THE ONE AND ONLY THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

The next post will be on or before Saturday 14th April. If you want to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archives, see well below and to the right

THE ONE AND ONLY THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

The strident title above refers to the fact there was a 1999 remake of the 1968 Norman Jewison original, which I once watched 10 dreary minutes of on an aeroplane before giving up in melancholy disgust. The location for this classic and infinitely innovative heist movie had been switched to NY from Boston, and the no more than competent Pierce Brosnan had replaced the masterly Steve McQueen (1930-1980), and it was, to put it kindly, lacklustre garbage. Seemingly a second remake is underway at the moment with Michael B Jordan cast as Thomas Crown which I confidently expect to be even worse than the Brosnan.

The 1968 original of The Thomas Crown Affair holds a strong place in my sentimental history. I saw it in the now defunct Hippodrome Cinema, Workington, West Cumbria, UK, the year it came out, and I was sat with my teenage girlfriend in the double seats at the back, the third from the far left as a rule, engaged in incredibly passionate, athletic and lengthy embraces so that we perhaps saw about 5% of the film. There are many ways of describing Canadian Jewison’s radically imaginative movie and perhaps the heist aspect is the least of it. It is also a passionate and understated love story between Boston financier and mastermind crook Tommy Crown/McQueen, and elegant and intelligent insurance investigator Vicky Anderson as played by Faye Dunaway (born 1941). Most impressively, it is an exercise in sophisticated artistic style, as it has a riveting music score composed by Michel Legrand (born 1932) who is not only a composer but a jazz pianist who has collaborated with giants of the stature of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. As the heist speeds up at the start, so does the raw, erotic and explosive jazz score, played by drummer Shelly Manne, the alto sax player Bud Shank and the virtuoso bassist Ray Brown. When by contrast the mood turns tenderly romantic between Crown and Vicky then a lush, victorious and ascendant Legrand string score takes over and sweeps us away, sentimental and gullible cineastes that we are, with its undimming grandeur.

Thomas Crown is a phenomenally wealthy and divorced financier aged 36 whose skyscraper offices just happen to offer a first-class view of the huge Boston bank below. Crown has a cool way with the US consortia he does deals with and when they thank him for their latest acquisition he walks out of the door snorting ‘you overpaid’. Yet he is not invulnerable by any means, and his cinematic foil is his accountant adviser Sandy played by Biff Maguire (born 1926) who you may recall as Captain McLain from the 1973 Al Pacino police corruption movie Serpico. As they play golf together, Sandy makes a sure-fire bet on a putting shot and Crown quickly loses a packet, but to Sandy’s chagrin does not care. Crown is bored with his wealth which is why he decides to rob the bank opposite but he chooses to do it in a way that no one else would. His mastermind ingenuity stems from his decision to hire 4 accomplices none of whom know each other, nor do they know nor ever meet Crown himself, and also the quaint fact that he communicates with each separately by public phone boxes. This is cleverly orchestrated with Jewison’s zestful split screen technique which he admits he ingeniously lifted from 2 movies he had seen at Expo 67, one of which was In The Labyrinth.  Thus, while Robber A is taking instructions inside one phone box, Robber B will soon be liaising with Crown in another kiosk on a separate split screen, and to add to the excitement we have Bud Shanks’ abrasive sax playing to hot up the tension. Given the movie was made half a century ago, this technique could well have dated and with our current extravagant digital possibilities seem infinitely corny, but far from it. It is worth stating at this point that there really is no other movie anything like Jewison’s Thomas Crown in terms of its radical blending of music, cinematography and gritty action, and its only manifest weakness is the occasional depiction of Dunaway as a wayward yet submissive female insurance expert when arguing with the macho cop Eddie Malone in charge of solving the heist. Malone (Paul Burke, 1926-2009) who like every man in this film apart from dapper McQueen, wears a stiff pork pie hat, is also stiff in his detection technique, and needs brainy Dunaway to give him insightful leads. Nonetheless, he is always ticking her off for unpolicemanlike unorthodoxy, and she always submits to his manly chiding and is forever ingratiatingly linking arms with him as they walk through Boston, all of which comes across as the unlovely autopilot attitudes of the prefeminist 1960s. Malone’s pique however is partly justified, as if she recovers it, she gets 10% of the $2,600,000 dollars taken from the bank whereas he only gets his cop’s salary whatever he does. Add to that that in order to shop Crown she decides to skilfully seduce him, and Malone concludes that some folk have all the fun and the dough and that he has more or less none.

