Friday, October 2, 2015

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, noted film critic, Roger Ebert once panned as the most “over photographed movie of the year”. Perhaps, ole Roger was missing the point of the exercise; Jewison exploiting Haskell Wexler’s uber-mod cinematography to illustrate the superficiality of our supremely wealthy protagonist. Thomas Crown is rich but unhappy; or perhaps ‘bored’ is more to the point. He toils not, but merely counts the zeros in his bank account, leading a supremely cultured existence – yet, all of it predicated on a lie: that money alone can buy you happiness. Crown’s a beacon of the community, yet deprived of the one essential necessary to make the world go round – love. As silly as it sounds, Crown isn’t much without satisfying this thirst. Generally speaking, love equates to lust and a quick bump and grind; merely another disposable way to pass the time; that is…until he meets and begins to fall for the siren, Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway).
Alas, Vicki is an enterprising insurance investigator, hell bent on using her rather perversely dynamic feminine wiles (and a killer wardrobe designed by Theadora Van Runkle) to outfox, seduce and outwit the deceptive and devilishly handsome millionaire, Thomas Crown (played to perfection by Steve McQueen). The Thomas Crown Affair 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 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 glance; cranking up the kink factor without ever uttering an erotic syllable or exposing any supple limbs.
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 to reveal 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’ sixties 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 from their generation, skulking about Bostonian backdrops with an air of ultramodern confidence. Again, it’s all very superficial; deliciously so, a testament to style over substance, for the premise of this classic film is rather one-dimensional at best and fraught with possibilities for failure.
The Thomas Crown Affair is not an easily digestible picture. You either buy into the implausible premise wholesale or it completely falls apart: a bored millionaire employing thug muscle to pull off the ultimate bank robbery, simply for the sheer satisfaction of getting away with it. The money – an impressive $2 million – is incidental to the crime. But it does matter very much to the bank incurring the loss. And so, the chase for the man with the gold-plated lifestyle begins. The Thomas Crown Affair is superbly scored by Michel Legrand, who toys with the enigma that is Mr. Thomas Crown Esq. The now famous, oft repeated, though never equaled, Oscar-winning Noel Harrison rendition of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ perfectly encapsulates the jigsaw puzzled romance between Crown and Vicki. “Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel” these two feral cats embrace the moody physicality of their impossible daring, all the while knowing it 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 relationship it references, or simply run with the notion its poetic convolution has perfectly pegged the mystery behind two very troubled and confrontational people. Crown wants Vicki until he learns her secret. She desperately realizes, too late to make a difference, she could almost forgo the victory, if only the man in question would take her in his arms for an eternity without fail or question. Alas, within the imperfect machinations of sixties cinema, neither gets personal satisfaction from the ‘affair’ in the end; the man turning cold and aloof and vanishing into thin air; the woman left to her own accord with some very frustrated tears.
Our story begins in a seedy motel room with the arrival of Erwin Weaver (Jack Weston), the last to be hired by a partially concealed Crown for his bank heist. Crown floods the room with some high wattage lights to shroud his identity; a microphone distorting his voice as the proposal is made: $15,000 for a few minutes work, driving the getaway car filled with several heavy bags of money stolen from a 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, a single word setting their plans in motion – “Go!” Descending on the bank, Crown’s mercenaries don their dark glasses, effortlessly blending in until the moment of action. 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 it 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. Almost immediately, she pegs Thomas Crown as her man. Malone, who harbors some sort of twisted attraction to Vicki, whom he otherwise cannot abide, misperceives her fascination in Crown as purely sexual. Indeed, it seems that way to Crown too – at first. Vicki is flirtatious during an auction of antiquities and later shows up unexpectedly at a polo match, presumably to adoringly 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 can exploit – including dune buggies 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 he knows. The trick is in not caring about the reality of their situation, but playing the odds cagily against the house. Who will seduce who? The lure 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 can claim to have ‘met’ the man in person. Tagging Weaver as one of Crown’s stooges, 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 the operation – not even when Vicki and Malone stage an ambush at the police station in which Weaver and Crown sit mere feet away 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 truer feelings already begun to turn in his favor. Inviting Vicki back to his home, Crown wastes no time igniting the obvious friction between them during a relatively platonic game of chess. He deliberately locks onto her gaze. She sensually caresses the various chess pieces to suggest what her fingers would rather be fondling. 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 beaches in his dune buggy. The violent abandonment with which he skirts a certain roll over is designed to shake Vicki from her complacency, but also to do more than hint she is skating on some very thin ice in their ‘relationship’. Sensing she desires more than simply perfecting the art of the chase, Crown tempts Vicki with the promise she may have all of him if she desires; alas, at a sacrifice to her reputation as a professional insurance investigator. Either way, it will be she who makes the sacrifice – not he; as ice-water runs through Crown’s veins in ways as yet completely unanticipated by Vicki.
