The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)recommended viewing

Faye strokes the bishop
★★★★
☆
Released: 
1968
Director: 
Norman Jewison
Starring: 
Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke, Jack Weston
The Setup: 
Genteel heist-related cat-and-mouse romance among the jet set.
Discussion: 

I had always vaguely meant to see this and was starting to get in the mood for something that would have some quality to it, as well as old-style movie craftsmanship, and a heaping of cool 60s style wouldn't hurt either, so up to the top of the list it went. We open with a nice, very 60s credits sequence featuring lots of little geometrical frames and B&W pictures with colored overlays—God I just really love stuff like that. During this time we note that was directed by Norman Jewison, of Rollerball and later Moonstruck, and produced and co-edited by Hal Ashby, who went on to become the director of Shampoo and Harold and Maude. We hear the justly famous Oscar-winning song "The Windmills of My Mind," by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. There is a bit of trivia on the IMDb that Legrand wrote a 90-minute suite of music, and the movie was set to THAT, rather than the other way around. Apparently Legrand offered to re-write a traditional score if Jewison didn't like it. By the way, this was a poorly-reviewed flop upon release.

Okay, facts out of the way, we can now return to the movie. So after the credits we see Crown hire this guy to act as driver. He never lets the driver sees him or know what the job is, just what he must do and no more. Crown, a billionaire, conducts some business in his space-age 60s office, then suddenly calls all the people he has hired separately and tells them to move into action. It couldn't help but remind me of the similar network of citizen agents The Shadow deployed in the horrid but awfully fun Alec Baldwin film. Anyway, so all these separate criminals, none of whom have met the others before they begin, suddenly whip out guns and surprise the guards who are making a routine shipment of money into the vault. The movie successfully apes the surprise of the bank customers, as we the audience aren't really sure what's happening, or are expecting more fanfare, and the bank heist just suddenly springs into motion and is just as suddenly over. It also takes place right in the middle of the day with no special fanfare, and, after all these years, still comes off as a spectacularly brazen heist. I realize now that the theft of a painting that opens the remake is a little too filled with sneaky hugger-mugger to come off as breathtakingly straightforward as this one. McQueen gets the money [the strident 60s music, complete with scat jazz singing, does go a trifle over the top during his getaway] then drinks to himself in the mirror.

So, a full 35 minutes in, we finally meet Faye Dunaway as insurance investigator Vicki Anderson. Now, I've meant to, but haven't mentioned that the fragmentation of the screen into a number of geometrical little frames didn't just stop after the credits sequence, but that and several other stylistic flourishes have continued to be sprinkled throughout the film. Vicki meets with Eddy, the cop assigned to the case, and tells him that "every crime has a personality." It's not long before she's intuiting the details of his plan from a chalk drawing of a square, and remarking on how handsome Crown is. Eddy, who seems to find it hard to believe that this beautiful woman could have anything on her mind except orgasms, begins the snide comments with "he sounds just perfect for you."

So they meet and are mutually attracted, and she is right up front about the fact that she is investigating him. This is where the movie really gets cooking, because their flirtation really supplies the sizzle that this movie is wholly dependent on. Luckily their chemistry works perfectly. Their relationship also gets a lot of spark out of the dynamic of her investigating him, and him unable to resist the challenge. Crown is presented as a bored billionaire, seen everything, owns everything, who now performs these outrageous heists just to supply some kind of thrill for himself. Vicki is a brilliant and beautiful woman who seems to be just as obsessed as Crown is. She seems to draw a lot of energy from people assuming that she couldn't be very bright because she's so glamorous, and has no problem using her attractions to manipulate the men she goes after. So it's a fascinating character dynamic that is very rich, but with lots of murky areas left to explore, and it occurs to me as I write this that the real problem with the remake is not that it doesn't explore what was there in the original [although it only does a halfway-decent job of that], but that it doesn't try to further explore the wealth of material left teasingly unresolved by the original.

So soon Vicki is uttering "What a mind! What a man!" They spend more and more time together, and then comes the sensuous chess game—they play this long game of chess, each looking at each other between moves, looking at each other's mouths and fingers, and it's quite flirty and erotic—I'm sure it would be much more so if I were straight. It crossed the line for me a few times, what with Faye putting her finger in her mouth and sensually stroking the bishop, but you know, it was the late 60s. They go gliding and racing in dune buggies, back when it was cool to destroy fragile ecosystems for recreation, and at a certain point Faye realizes that this is not all fun and games, that she's really falling for this guy, and furthermore, she's kind of ruined it for herself, because now she's got to either send him to jail or admit to the cop [who has essentially called her a whore on several occasions] that she couldn't do it. Crown has been letting us know that he's been falling in love all along. Oh dear, I'm having little sighs of tragic love as I write here. This movie hails from a time when popular entertainment could still be somewhat sophisticated!

I decided I'm not going to tell you the ending, but I will point out what a nice job of acting Faye does in the final moments—she gets a note, and watch how she initially laughs because she is happy for one party, but then realizes what this means for another party and is crushed. A classic moment, a moment that makes Faye Dunaway FAYE DUNAWAY [in my opinion, I think she's absolutely fantastic] is when she tears up a note, then realizes that she just tore up a note that might have become a precious memento to her, then says "fuck it" and tosses the pieces to the wind. All of this is accomplished with no dialogue. This movie comes from a time when movie stars were able to act! And of course, writers and directors could trust them to do just that.

I liked it pretty well while I was watching it. I'm liking it more and more the more I think about it and how rich it is. There are so many shades to the leads' characters and their performances, and the scenario is created around them to really put the screws to them. When this movie came out, the main criticism leveled against it was that it was style over substance—see the Roger Ebert review. Apparently even the director says this. But this is a good example of style being left so wide open, and a script with a character dynamic so evocative, that you are allowed space to fill in the details in your head. Some people will see nothing but vapid people and beautiful surfaces and a lot of emptiness, and others will fill in the empty spaces and find something compelling there. I turn out to be one of the latter.

By the way, don't miss the awesome trailer, ostentatiously edited to Legrand's music.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely. Whether you end up liking it or thinking it's empty claptrap, it's still worth seeing.