Dunaway’s first lead is when she contemplates how the robber might have got rid of all that colossal weight of banknotes which was in small bills of 10,5 and 1 dollars for which alas the bank did not record the serial numbers. Unethical Swiss banks come to mind and sure enough when she and Malone do some research they see that Crown had made half a dozen trips to Geneva, sensibly taking a bit at a time of the massive loot. Unprincipled Dunaway also places a newspaper ad offering $25K to anyone who can successfully shop any guilty party who has been spending an inordinate amount of money lately. This brings in the bumbling getaway man, played by the comically nervous and compliant Jack Weston (1924-1996) who had driven off the sacks of loot that the robbers had put in the back of his station wagon jalopy. He gets on very badly with his smileless wife who swiftly shops him for the 25K, whereupon Vicky’s insurance colleague anonymously informs them over the phone that their young son has just been abducted. Vicky has him safely sat beside her in a car outside a supermarket where there is a charity box receptacle into which Weston puts the last of his dwindling ill-gotten gains, after which the child is driven back to his Mum but Weston is nabbed and taken down to the police station to be grilled by Malone.

The most compelling part of the film is the love affair between Thomas Crown and Vicky Anderson which is done with a good deal of measured and scrupulous direction, helped along by the mesmerising score and more of the ingenious split screen photography. Vicky investigates Crown’s upmarket sporting interests and attends a hazardous polo match where unbelievably McQueen refused a stuntman and played the lethal game himself. She then deliberately bumps into him at a fine art auction and he invites her for dinner immediately.  From the start she lets him know that she is confident he is the thief and he smilingly accepts this as a suitable challenge for two intelligent minds, a kind of cat and mouse duel which Vicky assumes she must inevitably win. The problem is that during her skilful investigations she helplessly falls in love with Tommy Crown via a number of set pieces, where you as viewer are requested to give up your critical faculties and enjoy the picturesque and unlikely excess on screen. He has a sand buggy he drives along the Massachussetts coast at high speed (again reckless McQueen refused a stuntman) with headscarved Vicky clinging lovingly to his side. He also lights a wood fire on the beach and cooks her fresh lobster, and best of all challenges her to a game of chess where with minimal effort she puts him in check and eventually checkmate. It is here that McQueen shows the unexpected versatility of his facial expressions for he is one of those actors like Jack Nicholson where you could stare at his face all day even if it was immobile and speechless. Customarily he plays Mr Cool (see also the 1965 Cincinnati Kid which was also directed by Jewison) but as he gets stymied in the chess game he pulls all manner of inane lip sucking bafflement, which oddly enough is not ultimately inane, given that it proceeds from the effortlessly charismatic McQueen. Then follows the famous sex scene between them which has only ever been rivalled in its whirling and tender euphoria by that between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now. And talking of the great Sutherland just as he and Jane Fonda cement their growing love affair in the 1971 Klute by going shopping for fruit and veg on an atmospheric evening street market, ditto McQueen and Dunaway learn how tender their feelings are becoming by going and purchasing pumpkins and tomatoes from a Boston market where touchingly the plug-ugly stall keepers all look faintly like something out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Vicky ultimately seems to have Thomas Crown thoroughly cornered when she threatens him with US Inland Revenue investigation, but by way of riposte he tells her that as she is obviously in love with him, she is doomed if she forestalls his latest plan. He has decided to crazily repeat the same bank heist, this time with different accomplices, but with the same pick up place, a churchyard with a litter bin where the nervous getaway man had done his original drop. Vicky is duty bound to break her heart by divulging all this to Eddie Malone, and after the second robbery the pair of them stake out the churchyard and wait for the drop. The money is duly thrown into the same litter bin, the new getaway man is cornered and arrested, and just as Crown did the original pick up in his Rolls Royce, so a Rolls Royce turns up a second time to empty the contents of the bin. While this is going on and with Malone angrily doubting the appearance of the Rolls, and Vicky hoping against hope for Crown’s escape, the bell in the churchyard strikes with deafening and pregnant resonance, a powerful and shall we say imaginative world cinema touch, just as it had the first time round….

There is a Rolls arrives OK but there is no Thomas Crown, just a shrunken little chauffeur with a telegram for Miss Anderson. Tommy writes to tell this tearful and infinitely relieved woman who loves him, that she can either join him in his hideaway with the money, or can keep the Rolls, but he meanwhile has escaped by jet to who knows where…

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