The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

D: Norman Jewison
S: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway

There's a certain cold, distant style and a good amount of technical skill in evidence in this slick crime film from the director of In the Heat of the Night. First time screenwriter Alan R. Trustman has concocted an original twist on the caper movie, pitting emotionally frustrated but financially successful businessman Steve McQueen against intuitive and beautiful insurance investigator Faye Dunaway. First of all McQueen is a thief who doesn't need the money, organising the theft of $2 million when he already has as much to flitter away as he sees fit on the golf course or on a hedonistic lifestyle which gives him very little pleasure. Second Dunaway is a sleuth who works on instinct (some might note with some skepticism "feminine intuition") and spots her man almost straight away. The twist is that both know each other's game and instantly fall in love, recognising a kindred spirit on the edge of civilised capitalist society. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler has come up with some neat visual gimmicks, splitting the screen into multiple smaller screens wherein a variety of action takes place. This gives the film great pace, and is a wonderful way to illustrate the key bank robbery at the start of the movie. It recurs throughout to keep things lively, though on the whole the pace is good and the action varied.

Yet at the heart of The Thomas Crown Affair is an underdeveloped attempt to touch on the malaise of late 1960s America masked by a slick caper movie that will doubtless entertain, but which, especially in the light of the previous work of its major participants, remains disappointingly superficial. In the Heat of the Night offered Jewison a similar opportunity to play with generic convention and integrate a serious discussion. The film concerned itself with racial issues in contemporary America while also spinning a solid, old-fashioned crime yarn. In that case Stirling Silliphant's script did what Trustman's does not here: it ensured that the sub-text and the narrative were intertwined. Race was an unavoidable issue once black detective Poitier walked into the world of the 'new' South, and the film did not shy away from it. In fact it made it central to the action and the eventual resolution of the plot.

The Thomas Crown Affair centres on the enigma of the man who has everything deciding to risk his freedom on a whim. It is a metaphor for the self-destructive bent of industrial capitalism, and the film does make the point that this is so. Crown tells us of his boredom, his feeling of being trapped by the system. He is Charlie Kane in another life, searching inside rather than out for his answers while wrapping himself in the spoils of the anonymous work of currency trading and real estate instead of the power centre of newspaper production. Steve McQueen is just right for the part, embodying a depth of feeling while portraying icy calm on the surface as befits a man who, in spite of himself, always gets exactly what he wants. In an extension of the classic 'crook who wants to get caught' idea, Trustman gives us a character who embodies the moral good of moneyed America deliberately breaking the law in a cry for help which is eventually answered by Dunaway's avenging angel of capitalism. Yet the delivery is hamfisted: an ironic, self-depreciated remark here, a dialogue scene there, moments of fragmentary insight which suggest hidden depths unfortunately never quite plumbed. Similarly in Dunaway's character are glimpses of insight into the evolution of the modern woman, a person in a position of power who is treated with less than respect by her male colleagues, including grumpy traditional detective Paul Burke. Yet she remains trapped beneath a veneer of glamour that doesn't quite work as a double bluff to reveal her true potential as a force for the moral good of society. Her temporary surrender to Crown's charms perhaps indicates a touch of Arthur Penn's Bonnie Parker, though her acquiescence to the rule of law eventually provides a morally upright resolution (if one with an ambiguous and uncertain emotional question mark hanging over it).

The frustrating thing about the film is that these things are there, quite clearly, yet the surface has been so finely polished and so carefully wrought for the entertainment of the masses that the dazzle is blinding. Unlike In the Heat of the Night, the film does not ensure that understanding the thematic issues makes the story work better. Instead we have a clever little crime yarn which will amuse and titillate (there's even an erotically charged chess game which evidently amused its director and stars), but which requires no thought on the part of the viewer. This is not to deny that it is fun, or that there is anything wrong with well crafted nonsense. On the contrary, it is a sleek and professional package with enough contemporary shine to endear it to its intended audience. It will provide adequate diversion and has its fair quota of good moments. McQueen is very smooth in the lead (following his Oscar nominated turn in The Sand Pebbles), Dunaway is not bad as his spiritual match (following her Oscar nominated turn in Bonnie and Clyde), and Jewison (following his Oscar nomination for In the Heat of the Night) is in firm control. It does pose the question though whether this is to be the fate of Hollywood: consigned to turning out well made fluff when it has the potential to do and to be so much more. With even films like Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night before it The Thomas Crown Affair feels too much like a backward step for comfort.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.