Appellate Judge Dave Ryan wants to tilt at the windmills of your mind.
Our reviews of The Steve McQueen Collection (published June 6th, 2005), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) (published January 14th, 2000), and Thomas Crown Affair (1999) (Blu-ray) (published April 14th, 2010) are also available.
"Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…"
Fresh off of two big hits, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! and In the Heat of the Night, director Norman Jewison was in a position to call his own shots in Hollywood. For his next project, he chose to make a stylish, visually fancy crime drama/romance about a smart-but-bored Boston millionaire who robs banks as a hobby, and the female investigator who tries to bring him to justice. The Thomas Crown Affair reunited Jewison with two of his Cincinnati Kid actors, Jack Weston and Steve McQueen (who talked his way into the Crown role despite Jewison's misgivings). Although Jewison originally intended to cast Eva Marie Saint as the female lead, ultimately he chose Faye Dunaway, fresh off her breakout performance in Bonnie and Clyde, to play opposite the iconic McQueen.
The end result is far from the best work of any of their careers. The Thomas Crown Affair is dated, awkwardly paced, and ultimately too ambitious for its own good. But…it has its moments. For example, it somehow manages to make chess sexy. McQueen loved the film; given that it's probably the most subtle and nuanced performance of his career—and totally against type for him—that's perfectly understandable. But for contemporary audiences, the film will probably fall into the "entertaining but not great" category.
Facts of the Case
Thomas Crown (McQueen) is a very rich, very educated, and very classy Boston businessman. He's very good at what he does, too. When we first meet him, he's closing a real estate sale, and the purchasers are fawning over him in admiration and gratitude. He signs the papers, looks at them all, and tells them, "You overpaid." However, his acumen in business apparently no longer is enough for him—he's clearly bored to within an inch of his life.
So Crown has adopted an interesting hobby—he robs banks. But he doesn't just rob banks; he robs them using intricate, elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque plans that make it impossible to trace anything back to him. His sole pleasure in life is getting away with it all.
Needless to say, the banks don't appreciate Crown's hobby. Nor do the Boston police, especially detective Eddie Malone (Paul Burke, Twelve O'Clock High), who's supposed to stop these sorts of things. Nor do the banks' insurers, who have to pay for it all. After a band of nattily-dressed (and well-armed) men rob the Mercantile Bank of Boston, the insurance company brings in their big gun: investigator Vickie Anderson (Dunaway). Dunaway quickly homes in on Crown as not only the primary, but the only person suspected of being the gang's ringleader. She knows he did it. We know he did it. And, of course, he knows he did it. But will she be able to prove he did it before he flees the country—and before she falls in love with him?
Steve McQueen is, of course, the Coolest Guy Who Ever Lived. But he earned his icon-of-cool status by bringing the rough-and-tumble hardscrabble man's man he was off-screen into every character he portrayed on it. What, pray tell, was he doing playing a patrician, Dartmouth-and-Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin? As Jewison explains in his director's commentary, the part of Thomas Crown was, essentially, crafted in the image of Cary Grant. McQueen was one of the last guys you'd pick to play a Cary Grant kind of role, right? Yet he lobbied for the role, exploiting his personal friendship with Jewison (whom he had worked with on The Cincinnati Kid) to land it. Disaster waiting to happen?
Not in the least. McQueen turned out to be perfect in the Crown role; a role that, with hindsight, seems almost tailor-made for him. Crown is bored and mistrustful, and is the kind of guy who holds his cards so close to his vest that you almost forget he's in the hand. What better choice to play this guy than McQueen, whose facility with body language and gestures was so complete that he could express volumes of information without saying a word? McQueen didn't need lines to act circles around everyone else in sight—he just needed a functioning camera. And here, he creates a fully fleshed-out character with very little dialogue. Every look, every glance, every knowing smile from McQueen builds the case for Crown's emptiness and ennui. We quickly know this guy, at least as far as we can know him. It's fascinating to watch. McQueen was not only a brilliant actor, he was a true star—he is the center of attention anytime he's in a shot.
There's a downside to that, though—McQueen had a tendency to eat other actors and actresses alive if they tried to match him on-screen. (Just ask Yul Brynner or Frank Sinatra.) Thankfully, Faye Dunaway is up to the challenge here. Despite her relative lack of screen credits, Dunaway had a long history on the stage, and was certainly no slouch in the acting department (as she would later prove in films such as Chinatown and Network, the latter winning her an Academy Award). Her steely, slightly cold beauty is a good complement to McQueen's rugged manliness. She doesn't have a lot to work with in the script—and she doesn't quite have McQueen's ability to create something out of nothingness—so her character is a bit light. But she's interesting, and manages to hold her own with McQueen.
