By Joan Amenn
“And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space…”
“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) is a stylish 102 minutes that mostly focuses on Steve McQueen as an object of sexual desire. While he was a tough guy wearing simple attire in his other films, here he is impeccably styled in three-piece suits, a sparkly watch chain and snazzy sunglasses. As Thomas Crown, he is also worth a few million, or more if you count what he just scored on a recent bank heist. A polo player and lover of racing over sand dunes in a custom ATV, no women could possibly resist him.
While this was meant to be a star vehicle for McQueen, director Norman Jewison cast then unknown Faye Dunaway after seeing her in dailies for “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). The rest, as they say, is film history. She exploded onto the screen like a supernova and while not eclipsing McQueen’s star power, certainly proved his equal in her own wattage of charisma.
She exploded onto the screen like a supernova and while not eclipsing McQueen’s star power, certainly proved his equal in her own wattage of charisma.
Dunaway’s Vicky Anderson is an insurance investigator who knows what she wants, which at first is her ten percent commission on the stolen money. After sizing Crown up as a tasty snack on the polo fields, she decides she’ll take him as a bonus too. Vicky treats herself very well on her earnings, dripping couture ensembles, intricate hairdos, and perfect manicures. She appreciates the finer things in life so Crown’s stature certainly appeals. How Theadora Van Runkle was not nominated for her costume designs for Dunaway is simply baffling. She is stunning in every scene with maybe the exception of a hat that ties below the chin which is a bit too twee. Vicki is the kind of woman that could arose Crown’s interest in more ways than his current squeeze who seems rather vapid and blank.
How Theadora Van Runkle was not nominated for her costume designs for Dunaway is simply baffling.
With these two pitted against each other, sparks were inevitably going to fly. However, Jewison gives Vicky ample screen time of pursuing her man not just for justice but for her own pleasure. This was the 1960’s so the concept of a career woman seducing a man for no other reason than sexual attraction was a bit ahead of its time. Also, since this was the 60’s, we are subjected to a pretentious theme song that tries to be seductive but just comes off as being obtuse. It did win the Oscar for Best Original song, so there’s that going for it.
This was the 1960’s so the concept of a career woman seducing a man for no other reason than sexual attraction was a bit ahead of its time.
The highlight of “The Thomas Crown Affair” isn’t the soundtrack, however. It is the montage style of editing that heightens the sexual tension between the two leads climaxing in the famous chess playing scene. So many smoldering glances, so much focus on expressive pouting, and fingers that seem to suggest intercourse from both leads that the screen seems to radiate heat. Caressing a finely sculpted pawn was never so heavily laden with sexual intent, but Dunaway gives it all she got. The camera uses the female gaze to size up every sparkle of McQueen’s dazzling blue eyes and every quiver of his full, masculine lips. The anticipation ratchets up until Tommy and Vicky kiss which is more viscerally intense than if the whole sex act was depicted onscreen.
A lot has been written about how Vicky was played by Tommy but that is only one interpretation of the ending. She is used to being successful at her job, but this is the first time she hopes to fail. This is indicated in her nervousness as she waits for Tommy to arrive. When she opens the door of his car she is sure she is addressing him, almost apologetically. She wanted him to get away, which leaves her shaken in her sense of herself. McQueen does not play Tommy as being totally satisfied with his choices, either. There is a small pang of regret in how he looks out his window and smiles a little sadly to himself. Both gave up some of what they wanted in this game of cat and mouse. This is why “The Thomas Crown Affair” is a classic film (and never mind about that remake.)