Desiring to shake Vicki loose of her obvious infatuation with Crown, Malone tells her that during their down time, Crown has continued to see Gwen (Astrid Heeren), an elegant playgirl of his ilk and background. It is unclear whether Vicki becomes jealous after hearing this, but it certainly motivates her to press Crown into more explicit foreplay, hopefully to lead to his imminent incarceration. Inside a steam bath, Vicki lays all her cards on the table. She tells Crown 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 into motion. He even tells Vicki when and where the heist is to occur. But the game comes with a new set of rules. If she allows him to get away for the second time, even as she possesses all the information necessary to apprehend him right now, then he will know she has chosen him over her reputation and he promises to make plans for their escape, to continue the affair in Europe without reprisals. If, however, the whole point of her seduction has been nothing more than a greedy means to play him for the fool, Crown assures Vicki she will be the one left holding the bag. Can she trust him? More apropos, does she want to?
The second robbery is set in motion. Unable to rid herself entirely of her duty, and also possessing the stained prerogative of all women who believe they can have their cake and eat it too, Vicki attempts to play both sides against the middle. She has Malone assign all his available men for a massive 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-Royce 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 Vicki has managed to lose everything. The film ends with a close-up on Crown, indeterminably pleased and/or disappointed with Vicki’s penultimate decision to sabotage their possibly genuine love affair over money; a commodity he has always regarded as utterly trivial and disposable.
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 the tangibly sizzling screen chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway there is not much to go on. The visual trappings – the modish glam-bam of clothes and bouffant hair, the backdrop of power-brokering uber-wealth and power beyond most people’s wildest dreams, the audiences’ chance to mingle with the untouchable class; all these enticements prove heavy icing on an extremely thin cake. That such an elegant edifice never caves under screenwriter, Alan Trustman’s wafer-thin plot is a minor miracle and undeniably a credit to Jewison’s prowess in front of the camera. Here is a director capable of making style substantive to the telling of his fanciful yarn. Why do we believe in the affair? Because Jewison frames it in a sort of iniquitous elegance; the moneyed playgrounds of the rich enough to hold our attention during the interminably long stretches where the screenplay has exceptionally little to offer except more of the titillating same.    
The other strength of the picture is undeniably, its cast. Steve McQueen’s screen appeal has always been universal – as intoxicating to men (who wished they could be like him) as to women (who wanted to be with him). Many today forget The Thomas Crown Affair afforded McQueen the rarest of opportunities to break out of his already well-established mold as the roguishly handsome cowboy or tough scrapper who, invariably, did not even own dress pants, much less the whole suit. But draped in three piece finery herein, a pocket watch fastened to his plaid vest, his sandy tresses immaculately quaffed, and a flash of petty larceny transmitting from those inimitable brilliant blue eyes, McQueen is as very much ‘at home’ in his fancy duds, exuding an unquantifiable aura of masculinity. In a career cut too short by his own vices, McQueen in his prime was, and remains a riveting performer, precisely because he does not quite fit into this ultra-chic backdrop; denying the complacency that comes from being privileged. Long ago, this ought to have eroded any sense of pleasure for Thomas Crown. Instead, McQueen plays Crown as though he were more to the manor ‘broken into’ than born; still the scrapper, but also a guy’s guy, lacking any compunction to exploit the virtues as well as the vices only the truly moneyed can afford to indulge in without reprisals.
As for Fay Dunaway, she slinks across the screen as though the devious femme fatale from a noir thriller. Her insurance investigator is a delicious and manipulative vixen. Using sex like a fly swatter, she comes down hard on any man deemed worthy of her fickle affections. Cribbing from the playbook of a Hitchcock cool blonde, Dunaway exudes amoral authority that is both possessive and yet devil-may-care; a contradiction between smarts and sensuality that leave both Malone and Crown bemused and bewitched. Dunaway’s Vicki is precisely the girl someone of Crown’s ilk desperately needs to make his life whole. Regrettably, Vicki is too brash and wholly unscrupulous for her own good. But what is it all for? Well, in the end, The Thomas Crown Affair typifies MGM’s time-honored 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 as better than its story and this continues to make us feel as though something sinfully enjoyable has just occurred or is about to happen – even if it is only in and of the moment. The film’s mystique is impossible to bottle, as others have tried and the 1999 remake/misfire wore out its welcome with disastrous results.  As with most cases, it’s the original that counts. With McQueen and Dunaway at the reigns, how could it be otherwise…“like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”
MGM/Fox Home Video proves yet again that even pure gold can be spun into abysmal second rate tin under their auspices. The Thomas Crown Affair is in desperate need of a full out restoration. I cannot understand the executive logic over at Fox that has continued 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 and muddy. The first few reels are slightly out of focus too. Close-ups are substantially 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 am not sure how much wool Fox thinks it can pull 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. It’s mono – as originally recorded. But Noel Harrison’s iconic main title song is so scratchy it all but grates on the ears. If nothing else – or better – then, Fox could have easily remastered this iconic 60’s movie anthem from surviving stereophonic stems and reinserted it in true 5.1 DTS splendor. Ditto for the rest of the score – it’s ear-piercing treble consistently crackling in my center channel. I am not sure where Fox has been archiving these original elements behind a very damp urinal in the executive washroom, but honestly, they could not have done much worse. Extras are limited to the same audio commentary from Norman Jewison previously made available on their DVD and a terribly worn trailer. Bottom line: I love this movie. But the Blu-ray is a disaster. Not recommended.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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