Monday, June 28, 2010

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Who doesn't love a good heist movie?  It's one of the rare occasions where you are actually supposed to root for the bad guy.  The thieves are always charming and clever, and usually are irresistible to the opposite sex.  What's not to like?  Unfortunately, these generalizations only hold up when the movie's heist is clever.  When heist movies get too gritty or too plausible (I'm pretty sure even I can rob a bank as effectively as they did in Dog Day Afternoon), it is usually because the actual heist was done in a thuggish manner.  The Thomas Crown Affair is an odd movie because it aims for the whimsical charm of the best heist movies, but the heist itself is actually pretty boring.

The film begins with a series of split-screen shots of men in suits doing things at approximately the same time in about the same location.  One frame follows a man making a phone call at a pay phone, another frame follows another man as he walks to his designated spot, another frame follows a third man, etc.  The split-screens show five men (including Jack Weston and a young Yaphet Kotto) calling in to a central contact and eventually each man shows up at a bank.  They each do their part and rob the bank.  Sure, limiting the amount of knowledge each criminal had of the crime is smart from a planning perspective, but the heist itself is basically just a stickup.  When it is all over, the proceeds are left in a cemetery trash can, where they are picked up by the mastermind, Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen).  He goes home and laughs out loud.  I'm pretty sure that there is an entire script page devoted to him laughing to himself.  Of course, no crime goes uninvestigated.  Well, bank robberies don't, anyway.  There is a detective attached to the case, but he is inconsequential to this story.  Instead, Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator for the bank's insurance company, is Crown's main antagonist.  Although "antagonist" is a strong term for a character that is essentially a love interest with an edge.  Crown is a wealthy businessman that has no need (well, little need) for the $2 million-plus that he helped steal.  He spends his time desperately seeking diversions, whether they are with polo ponies, dune buggies, glider planes, or beautiful women.  Vicki decides that he is the perfect candidate for masterminding a bank robbery through what I can only describe as a series of Jeff Goldblum-esque intuitive leaps.  She never second guesses herself and decides to meet Crown socially.  Despite the fact that Vicki openly admits to Crown that she is investigating him for the robbery, the two begin a passionate affair.  The bulk of the film centers on how they metaphorically circle and seduce each other, with the theft acting as the elephant in the room.  The two clearly care for each other, but Crown can never feel safe with Vicki, unless she gives him some sort of proof that she is not after the stolen money, since she get's a percentage of anything recovered.  All he needs is a plan...

Obviously, from this synopsis, The Thomas Crown Affair is not your typical heist movie.  The focus is on the tension between the two leads, playing characters that obviously cannot trust each other but are just as obviously attracted to each other.  It's an interesting concept for a film; rarely does a movie begin with such an elaborately shot sequence and have that event play a secondary role in the plot.  The tension is definitely present on-screen.  Dunaway and McQueen are attractive, charismatic actors at their physical peak, and director Norman Jewison spends a lot of time having the camera focus on their chemistry.

While the filmmaker's intent is clear, that does not mean that this movie succeeded in its goal.  In highlighting the sexual tension between the two leads, this film goes to sometimes ridiculous lengths.  One of the more famous scenes from this film is the scene where they play chess, using the chess pieces as sexual metaphors.  Not subtle metaphors, mind you.  To give you an example, there is a point where Dunaway is literally stroking the bishop.  I have a hard time believing that McQueen could have seen that and not giggled, just a little bit.  This scene gives way to a sequence of the two kissing heavily and...other leisure activities.  From a technical perspective, these scenes are very well done.  They are just a soundtrack change away from fitting in an Austin Powers movie, though.  We're talking some seriously heavy-handed stuff here.  I get it.  They're horny.  Let's move on, already.

The soundtrack is a bizarre product of the times.  There are extended periods that are absolutely silent, and these do a good job ratcheting up the tension.  But then the music kicks in.  I've never been a big fan of the Oscar-winning theme to this movie, "The Windmills of Your Mind," but it just feels grossly inappropriate whenever it pops up in this film.  The cadence is odd and the music does not match the tone of the rest of the score.  Yes, I'm sure it sounded better in the 60s, but that doesn't mean it has to feel anachronistic now.

The biggest problem I have with this film is the crime.  I was a little disappointed when I realized that the heist was not the focus of this film, but I got over that pretty quickly.  I find it a little difficult to sympathize with a character that organizes an armed bank robbery out of boredom, though.  Doesn't that kind of make him the anti-Batman?  The guy didn't even participate in the robbery, so the adrenaline rush excuse doesn't even work in this case.  Boo hoo, you're rich and bored.  Give me your money, or pay bums to fight, or torture tourists a la Hostel.  I don't care what you do, just don't demand my sympathy.  You know what happened when I complained to my parents about being bored?  I was given chores.  Suck it, Crown.

The thing that surprised me most about this movie was how completely unnecessary the split-screen theft scenes were.  I like artsy cinematography, but it needs to serve a purpose.  This just overcomplicated a fairly straightforward crime.  I think that is representative of the movie as a whole.  There is a lot of stylish cinematography and a lot of chemistry between Dunaway and McQueen, but it doesn't really serve a purpose.  With different lead actors, this movie would be a godawful mess of pretentious art without the acting chops to back it up.

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