Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR: Blu-ray (UA 1968) MGM/Fox Home Video

How do you get the man who has everything? Faye Dunaway attempts to demonstrate in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) – a modish heist caper that Roger Ebert once panned as the most “over photographed movie of the year”. Dunaway is siren Vicki Anderson, a wily insurance investigator hell bent on using her rather perversely dynamic charms to outwit the deceptive and devilishly handsome millionaire, Thomas Crown (played to perfection by Steve McQueen). This really is the story about the one that got away. It’s also a tale of two temperaments; or rather – four: Crown vs. Vicki and Dunaway vs. McQueen. By all accounts the shoot was a pleasurable one for its director and stars. But McQueen was not above occasionally getting impatient with Dunaway – a chronic procrastinator who infrequently delayed the shoot by either arriving late on the set or simply forgetting to come out of her dressing room when called. Indeed, when viewing the film today – particularly the now famous ‘chess as sex’ scene – one is immediately struck by the mileage Dunaway and McQueen get from a gesture and a look; cranking up the kink factor without ever uttering a word or exposing a limb.
Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is paramount to the film’s success – its use of the multi-dynamic image technique, first exhibited at Expo 67, creates kinetic traveling montages within a single frame that reveal to the viewer various angles of the same event simultaneously. What is also evident, though only in retrospect, is how much of a time capsule The Thomas Crown Affair has become since its debut. Depending on one’s point of view Robert Boyle’s iconic art direction and Theadora Van Ruckle’s costume design have either dated very badly or remain the quintessence of what swingin’ 60s fashion and frolicking was all about. My vote is for the latter, and in this regard, The Thomas Crown Affair is immeasurably blessed by the presence of McQueen and Dunaway as the clothes horses; two of the hippest cool cats of their generation, skulking about these Bostonian backdrops with an air of ultramodern confidence.
You simply have to love the premise for this one: a bored rich man employing thug muscle to pull off a bank robbery for the sheer pleasure of getting away with it. The money - $2 million – is incidental. In fact, it doesn’t even matter to this sophisticate. But it does matter very much to the bank it was stolen from and so the chase for the man with the gold-plated lifestyle begins. The film’s superb score by Michel Legrand toys with the enigma that is Thomas Crown. The now famous, oft repeated, though never equaled, Oscar-winning Noel Harrison rendition of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ perfectly captures the paradox that is the romance between Crown and Vicki. “Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel” these two embrace the moody physicality of their impossible love, all the while knowing that its premise is doomed to extinction just as “the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair.” One can debate the illogicalness of both the song and the romance or even the film’s plot in its entirety, or simply run with the idea that some situations can never be sufficiently explained away: some people too.
Our story begins in a seedy motel room with the arrival of Erwin Weaver (Jack Weston) who is the last road show fugitive to be hired by Thomas Crown for his bank heist. Crown floods the room with some high wattage lighting to conceal his identity, using a microphone to distort his voice as the proposal is made: $15,000 for a few minutes work, driving a getaway car filled with several heavy bags of money stolen from the downtown depository. Weaver is nervous, but accepts the terms and the payoff. He buys a ‘woody’ station wagon with Crown’s money and waits for his cue. Crown telephones Weaver and the other accomplices – who have never met one another or Crown face to face, with a single word to set his plans in motion – “Go!” Descending on the bank, Crown’s mercenaries don their dark glasses and three piece suits, effortlessly blending in until the moment of truth. Their ambush goes off without a hitch.
However, as Weaver hurries away his path is momentarily obstructed by a truck unloading fresh eggs to market. Every second counts, and director Norman Jewison manages a few tense moments along the way, with Weaver eventually making it to Crown’s prearranged drop off – a metal ash can located along a grassy knoll in a remote part of Cambridge Cemetery. Moments later Crown arrives in his Rolls Royce to collect the loot, hiding it inside his trunk and later flying across the Atlantic in his private plane to Geneva where he deposits all of the money under an anonymous numbered account.  
