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Star of the Month: Steve McQueen
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suppliedTitle,The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair

Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen), an investment banker in Boston's Back Bay, has become bored with his wealth and life of ease. In a constant quest for excitement, he challenges himself with a risky venture - an elaborately planned robbery that will net him a cool 2.6 million dollars. The heist is successfully carried off through a team of professional thieves, none of whom know each other or have any idea of their employer's true identity. The police are completely baffled and call in Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), a freelance insurance investigator whose deductive reasoning quickly narrows down the prime suspects to Crown, whose frequent trips to a Switzerland bank arouse her suspicions. Thus begins a complex cat and mouse game between the huntress and the hunted that eventually develops into a serious romance. In the grand finale, Thomas puts Vicki's love to the test by revealing his plans for a final heist.

One of the most stylish and entertaining caper movie of the sixties, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) was made at a time when the two stars and their director were at their career peaks. Steve McQueen had recently received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in The Sand Pebbles (1966) and was about to star in his biggest box office success to date, Bullitt (1968). Faye Dunaway was still riding high from her role in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which earned her the first of three Academy Award nominations. And director Norman Jewison had just completed In the Heat of the Night which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967 and made Jewison the most sought after director in Hollywood.

The Thomas Crown Affair began with McQueen, serving as an uncredited producer; he had been searching in vain for a script that would allow him to play against his usual man-of-action persona. He enlisted Jewison in his endeavors - the two men had enjoyed a good working relationship on a previous feature together, The Cincinnati Kid (1965) - and the director found the perfect vehicle for McQueen in a screenplay by former Boston attorney Alan R. Trustman. The actor had wanted to play a sophisticated contemporary character for a long time and Thomas Crown, a millionaire with impeccable taste, was just the ticket. Dressed in $350 suits and adorned with fashionable accessories like a $2,250 Patek Philippe watch, McQueen seemed to have little in common with the scruffy bad boys he played in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). But it was only a facade, for McQueen was still playing a cocky, rebellious individual with distaste for authority. Thomas Crown was just more subversive in his dealings with the Establishment and, like the real life McQueen, liked to play hard which accounts for the numerous scenes with the actor skydiving, hang-gliding, playing polo and driving his dune buggy on the beach.

As much as Steve McQueen enjoyed his role in The Thomas Crown Affair, Faye Dunaway cites it as one of her favorite moviemaking experiences. Like McQueen, she got to model an elegant wardrobe featuring over 29 costume changes yet play a complex character at the same time. In her biography, Looking For Gatsby, she wrote, "Vicki's dilemma was, at the time, a newly emerging phenomenon for women: How does one do all of this in a man's world and not sacrifice one's emotional and personal life in the process?" As for her co-star, she said "it was really my first time to play opposite someone who was a great big old movie star, and that's exactly what Steve was. He was one of the best-loved actors around, one whose talent more than equaled his sizable commercial appeal." Regarding her own performance in the film, Dunaway stated, "while it may be the chess scene that stays with most people, there are other moments in the movie that I am more fond of. Vicki's entrance is great. I walk seemingly for miles in close-up, with dark glasses and a big hat and a slight smile. You don't know who this woman is or what she's up to...And I liked very much the earlier scenes with Paul Burke, when I've just been brought on the case and I'm working out who master-minded the heist."

The Thomas Crown Affair was filmed at over ninety locations in and around Boston during the summer of 1967, including Beacon Hill (the address of Crown's luxurious apartment), Little Italy, Crane's Beach, Pier 4, and the National Shawmut Bank for the complicated heist. At the latter location, according to Jewison in Faye Dunaway by Allan Hunter, "The guards and bank people were in the know, but nobody else was. Our robbers scared a lot of customers and pedestrians, who thought they were seeing a real robbery. But oddly, no one tried to interfere. I think they were afraid to get involved." For this same sequence, Jewison employed a split-screen technique that he had first viewed at a film exposition at the 1964 World's Fair. Director John Frankenheimer had previously used the process for Grand Prix (1966) but Jewison limits his use of the split screen technique and, as a result, the bank robbery is one of the most memorable segments in the film.

It is, however, the erotic chess game between McQueen and Dunaway which was the most discussed aspect of The Thomas Crown Affair during its original release. Critic Penelope Gilliatt described it as "two goldfish going after the same crumb" and it has since been parodied in numerous films; the most famous is Peter Sellers' seduction of Shirley MacLaine in Being There (1979) while the two characters watch Jewison's film on television. According to the director in an interview in Sight and Sound magazine, "There was one paragraph in the script which said they sat down to play chess. I'd worked with the author, and it was his first film. And I think the phrase he used was 'chess with sex." And since it was the only physical contact of the two characters, I became involved with the scene and felt that it should - well, I wanted to film the longest kiss in screen history. I thought this one physical thing should tell everything about that aspect of their relationship, so that I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. So we ended up spending three days shooting a kiss. I must say it was a marvelous inspiration from the cameraman. [Haskell] Wexler and I devised all sorts of things to keep the scene going and build it cinematically."

During the 1968 Oscar race, The Thomas Crown Affair was nominated for Best Music Score by Michel Legrand and Best Song - "The Windmills of Your Mind" - which won in the latter category. To this day, the film remains a popular favorite among Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway fans and is even rumored to be one of former President Jimmy Carter's favorite movies. In 2000, The Thomas Crown Affair was remade with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the roles originally created by McQueen and Dunaway. While immensely popular with moviegoers, this version lacks the flamboyant excess that made the original so entertaining.

Producer/Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: Alan R. Trustman
Art Direction: Robert Boyle
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Costume Design: Ron Postal, Alan Levine, Theadora Van Runkle
Film Editing: Byron Brandt, Hal Ashby, Ralph Winters
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Principal Cast: Steve McQueen (Thomas Crown), Faye Dunaway (Vicki Anderson), Paul Burke (Eddy Malone), Jack Weston (Erwin), Biff McGuire (Sandy), Addison Powell (Abe), Astrid Heeren (Gwen), Yaphet Kotto (Carl), Gordon Pinsent (Jamie).
C-103m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford



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