremely stylish. This is almost enough to compensate for its essential emptiness. Worth a rental for its slick visuals.

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