Back in Boston the police are absolutely baffled. In fact, detective Eddie Malone (Paul Burke) is downright frustrated. The bank commissioners send in their own private investigator, Vicki Anderson, offering her a handsome percentage for its recovery. Already suspecting an inside job, Vicki surveys the crime scene, perusing a series of photographs quelled from the bank’s surveillance dossiers and immediately pegs Thomas Crown as her man. Malone, who harbors some sort of twisted attraction toward Vicki, whom he otherwise cannot abide, misperceives her fascination in Crown as purely sexual. Indeed, it seems that way to Crown too – at first. She is flirtatious with him during an auction of antiquities and later shows up unexpectedly at a polo match to photograph him on horseback with her handheld movie camera.
Crown, who has spent a lifetime exorcising his chronic boredom with every possible diversion a man of his wealth could exploit – including dune buggies, golf and flying his glider at dangerous altitudes and speeds – has found his next conquest. It isn’t going to be easy. He knows what Vicki is up to and she knows that he knows. The trick is in not caring about the reality of their situation, but playing his odds against the house in a seduction that could so easily go awry. To expedite Crown’s capture Malone places a police guard at Crown’s front gate. Malone and Vicki also take out an ad in the local paper that reads “Be A Fink for $25,000” an inducement to flush out Crown’s accomplices. If only they had something to tell.
Unfortunately, none of them has ever met the man they stole for in person. Tagging Weaver as one of Crown’s crew Vicki has a couple of officers steal his station wagon and later abduct his young son. Reuniting the boy with his father, Weaver reluctantly admits his complicity in the crime but is quite unable to pick Crown out of a line up as the brains of their operation – not even when Vicki and Malone stage an ambush at the police station that has Weaver and Crown sitting mere feet from one another. Now, the romance between Vicki and Crown kicks into high gear. She is bitterly determined to get to him no matter what, perhaps still unaware of her own feelings toward Crown that have begun to turn in his favor.
Inviting Vicki back to his home, Crown ignites an obvious friction in their platonic relationship over a game of chess; he deliberately locking onto her gaze, she sensually caressing the various pieces on the chess board to suggest what her fingers would rather be doing. After Vicki wins the match, Crown paces for a moment or two, finally suggesting “Let’s try another game.” The two become locked in an immediate and very passionate embrace – a panoramic kiss that in actuality took five days to film. The next day Crown takes Vicki on a perilous trek across the windswept beach in his dune buggy.
Attempting to shake Vicki loose from her obvious infatuation with Crown, Malone tells her that during their down time Crown is continuing to see Gwen (Astrid Heeren); an elegant playgirl of his ilk and background. It’s unclear whether Vicki becomes jealous after hearing this truth, but it certainly motivates her to press Crown for more foreplay that will hopefully lead to his incarceration. Inside a steam bath Vicki tells Crown that she can temper the repercussions of his involvement in the theft, a decision flat out rejected by Malone. Determined to know whether or not Vicki is on his side once and for all Crown decides to set another robbery in motion. He even tells Vicki when and where, informing her of the rules. If she allows him to get away with this second bite at the same apple then he’ll know she truly loves him and the two can make their plans to escape and continue their affair in Europe. If, however, the whole point of her seduction has been nothing more than an attempt to play him for the fool Crown advises Vicki she will be the one left holding the bag. The second robbery is set in motion and Vicki has Malone assign all of his available men for a sting operation.
After one of the robbers places the money bags in the same ash can as before, Vicki and Malone nervously await Crown’s arrival. A few excruciatingly long moments pass before Crown’s Rolls appears on the horizon. Only this time it is being driven by an errand boy who promptly presents Vicki with Crown’s farewell telegram. In this high stakes gamble of love vs. duty she has lost everything. The film ends with a close up of Crown, indeterminably pleased or disappointed with Vicki’s penultimate decision.
The Thomas Crown Affair is perhaps the greatest example of cinema style trumping substance. Indeed, the whole story could have been pitched to the studio in four sentences or less. And truthfully, without all that tangibly sizzling chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway there’s not much to go on. The visual trappings – the modish glam-bam of clothes, the poofed up hair, the backdrop of infinite wealth and power mingling with the more finite common class, are all just heavy icing on a hollowed out cake. That this elegant edifice never caves under its anemic plot is a miracle – one that is self-sustainably fascinating to behold.  
