Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Thomas Crown Affair - 1968

"The Thomas Crown Affair" - 1968
Dir. by Norman Jewison - 1 hr. 42 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I can't 100% make this declaration without doing some research, but there's part of me that believes that Steven Soderbergh's career has been hugely influenced by "The Thomas Crown Affair."  Particularly the crime films, but there's something in the pacing and visual approach in "Crown" that is unmistakable, and hasn't been replicated successfully elsewhere.  "Crown" is an unusual film, in that not a lot really happens, except in brief bursts, which is something that this film also shares with star Steve McQueen's "Bullitt."  This is largely a straight-forward story, where a problem is established, and then the audience must sit and watch while the solution to the problem unfolds, and frequently with no real sense of urgency.

Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is a very successful real-estate baron, who gets his kicks through a variety of ways, the most relevant of which is his penchant for pulling off anonymous, meticulously-planned bank robberies, where he never actually gets his own hands dirty.  One such heist yields $2.6 million dollars (and that's 1968 dollars), which naturally attracts a lot of the wrong kind of attention.  Enter Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), who specializes in tracking down money for the insurance company, all the while looking fabulous, acting assertively, and coming off a little flighty.  She fingers Crown straight off from looking at his picture, and then tries to find the evidence to back up her intuition.  At the same time, Thomas and Vicki begin a torrid love affair, where she makes no attempt to disguise her intentions.

"The Thomas Crown Affair" is a straight-forward story, or a pair of stories that overlap.  One is the criminal career of Crown, the other is the affair between the two main characters.  The dialogue isn't necessarily anything to write home about, so the bulk of the movie rests on the smoldering chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway, the languid, indulgent (and successful) pacing of the film, and the peculiar visual approach within.  Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen, only in nice suits and cars.  Faye Dunaway is elegant and assertive (watch the famous chess scene to see what I'm talking about), and on-screen together, the both of them seem constantly about five seconds from storming off the set and wrecking some furniture from riotous, furious copulation.  That long drawn-out tension is amplified by all the time the two spend together in leisure, in various locales, with seemingly nothing to do other than enjoy each other's company.

I keep talking about the pacing, and it's possibly the most notable aspect to how this story was told.  In terms of the content of the plot, it feels like the story could possibly have been told in barely over an hour.  But both of the main characters are used to being in complete control of what's going on around them, and the lack of urgency comes off more as a battle of poker faces than as drawing out things pointlessly.  Also, every single bit of information in "Crown" that needs to be imparted is done so by showing (and not telling), and that naturally takes more time.  Beyond that, this was also one of the first films to break up the picture into multiple panels, each one showing something different going on.  It's an aspect-to-aspect form of storytelling, and while the device may be the sort of thing that would eventually be parodied by an "Austin Powers" film, it feels fresh and appropriate here.

I haven't seen enough of Steve McQueen's films to really be able to nail down what his best movies were, but I do know that there are far worse ways to spend a couple of hours than watching a handsome man and a beautiful woman flirt their way through a series of interesting settings.  The bank robbery material is a nice bonus, but "The Thomas Crown Affair" rests on the chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway, and soars because of it.  If McQueen's character can excuse away a dalliance with another woman by saying "It was a way of getting you in touch with yourself," and not take any gruff for it, you know that their on-screen romance was hot.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

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