Jewison infuses The Thomas Crown Affair with truckloads of style, albeit dated late-'60s style. There's a lot of brightly-colored fashion, and a pretty vivid color palette overall. Jewison plays with multi-screen shots, which sometimes works (the bank robbery sequence) and sometimes just seems excessive (the polo scene). The score, by prolific film and stage composer Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Summer of '42), is jazzy and memorable (and was nominated for an Oscar). It's also anchored by the repetitive use of "Windmills of Your Mind" as performed by Neil (son of Rex) Harrison; although the melancholy tone of "Windmills" stands in stark contrast to the jazziness of the main score, it serves as a sort of punctuation for it.
The title of the film has a double meaning—the "affair" in question is both the bank heist and the relationship between Crown and Anderson. The two affairs are intertwined, which makes the plot more complex than a straight crime drama or a straight romance would be. Nor are these two characters particularly sympathetic—Crown is clearly amoral; Anderson has the son of the heist's getaway driver (Weston) kidnapped in order to get him to talk. They almost deserve each other. Again, it makes the goings-on here more complex than the typical genre entry. Jewison and screenwriter Alan Trustman (a Boston lawyer who also wrote McQueen's next starring role—the classic Bullitt) manage to keep these two "affairs" on track and interconnected without losing the audience along the way—no small achievement. Although things move a bit slowly, especially at first, everything stays coherent and understandable, at least until the very end.
A minor trivia note: this was one of the first major motion pictures shot on location in Boston. There's a lot of "local color" thrown in; Jewison also deliberately cast actors from Boston, or with Boston accents, in many minor roles to add to the ambiance. (Per his commentary, he also experimented with having McQueen adopt a Kennedy-like accent as Crown—but McQueen just didn't sound good with an accent.)
The sole significant extra on the disc is a director's commentary from Jewison. It's just him, but he's got a lot to say about the film and its stars. It's an A-level commentary, providing a lot of depth and insight for the viewer. His closing comments—about his last visit with McQueen, while he lay dying in Mexico—are poignant, too.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the end, The Thomas Crown Affair just bites off more than it can chew. The acting is extremely good, especially McQueen, but the story just doesn't have a lot of heft or depth. The audience never truly becomes engaged with the characters, or with the events in the plot. The film suffers from an overall lack of exposition. The story is somewhat complex, and Jewison/Trustman do keep you from becoming severely confused. But you're also never fully in-the-know about what's going on, because the story is also (as Jewison admits) pretty thin. Even though (having seen the 1999 remake) I knew exactly what was going to happen, I was still surprised by the suddenness of the ending, and by some of the larger jumps in the story before then.
Jewison's multi-screen experimentation doesn't quite work, either. When he explains in the commentary, it all makes perfect sense, and you say, "hey, that's pretty clever stuff." But without his explanations, a good deal of the "messages" intended by the editing choices and shot selections in those sequences are missed, or are just incomprehensible.
This is supposed to be a new transfer of the film—I can't vouch for that, not having the "old" transfer in hand. It does look very good, and is presented in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. (It's a flipper disc, so a full screen version is also included on the flipside.) But it's often grainy, and there are stretches that show noticeable flicker—usually a sign of poor projection or a damaged/aged print. This film is too young to have those kinds of flaws on a "new" transfer. (The color is very nice, though—bright and vivid when necessary, muted when appropriate.)
Finally, the only extra other than Jewison's commentary is the film's theatrical trailer. This was a popular movie, is well-known to this day, and starred two popular and well-known actors. I expect more in the extras department for films like this.
The Thomas Crown Affair is entertaining, but not as entertaining as I hoped it would be. Artistically, I'd call it a marginal failure—but a high-quality marginal failure. McQueen is "on" here, and when he's on, you're not going to walk away from a film completely disappointed. But Jewison may have reached too much in the style department, to the detriment of his film's substance. If this is one of Jewison's mistakes, it's to his credit that his mistakes are still pretty good cinema.
Guilty of conspiracy to commit armed robbery (multiple counts).
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Norman Jewison
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