Steve McQueen’s screen appeal has always been universal – as intoxicating to men (who wished they could be like him) as it was to women (who wanted to be with him). Many today forget that The Thomas Crown Affair afforded McQueen the rare opportunity to break out of his mold of playing roguishly handsome cowboys or tough scrappers who didn’t even own a pair of dress pants, much less the whole suit. But draped in his three piece finery, a pocket watch fastened to his plaid vest, McQueen is equally at home in such fancy duds, exuding a powerful sense of self lurking just beneath that buttoned down exterior. He’s riveting precisely because he doesn’t quite fit into that world of complacency that long ago ought to have eroded the sheer joys afforded a man of his wealth and stature.
As for Fay Dunaway, she slinks across the screen like a devious femme fatale from the noir thriller. Her insurance investigator is a deliciously manipulative vixen, using sex like a fly swatter that comes down hard on any man she deems worthy of her fickle affections. Cribbing from the playbook of a Hitchcock cool blonde, Dunaway exudes an amoral authority that is both possessive and yet devil-may-care; a contradiction of smarts and sensual appeal that leave both Malone and Crown bemused and bewitched during, and even apart from her presence. Dunaway’s Vicki is precisely the girl someone of Crown’s ilk desperately needs; as brash, manipulative, wholly unscrupulous and sinfully sensual as a feral cat in heat.
But what’s it all for? Well, in the end The Thomas Crown Affair typifies MGM’s old adage of “ars gratis artis” or ‘art for art’s sake’.  Escapist to a fault and exuding more fun than narrative ferocity, the film endures because of its two stars. “Like a circle in a spiral, never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel…” the lovers in The Thomas Crown Affair cling to each other better than its story and that continues to make us feel as though something sinfully delicious has just occurred – even if it’s only in the moment. Pure gold, if you ask me.
MGM/Fox Home Video prove that even gold can be spun into abysmal second rate tin. The Thomas Crown Affair is in desperate need of a full out restoration. I cannot understand the executive mentality over at Fox that continues to release such woefully substandard junk on Blu-ray while advertising it as “the ultimate hi-def experience”. In its current state The Thomas Crown Affair never comes close to living up to Fox’s thoroughly shameless and unsubstantiated marketing ploy. Colors on the whole have severely dated and slightly faded. The image is often bathed in an unacceptable reddish tint that makes anything brown, like the paneling in Crown’s office, look more ruddy than muddy. The first few reels are slightly out of focus too. Close ups are sharper than medium or long shots. But fine detail is, on the whole, utterly lacking. The gimmicky multi-dynamic traveling mattes exhibit some fairly heavy grain that is not very accurately reproduced and occasionally plagued by more than a modicum of age related artifacts. I’m not sure how much wool Fox thinks it’s pulling over the eyes of the average consumer but this release looks terrible – period.
If only looks were the only problem with this blu-ray transfer. But the audio is an even greater disaster to wade through. It’s mono – as originally recorded. But the Noel Harrison song under the main titles is so scratchy that it all but grates on the ears. Fox could have easily remastered this iconic 60s theme from stereophonic stems. I know. I own the Harrison recording in stereo and it sounds a hell of a lot better than it does on this Blu-ray.  Ditto for the rest of the score – its ear-piercing treble consistently crackling from my center channel. I’m not sure where Fox has been storing the original elements to this film but my guess would be behind a very damp urinal in the executive washroom. Truly, I haven’t heard a mono track sound this awful since my days of watching analog television during a snow storm. Yeeeuck!
I keep saying I’m going to start boycotting Fox Home Video by not adding any more of their catalogue titles to my 3000 plus collection. Then a title as rare and as anticipated as this gets released and I find myself shelling out for their shell game once more. Shame on me! We get the same tired old audio commentary from Norman Jewison previously made available on their DVD and a terribly worn trailer and that’s it! Bottom line: Not recommended.    
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



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