The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Director: Norman Jewison
Written by: Allen Trustman
Starring: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway
Music: Michel Legrand
Featured Song: ‘Windmills of Your Mind’
Anyone who saw The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968 in the cinema would have been promised “A Thrill-A-Minute Deal For A Million Dollars” and “McQueen and Dunaway as Partners in Crime” on the film poster. They would have sat in a dark theater as a glamourous colorful title sequence began, accompanied by an emotional and nostalgic song, Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind”, which would later win the Best Original Song Oscar at the 1969 Academy Awards.
The story concerns a millionaire businessman (Steve McQueen) who organizes a bank robbery in Boston. During the film, none of his employees ever meet him, nor do they know each other before the robbery. This perfect crime takes about a third of the film during as Crown successfully robs two million dollars and takes the money to his Swiss bank.
Is the robbery scene weak or implausible as later criticized by film reviewers? Maybe. Do we really need to see the wealthy intellectual Mr. Crown calling many of his men around the city who are waiting at different phone booths waiting for his order to say “Go!”? No, But soon after the initial suspense falls off, as the film paid its respects to the genre (Heist), the audience realizes the story is not really about the crime as it pretends to be, but as the title says, it is about an affair; a beautiful dangerous affair.
After the bank is robbed successfully, a private insurance investigator, Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway) is hired to assist Boston Police detective Eddie Malone (Paul Burke) to find the criminal. Vicki instinctively suspects Thomas as the mastermind behind the robbery and enters his life with the intention of finding the money, and here the affair begins.
Norman Jewison used “multi-dynamic image technique” to show the mastermind orchestrating five men in a bank robbery. The technique had been innovated and employed by Canadian filmmaker Christopher Chapman, in his Academy Award winning 1967’s short film “A Place To Stand”.
In the film, Vicki explores Thomas’ private and special life that is filled with excitement and pleasure. They wine & dine together, they drive a buggy along the Massachusetts coastline (and who doesn’t love when McQueen does his own stunts) and they become lovers. With the help of detective Malone, Vicki finally finds the bank robbery’s getaway driver who has never seen the mastermind face to face. Vicki forms a plan where she puts Thomas and the driver in the same room with hopes that the driver will recognize Thomas’ voice. The plan fails, but for Vicki, Thomas is not only the main suspect but the most brilliant man on earth.
Thomas takes Vicki to his luxury house. In his library, Vicki notices a chess table set up to play. She looks at Thomas who asks “Do you play?” Vicki replies confidently “Try me!” and the erotic chess scene begins; the director calls it “the longest kiss in movie history”. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler uses his extreme close up-shallow depth technique and practical lights that illuminate the chess table at the center of the deep dark library. Accompanying this is the subtle score of Michel Legrand. McQueen and Dunaway make the scene not only enjoyable to watch but also perform a great deal of visual storytelling through their posture and face expressions. The chess game itself is the third character who adds intellectual value to the scene.
Life together is satisfying for both for a time, but eventually, sadness dominates Vicki, who gradually falls in love with Thomas and worries about their future. At the beach while enjoying the scenery, Vicki weakly asks: “Did you ever bring someone else here?” showing how fragile she has become compared to the beginning of their affair. The film ends with Thomas organizing another bank robbery; only this time he informs Vicki about the robbery’s details in order to make sure that she is on his side.
Although the film suffered from critics who attacked its thin plot line, audiences embraced the love affair at the film’s heart, aided by the charisma and star power of the two leads. Despite reviews, The Thomas Crown Affair has become iconic.
An early review, written in June 1968 by Renata Adler for The New York Times, takes us back in time as it invites the readers to watch the film: “the movie opened yesterday at the Astor, at 34th Street and 86th Street East.” Reading the review while ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ plays in the background, suddenly I want to be there; summer of 1968, New York, with The Thomas Crown Affair opening.
By Ramin Fateh