Hollywood glamour strikes the crime genre, with a bank robbery tale that concentrates on high living and high fashion. Superstars Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway play a coy game of thief and investigator. This expensive show is not really in fashion anymore, but in 1968 it was high-class filmmaking, with Norman Jewison solidifying his position as a smart maker of solid mainstream entertainment.
The Thomas Crown Affair
1968 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date February 13, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke, Jack Weston, Biff McGuire, Astrid Heeren, Gordon Pinsent, Yaphet Kotto, Bruce Glover.
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Film Editor: Hal Ashby, Byron Brandt, Ralph E. Winters
Montage and title design: Pablo Ferro
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Written by Alan R. Trustman
Produced and Directed by Norman Jewison
Ah, 1968 was a good movie year. I remember my father returning from a car hunt (before he bought the Mustang) disgusted that Chevrolet was asking a shocking $3600.00 for a new Camaro roadster. After he went inside, my teenaged sister expressed interest in the movie The Thomas Crown Affair because she thought Steve McQueen was attractive. My own girlfriend wanted to see it too. She loved Bonnie & Clyde and wanted to see what Faye Dunaway would be wearing. Being sixteen, I thought I was an expert on the flashy film techniques of the day. The only style that made me turn my nose up was the soft-focus dreamy-sparkly look used for shampoo commercials on TV. Thus I received Norman Jewison’s full bag of visual tricks as a plus. Movies were better than ever!
The Thomas Crown Affair is designed to be hip, so as to serve as a superstar vehicle for two anointed perfect people of the moment. By this year Steve McQueen was an independent producer unto himself. He was notoriously picky about roles; because he had never played an upscale character he thought Norman Jewison’s project was exactly what he should do next. Ms. Dunaway needed her Bonnie Parker followup role outing to score big, plain and simple. And this combination caper movie and romantic cat & mouse game would serve both of them well.
The script is an original by Alan Trustman, one of the writers on McQueen’s later hit Bullitt. It’s reported that his caper plot was inspired by looking at a bank building from his office window, but The Thomas Crown Affair is constructed from pieces of noir caper films of the early 1950s, most of which had become fairly obscure just fifteen years later. In Phil Karlson’s 1952 Kansas City Confidential, a bank robber orders up a heist by remote control, contacting three crooks who never know his identity or that of their fellow thieves, not even during the robbery. Trustman’s wrinkle is the notion that the brains behind the heist is a millionaire playboy who commits the crime for sport, as a personal challenge. The entire movie is made of trendy, fluffy escapist ingredients, in an extremely attractive package.
The unimaginative salesman Erwin (Jack Weston) takes a job with a mysterious stranger who offers him $50,000, to be paid in installments, to buy a station wagon and perform getaway driver duties for the robbery of a Boston bank. Three more professional criminals are set up the same way. The mastermind behind the heist is securities & real estate trader Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen), who already lives in opulence, with a beautiful mansion, fancy foreign cars and chi-chi hobbies like polo and flying gliders. Crown directs the holdup by phone (pay phone!) and it goes off perfectly; he then becomes a frequent flier to Geneva to deposit the 2.5 million in a numbered account. Back in Boston, Lt. Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) exhausts his resources but cannot get a clue as to who committed the robbery. Insurance man McDonald (Gordon Pinsent) insists that Malone work with Vicky Anderson (Faye Dunaway), a high-end detective who specializes in difficult cases. She instinctively picks Crown from a list of men making frequent trips to Switzerland, but seems as personally attracted to Crown as she is convinced that he’s the guilty party. Vicky begins showing up in the same gilt-edged locales that Crown frequents, and after various flirting preliminaries, they continue dating as she waits for him to make a mistake. Crown doesn’t fall into any self-incriminating traps, even after Malone and Vicky arrest Erwin . . . Erwin doesn’t know what his boss looks or sounds like. As the investigation-romance drags on, it’s clear that the brilliant Crown has Vicki twisted around his finger. He claims that he’ll be pulling off another robbery, and to test her he invites her to the payoff.
I like to call movies like The Thomas Crown Affair ‘confected,’ because they are carefully planned to appeal to upscale audiences. I remember my first viewing, where we could barely follow a plot line that made armed robbery look like great, harmless fun. Like Raffles of olde, Thomas Crown doesn’t steal because he needs the money, but because he’s a gourmet of life, looking for a new high-class kick. The picture is a fantasy of opulence showcasing consumer goodies & high living deluxe. Crown dresses and behaves like the idealized fantasy that Playboy pretended was their reader demographic, the kind of Prince of the City who lives in a downtown mansion and never drives the same car twice.
Tough guy actor Steve McQueen had specialized in slum kids and hardscrabble soldiers and musicians, but here he wears top fashions, and works hard to act suave and commanding. Thomas Crown runs a real estate trading company, much like Donald Trump, but with class. Leaving a sales meeting, he tells his customer, “You paid too much.” He immediately tells his girl friday assistant, “Cancel the insurance and take my name off the building.” I can just imagine Donald Trump seeing Thomas Crown and thinking, ‘I wanna be that guy.’
If Crown is a Playboy fantasy, effortlessly pulling off big deals and then going home to sleep with steady girl Gwen (Astrid Heeren), Dunaway’s Vicki is something out of Vogue. She dresses as if Thea Van Runkle follows her around with a van full of high fashions, and a trailer containing a crew of hairdressers. Supposedly a dedicated detective, Vicki flits about like a carefree schoolgirl. Her flashing eyes get Crown’s attention and say she’s available and willing, while Crown shoots back smug smiles that say, ‘Yeah, I know I’m gorgeous, too.’ It all seemed pretty impressive in 1968 — is this how the Beautiful People get to live their lives? From another viewpoint Vicky is just a tramp who sleeps with crooks to trip them up. She never seems particularly professional — long before Crown has her in his pocket, she acts all jumpy and enthusiastic before the woefully de-sexed Lt. Malone, behaving exactly like her aroused-by-greed Diana Christensen in the later classic Network.
