Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Thomas Crown Affair

Some time over the next three years or so I hope to throw together a book of essays on some films and publish bits and pieces of those essays here; it's a slow process due to a busy life of denture problems, diabetic snooze-off issues, et cetera.  You know how it is.  Oh and my stuff is copyrighted, and my lawyers are junkyard dogs.

The Thomas Crown Affair is about identity, the self and personal freedom.  I know what you’re thinking – is it a mainstream, middlebrow selection of Hollywood made entertainment or is it an 800 page treatise by Derek Parfit?  The former, of course; and I know that a lot of people involved with the movies seem to think that, because they went to film school, they’re somehow qualified to delve into the deepest and most profound questions human beings face.  Be that as it may, I’m not here to explore this kind of issue; rather, I’m just pointing it out.  I have no ready answers.
In her great essay Notes on “Camp” Sontag quotes Genet (“the only criterion of an act is its elegance”) and Wilde (“in matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style”).  I have a tremendous amount of sympathy with this general point of view, which probably accounts for my enthusiastic appreciation of The Thomas Crown Affair.  This film – this delectable, gorgeous portion of fluffy nothing – eventually does show itself to have some substance under all of its magnificent style, however; the problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that it takes a lot of reflection to get to it.  I had to watch the film four or five times to understand Thomas Crown himself.

            Before we get to the heavy stuff, let me on a lighter note make mention of the fact that the film makes two contributions to a concept I’ll call the Hitchcockian Planfuck.  Here’s the first: Karl (Yaphet Kotto), one of the bank robbers on the team Thomas Crown has assembled, is unable to locate a usable pay phone, in a large bank of them, with which to call in to Crown for the last set of instructions before the heist.  Now, we know that in a Hitchcock picture this type of thing is going to contribute decisively to the overall sideways tilt of things – but not here!  Here we get a bit of slick semi comic relief.  When Karl finally slides into an available booth after sweating the situation out a bit, Thomas Crown calls him!  Yeah, sure.  A quick explanation is given – Crown, the master planner ever prepared, has the numbers of all the phones in the bank. Even accepting that, how does he know which booth Karl is sitting in?  How does he know which one to call?  There are no cameras. Already this is a clue to Crown’s godlike imperviousness to human frailty.  Hitchcock, consequences; Jewison, a temporary distraction, even an amusement.  (Notice: as Crown, in his office, speaks to Karl on the phone the camera looks down on him from above, an objective shot.)
            The second minor alarm Hitchcockian Planfuck occurs not long after, and it concerns Erwin, the getaway driver, played by Jack Weston (I beg your pardon to digress a moment – was there ever an actor more perfectly cast than Jack Weston is in this role?  Answer: No!)  He’s got all the pilfered loot in the getaway car (a Ford wagon with wood paneling on the side), heading off to the dropoff point, when, on a narrow street, he gets stuck behind a truck of eggs making a delivery – Minahan The Egg Man.  We hold our breath as he beeps the horn frantically and a cop on horseback comes along.  After a brief moment of “suspense”, Minahan moves his truck and Erwin is free to hit the Mass Pike, escaping with the dough as planned!  Mission accomplished - no interruption of Thomas Crown’s impeccably crafted plan here!  But Jewison has a neat trick up his sleeve awaiting.  As Erwin drives onward we ourselves assume the point of view of the driver in a car behind him, following him, with a prominently displayed hood ornament; said ornament is major in the end. 

            Initially I’d like to stay on things thematic and story related before addressing things cinematic and film related.  In that regard, then, one of the themes of The Thomas Crown Affair is freedom, but freedom of a very specific kind – the freedom that comes from money.  Crown has wealth beyond most people’s understanding – with the exception of lawbreaking he can do whatever he wants.  In fact, he made a life decision in the temporal zone before the fiction of the film – to disappear, vanish, wipe the slate of his identity and existence clean.  This knowledge doesn’t really come to us, the viewers, until we are well into the motion picture, and it takes place when he has a brief moment with his executive assistant, Sandy (Biff McGuire).  Even then what he has in mind isn’t perfectly clear.  Trustman’s script isn’t heavy on forthrightness.  Motives are murky.  If you’re like me you’re watching this film thinking What the hell is this guy doing?  Why is he staging bank robberies?  This movie makes no sense at all!  Crown’s persona is ice cold – he leads Vickie on, using her to foil the cops, manipulating her emotions – why?  The answer is that he falls in love with her, hard, but not quite hard enough. 
            This film is also about audacity – both on the part of the characters as well as that of the filmmakers.  Look at what we’re being fed – Vicky Anderson and Tommy Crown know how to play the Ruy Lopez, imagine that!

Excerpt from the essay “The Thomas Crown Affair”, copyright 2015 by Peter Quinones.  All rights reserved.

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