The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Written by Alan Trustman
Directed by Norman Jewison
In the late 1960s, filmmaking was undergoing a transformation. It was happening both in the counter-culture, becoming prominent in the content but also in technological changes. At Expo 67, the World’s Fair held in Montreal, a pair of films showed off the revolutionary split-screen technique pioneered by Christopher Chapman. Chapman was a Canadian-born cinematographer that created the multi-dynamic image technique or “the Brady Bunch effect.” This allowed him to composite multiple film images into grids of varying sizes. This allowed a single scene to be shown from various angles and character perspectives. After Norman Jewison saw the films in exhibition at Expo 67, he wanted to use it in his new movie The Thomas Crown Affair, seeing it as useful when showing the heist scenes.
Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is a wealthy businessman & adrenaline junkie who has planned a heist at a Boston bank. He contacts four men at separate times and assigns them roles & exact timing. Without ever meeting each other before the day of the robbery or meeting Crown, they pull it off and steal over two and a half million dollars in cash. A handoff is made, and Crown secures the money, transporting it to Switzerland and placing it in an anonymous bank account. The money is scheduled to be slowly deposited while his crew gets small monthly checks, all so as not to draw attention.
Meanwhile, the insurance company brings in Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an independent investigator with a record of always catching the culprit. Very quickly, she pieces things together and realizes Crown is their man. She directly confronts him, understanding he doesn’t need the money but did it as an exercise & thrill. This begins a back and forth between the two as they become romantically involved while trying to outsmart the other.
The thing that hits you first about The Thomas Crown Affair is how stylish it is. The movie is an aesthetically modern picture, embracing visual elements of the 1960s through the costuming & production design. The film gets so caught up in its visuals that it sometimes simply drops the story for a sequence or two. Haskell Wexler returns as his cinematographer fresh off an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night. I certainly think audiences would be frustrated by this picture with not much narrative and what appears to be meandering between some character interactions and then playing with the new technology.
There are the threads of a story, but it never entirely comes together. Thomas Crown remains a frustrating enigma for the entirety of the picture and not in a satisfying way. There is an interesting character there with a man who has no need for this money but is doing it for the thrill. You could explore his arrogance, the boredom that comes with reach a certain level of power. However, the film doesn’t really ever figure out what it wants to say about Crown. We get much more character development from Vicki Anderson, who is playing off McQueen’s blank slate. That doesn’t mean they don’t have chemistry; they just don’t have arcs that play out with equal interest.
The best moment of the film is the famous chess sequence. It’s a magnificent showcase of wordless storytelling where Wexler delivers a sex-charged back and forth between Vicki and Crown. Few romance films ever achieve a scene like this where we fully understand the chemistry and power jockeying in a relationship. This moment has been mimicked in many other movies that attempt to have the same cool vibe, and they just fall flat in comparison.
This is undoubtedly not Jewison’s best work, and it pales in comparison to In the Heat of the Night, a picture with rich character development and gorgeous visuals. I get the sense the split-screen technology took over much of the production and that the director was working on playing with a style rather than a strong narrative. As a result, The Thomas Crown Affair is a cinematic fluff piece, nice to watch while it happens but easily forgettable when the credits roll.