We haven’t a chance to question any of this because we’re too busy watching the pair romp in various locales, in the middle of fancy Pablo Ferro multi-screen displays. That’s not to mention Michel Legrand’s plush romantic theme that had already conquered the airwaves, with Noel Harrison warbling the Bergmans’ hippy-dippy lyrics: “Like a circle in a circle / like a wheel within a wheel.” Hey, did you know that Noel Harrison was the boyfriend of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E? I guess that was once a common fact, fifty years ago.
Haskell Wexler’s camera swoops and zooms between Thomas and Vicky during a foreplay chess game in his swank digs, trying to one-up Alfred Hitchcock’s fireworks seduction in To Catch a Thief. The studio system had collapsed a couple of decades earlier, and audiences had already forgotten that MGM’s stock in trade was to manufacture glorious dreamland romances between big stars. Jewison, Wexler and Legrand poured on the big star glamour, and the audience loved it.
I’d like to see a round-robin discussion by noir-bitten cynics, listing the reasons that Thomas Crown’s slick crime would never work. He has not a single associate that knows what he’s doing, and can betray him. It’s implied that Crown leaves no clues, but there would still be a trail to follow. Erwin doesn’t know Crown’s identity, but he knows the number of the hotel room where he was interviewed. Who engaged that hotel room? I’d think that link would emerge five minutes into Lt. Malone’s first talk with Erwin.
How did Crown know which four pro crooks to contact? Somebody must connect them. By finding out what connects Erwin to Crown, links could be established. Next, why would crooks pull off such a risky crime, for a man they don’t know, who they can’t trace? Crown meets them in a Dr. Mabuse setup, from behind bright lights. Any rough-tough armed robber would suspect he’s a cop, and/or smash his way across the room to ascertain his identity. ‘I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday if you risk life and limb for me today. But you have to trust me because you’ll have no idea of how to find me or even who I am.’
Everything seems to hinge on the fact that ‘everybody knows’ that Swiss customs officials don’t inspect the bags of incoming passengers. Now, honestly. Is Thomas Crown really going to gamble his entire life that the airport cops won’t be coincidentally pulling a random test on the day he enters? We’re all basically honest, but I believe that, in the long run, the fundamental reason that I don’t cheat and steal is because, 1) I can visualize my mother and father disapproving, and, 2) no matter how foolproof the scheme, even as a million others slip through, I’d surely be the exception that gets caught.
Frankly, with my luck, Erwin’s station wagon would break down and the crooks would all throw their bags of money into some random vehicle that just happened to double park outside the bank for a few seconds.
McQueen and Dunaway are the whole show in The Thomas Crown Affair, which exactly why they signed on. Along the way we recognize Bruce Glover (Diamonds are Forever, Chinatown) as a bank employee. Gordon Pinsent is a JFK look-alike memorable from (back then) Colossus: The Forbin Project, which is coming out soon on Blu-ray. Jack Weston is excellent; we’d just seen him in a great part in Wait Until Dark. And the show is the first feature appearance for star Yaphet Kotto, looking lean and powerful.
Norman Jewison earned his stripes as a TV producer and director in the ‘fifties, moved on to classy comedies at Universal, and then became a successful collaborator with The Mirisch Corporation, hitting four home runs out of five times at bat, all class-act pictures and all very different: The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, this film, Gaily, Gaily and Fiddler on the Roof. He developed terrific artistic collaborators, like editor Hal Ashby. The Thomas Crown Affair may no longer be in vogue as an important picture, but I don’t know of another film that better expresses the commercial mainstream of 1968.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of The Thomas Crown Affair is a good encoding of this fancy audience-pleaser. It looks as if a lot of work were required to bring back good levels of color and clarity; most of the picture pops but much of it seems a tad grainy, as if a second-generation element was the source. The first thing we note are the many show-off split-screen montages by Pablo Ferro. They’re everywhere — used for the titles, transitional scenes, and ‘Crown plays sports’ scenes. They also pop up whenever Jewison wants to show off. Remember how John Frankenheimer, ran out of ways to individualize the car races in Grand Prix, and did one all in split-screen? Jewison and Ferro make the heist sequence especially exciting by using split-screen technique to show parallel actions by the four crooks who never met each other previously. And who doesn’t forget the zippy shot where the camera follows a spinning smoke bomb flying across the floor of a bank, spitting clouds of red? It has the panache of shot designs from Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik.
The discs extras contain some fine new material. Norman Jewison does a stand-alone commentary on the firs track, and a second is a film analysis by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman — was The Thomas Crown Affair at one time planned as a Twilight Time disc? New featurette interviews give us the thoughts of director Jewison, and the famed title designer Pablo Ferro, an animator who broke through with the culture-changing titles and trailer for Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove.
There’s also an original trailer, and a vintage promo film with behind-the scenes shots and ‘intimate’ voice bites from the stars. A stack of related trailers finishes the presentation.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Thomas Crown Affair
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by director Norman Jewison; audio commentary with Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman; new interview with Norman Jewison; interview with title designer Pablo Ferro ; Three’s A Company, a 1967 featurette with the cast & crew on the set; original trailer; Original Theatrical Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 18, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson