By Ian M. Clarke
Director Norman Jewison had a problem. How do you make two aggressively self-obsessed, somewhat sociopathic people even remotely attractive?
The Thomas Crown Affair is a film about greed, about what happens when the platforms of decency and social responsibility become detached from their moorings and drift out to the Saragossa Sea – spinning around and around ad naseum, or as the Academy Award-winning song from this film, Windmills of Your Mind, says:
Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind
Criminal behavior is stylized as glamorous, the same way violence is stylized in Bonnie and Clyde. (Odd that Faye Dunaway is in both films).
The spirit of youthful rebellion, so endemic to 1960s pop culture, was adopted and often adapted by Hollywood as the plight of the individual against society, personal freedom against systematic conformity.
It didn’t matter if the lead individual (Thomas Crown/Clyde Barrow) steals or murders other individuals because as the best looking individual (Steve McQueen/Warren Beatty) it all seems vaguely Darwinian.
Jewison’s directing is seamless. Cinematography sets the tone across a taciturn script. You can almost smell the leather interior of Crown’s Rolls Royce. When McQueen grabs Dunaway during a sensual chess match (yes, I did write ‘sensual chess match’) and suggests ‘Let’s play something different’, the camera swirls as if following an orgasmic, multi-colored acid dream. And watch for the oh-so-60s split-screen editing. This film set the timbre for a host of heist movies.
There is an odd, existential element to this film, unexpected but persistent, bolstered by the theme song itself. Bad, good, evil, wholesome, alive, dead…it doesn’t really matter what you do because the wheel is always spinning. Society rewards the greedy, the poor are powerless, and on and on, like a circle in a spiral…
Millionaire Thomas Crown is ethically bankrupt, and to even suggest that quality is somehow attractive, underscores Jewison’s talent. It’s never clear if the film mocks or celebrates wickedness – which surely contributes to its enduring appeal. Something that can’t be defined, can’t be limited. It just goes round and round, ‘like an apple whirling silently in space/Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind’. Beauty needs no excuse.
Ian M. Clarke can be reached at