The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

*. The Thomas Crown Affair is a weird movie. Weird, I think, when it came out, and perhaps even stranger now. I don’t think it’s very successful, and there are a lot of things I don’t like about it at all, but somehow it stays in your head.
*. Let’s start with the credits and the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Michel Legrand (the composer for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). “Windmills” was a big hit, won an Oscar for Best Song, and went on to be covered several times, including by Sting in the 1999 remake.
*. I hate it. I think it sounds drippy. Norman Jewison thought the lyrics captured something of Thomas Crown’s rootless character, but I found them so banal they could have been referring to anything. As for tone, what do the lyrics suggest? A heist picture? A romance? It’s hard to see the fit.

*. From the credits we move swiftly into the bank job, which is presented through the use of split screen. I’ve nothing against the use of split screen, but I don’t think it serves any purpose here. What the different gang members are doing isn’t important, interesting, or connected in any significant way. But Jewison had just seen the technique used in some experimental films at Montreal’s Expo so at a late date he worked it in. David Thomson thought it “tiresome” in 1968 and “inane and incredible now.” I just find it pointless.
*. Is this important? Well, the chief accusation against The Thomas Crown Affair is that it is an exercise in pure style. Or, as Jewison puts it, “a film of style over content.” The script, a James Bond fantasy by a Boston lawyer who had never written a screenplay before, was considered to be simple and largely expendable (leading to Roger Ebert’s verdict that it was “possibly the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year”). Jewison only saw in the script a chance to play variations on a theme. The dialogue, for example, he found to be “just kind of dumb” but it was “something you could play with because it’s kind of unreal.”
*. In an experiment of style over substance (or content, or story) matters of style are important. And by style I mean more than the well-dressed, nay, sensationally dressed leads. As an exercise in filmmaking this was for the time state of the art, with delightful camerawork by Haskell Wexler and editing by Hal Ashby. It’s not flashy because that wasn’t the style in 1968. This isn’t an Ocean’s movie. But it is smooth and achieves the glossy but rich texture of a fashion mag (which is not a dig at fashion mags).

*. They tried different titles out but I think settled on the best. The affair is ambiguous, referring both to the case being built against Thomas and the romance between Thomas and Vicki. It is not a heist movie, and in fact has a curious structure in that regard. The climactic action takes place in the first act and the rest of the film is denouement. I think this was part of the problem Jewison recognized in there not being enough story in the script.
*. Is it as much a woman’s picture and fantasy as it is a lawyer’s dream of James Bond? Vicki is . . . what? Classy, self-assured, well turned-out. But surely not a hotshot international insurance investigator. She doesn’t even know what the word “arbitrage” means. She cracks the case because her instincts on seeing a photo of Crown tell her that he’s the one. She then takes out an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for information that leads to her kidnapping the son of the gang’s driver. With the assistance of the police. This really is a fantasy.
*. But to return to my question, just who is she? Instead of answering directly, when confronted with her professional infidelities by Eddy she responds “I know what I am” and defies his insinuated label. So I guess we know what she is.

*. Then again, who is Thomas Crown? A self-made man? The scion of some Boston old money? His character is a puzzle. He has all the money in the world but he’s bored. He wants excitement. So he fights the Man, the system. Presumably the same system that he has cynically manipulated all his professional life. It’s 1968, you see, and he’s no square. Norman Jewison was at the time a self-styled beatnik, while Steve McQueen fought to be in the film because it would let him wear a suit. That’s quite a ball of irony there: McQueen angling to play Cary Grant if Cary Grant were really Steve McQueen. Grant might have played polo and piloted a glider, but take breakfast on his rooftop without a shirt? Never.
*. Is Thomas a rebel? I have trouble with that. What he seems to be more like is one of today’s tech billionaires, cultivating the image of a rebel while all the while being just another arrogant CEO who feels that rules don’t apply to him. Slugging the cop struck me as crazy, that is until you realize that he probably thinks he can do anything and get away with it.
*. So they’re a dream couple. “It’s a love story between two shits is what it really is,” Jewison says on the commentary. Do they deserve each other? Does he deserve to get away? What exactly do they deserve? The ending is just another bit of fantasy. With or without the evidence of the telegram that Vicki seems to think she has destroyed (surely there will be a record of it), isn’t the fact that his driver arrives at the pick-up in Thomas’s car basically incrimination enough? Or is Thomas planning on jetting away someplace where there is no extradition treaty with the U.S.?

*. Then there’s the chess game. Apparently only two lines in the script that Jewison knew he would take two days to film. It plays off the dinner scene in Tom Jones and it’s all kind of silly and obvious and over the top, even by today’s standards. Nicki’s revelation of some side boob, and the way she fingers her bishop is more than just suggestive. But are they really into each other all that much? They seem more like a pair of narcissists sharing their fascination with themselves. Those matching close-ups make it seem as though they’re looking into mirrors.
*. Easy come, easy go. Thomas is on his jet off to . . . somewhere. Vicki has lost the only playboy of the western world but it was fun while it lasted. That torn-up telegram is an apt gesture, signaling the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. Hey, even the banks had insurance. But perhaps its fantasy texture, easy on the eyes and the head, is what has let it stick around. Everybody has a dream, and the dreams of The Thomas Crown Affair are pretty durable. Money, freedom, beautiful lovers, a beach.

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2 thoughts on “The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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