The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Directed by Norman Jewison

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The Thomas Crown Affair is a stylish bank heist movie that emphasize style over thrills.  The romantic leads, played by Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway are photographed and dressed like in a magazine spread.  The camera often hovers in close to their faces, reading the nuances of their expressions but mostly just letting their star power fill the screen.  This is a slick heist film, but there is really only one thrilling robbery sequence, and the rest of the film deals with the flirtation between the two main characters.

McQueen plays Thomas Crown, a wealthy Boston banker who organizes a heist from the safety of his own office.  The men who work for him will have never met him.  They wait dutifully by pay phones for his instruction before carrying out the robbery will little conflict.

Dunaway plays Vicki Anderson, an insurance investigator whose job is to track down the culprit.  If she’s successful, she will retain 10% of what was stolen (over $2 million).  Like with McQueen, the camera is often close on Faye Dunaway.  If Crown is the Babe Ruth of bank robbery, then Anderson is the Babe Ruth of investigating bank robberies.  That’s the impression we’re given, at least.

So you have these two titans at the top of their game, and sure enough Vicki figures out very quickly that Crown is her man.  She does this through a gut impression, and soon she begins courting her nemesis.  Because the middle of the film deals with this kind of one on one battle of wits, most of the film deals only with these two characters.  And to make this work, if it does, the film needs stars as big as these two.

There’s a long sequence in which the narrative takes a backseat, and we sit with Crown and Anderson as they play a literal game of chess which really drives home the point.  We get it, they’re playing a figurative game of chess, considering they both know where they stand (Crown knows she knows that he knows that she knows, etc.), and now they’re playing an actual game of chess.  Then they start kissing passionately, and they’re in love.  Okay.

It’s fine, I guess, but there’s not a lot of substance here.  That doesn’t make it bad, because there is something strangely appealing about a well-shot, stylish movie about a couple of slick characters.  It’s like every scene was designed to make the two leads as cool and desirable as possible.

McQueen is almost always posing for the camera, and Dunaway’s whole getup (particularly her character’s introduction) is designed for the male gaze.  McQueen is for the female audience and Dunaway is for the male audience.

So the movie becomes a love story between the two.  Sure, there’s the original bank robbery, but Crown seems to have no fear of getting caught.  That’s why he toys with Anderson and why she is perhaps toying with him.  Still, the two of them never lose their cool, and they always feel as though they are in control.

In the end, to test Anderson’s loyalty, Crown organizes another heist (which goes off remarkably smoothly considering you’d expect more security following the original heist), and he tells her where the money will be dropped.  She shows up with the police to make the arrest, but Crown doesn’t show up.  He’s already off on a jet, and he sends her a telegram telling her to take the money and join him, but there’s no impression that he’ll be torn apart if she doesn’t.

So, in the end they remain as cool as ever.  There is very little character development.  The somewhat unromantic ending (at least insofar as they don’t definitively go riding off into the sunset together) has the feel of a film noir.  The disenchanted, intelligent male lead falls in love with a woman who might be his downfall (femme fatale), and in the end he lets her go, whether because he wants or he has to.

In The Thomas Crown Affair, though, there was really nothing for Thomas Crown or even Vicki to learn.  They just do their jobs, toy with each other, and then move on.  Yes, maybe Vicki developed feelings for Crown and he for her, but they choose themselves over each other.  She chooses her job (good idea), and he chooses self-preservation.

The film is edited so that we see many moments in fragments.  During the initial heist, the frame is often filled with smaller frames of multiple shots.  This allows for a sense of controlled chaos as well as to cover more ground in less time.  Editor Hal Ashby, from what I’ve read, was forced to do this to cut down the runtime while making sure we get all the information we need.  It’s a slick way of introducing the story, making it so that we never seem to get the whole picture until the end.  This way of shooting and editing makes Thomas Crown someone we only see in glimpses.  We’re not meant to have the whole picture on Crown.  He’s more a mystery than a real person, both to us and to the people he’s employed to rob the bank.

The film sets him up as a hard to understand, complicated figure, and yet we’re then thrust right into his world so that we get to know him intimately.  It’s a peculiar way of introducing the character because the introduction makes it seem as though we will never fully understand Crown.  In some ways he should be filmed like a barely seen monster in a horror movie, making occasional appearances but never seen in full light.

But that’s not how this works.  We have to like Crown and root for him.  The film de-prioritizes the mystery and makes him someone we want to see win.

The Thomas Crown Affair is fine but a little dull unless you’re in it for the McQueen-Dunaway romance.  If you don’t care about them, then you probably don’t much care for the movie.

Up Next: Coco (2017), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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