THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

My father always loved how the ultra-wealthy lived on screen.  James Bond’s encounters with villains hiding out in the most elaborate estates, or the social class stabbings of the women in All About Eve were the fantasies that he wanted to live among.  Dad also appreciated the way billionaire playboy Thomas Crown lived.  Though I doubt Dad would ever suffer from a mild case of boredom like Tommy Crown did. 

The original, 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair begins with an elaborately planned bank robbery. Then begins the chess match between Steve McQueen as the title character and a beautiful insurance investigator who is trying to pin the entrepreneur for the crime, Vicki Anderson played by Faye Dunaway. 

The film, directed by Norman Jewison, is a caper adventure during its first thirty minutes.  Thomas Crown assembles a crew of five men to don hats and sunglasses.  He coordinates what time they should arrive in Boston, either by plane, train or automobile.  They enter a particular elevator in a bank located in the center of downtown Boston, hold some people hostage and simply walk out the door with over two and half million dollars in cash.  Afterwards, Mr. Crown will take over and make sure the monies are deposited in a Swiss bank account. 

This film is quite outdated by now.  There’s a lot of easy-very easy-conveniences that work for the heist to successfully come off.  Yet, that does not interfere with enjoying The Thomas Crown Affair.  With film editing from Hal Ashby, Jewison directs the heist in rapid split screens.  It manipulates you into thinking the mechanics behind the robbery is more elaborate than it really is.  Thomas Crown orchestrates everything from his luxurious office across the street.  His crew simply hold folks at gun point with one of them driving away with the money.  It’s the pacing of the split screens in halves, thirds and sometimes fourths that keep you alert as the crew arrives at the scene of the crime from all different points. 

After the robbery is successfully committed, the insurance investigators for the bank show up.  Paul Burke is the frustrated one in charge with the loose tie and wrinkled shirt.  He allows Vicki to enter Thomas Crown’s life when she miraculously suspects that he must be the kingpin behind the theft.  Thomas knows what Vicki suspects and then the pair fall in love while trying to hide each other’s hand.  At times, one is playing cat.  At other times, one is playing mouse.

As I said, the robbery is the most exciting part of The Thomas Crown Affair.  Afterwards, the film seems to turn into a picture album or an episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous.  McQueen doesn’t offer up much dialogue.  We get to see him play polo, take a flight in his hang glider and play golf.  Dunaway has occasional conversations with Burke trying to figure out how to prove that Crown is the master thief, wearing the most beautifully trendy outfits of the time.  You can’t not pay attention to how sensational Faye Dunaway looks in this picture.  When Dunaway and McQueen share the screen it’s simply an album of romance and escapist adventure.  Tommy takes Vicki in his custom-made dune buggy (personally customized by McQueen himself) along the wind-swept beaches.  They allegorically engage in the sexiest chess match to appear on film.  They tease one another with their suspicions of each other.  Yet, the movie never advances beyond any of that.  Norman Jewison simply wanted to go on a luxuriously scenic New England vacation while shooting this picture. 

I can appreciate the internal dilemma of Tommy Crown.  A bored, isolated and very wealthy man who has everything, and cannot get thrilled with what to do next except to become a moonlighting criminal for one opportunity.  One character trait that I liked was that Tommy will place bets on shooting a golf ball out of a sand trap, and lose not once but twice.  He’ll play chess with the alluring woman who’s pursuing him as well.  Yet, she gets his king in check.  The only challenge he wins at is the one that nobody is legally permitted to play.  It’s a dimension for the character, even if it is not explored with too much depth. 

The Thomas Crown Affair is not the greatest film.  I have seen it a few times as a personal means to stay in touch with my father who has passed now.  He loved to watch how the wealthy lived within the confines of their mansions with their brandy sifters and pocket watches.  When Tommy sits at his grand office desk, I hear Dad saying, “Wow, what an office.”  Dad talks to me when I watch Sean Connery as James Bond or Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown.

The movie features Dad’s most favorite song, the Oscar winning The Windmills Of Your Mind which opens the picture to feature the credits.  Honestly, this is my most favorite part of the movie.  It’s a magnificent song that I could listen to on replay.  The lyrics and haunting melody seem to tease the introduction of a man of mystery.  Yet, Thomas Crown doesn’t turn out to be all that enigmatic.  He’s a quiet fellow who only finds amusement when he comes up with the audacity to pull off what many of us would never dream to carry out.  Yet, once that is over, what is there left to do?  Fall in love with Faye Dunaway?  Well, there could be worse things in life.

Footnote: I share this portion from the eulogy I wrote for dad in September, 2019:

Dad’s favorite song was The Windmills Of Your Mind from one of dad’s favorite movies The Thomas Crown Affair, featuring Steve McQueen as the title character with Faye Dunaway about a man bored with his wealth who seeks adventure by orchestrating a complex robbery simply for the fun of it all.  As dad never slept and was always active, I consider this lyric from the song.

Round like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/Never ending or beginning/On an ever-spinning wheel/Like a snowball down a mountain/Or a carnival balloon/Like a carousel that’s turning/Running rings around the moon.

Dad could never memorize the lyrics exactly but I recall him humming the tune endlessly when I was growing up.  Dad’s life was never ending.  In a spiral, in a circle, always moving and going on and on.  Just 3 months ago we were at the Tony Awards together.  Just this past summer he was reading with Julia.  Just this year he was making plans with Adrienne for Julia’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah.  Just this year he was accompanying Brian to the shooting range for time together. Just this year he was planning another party at his home for his clients, friends and fellow congregants.  Just five weeks ago, he was driving his Aston Martin, named after the Bond girl from the film Goldfinger. I dare not repeat that name here.

While in the hospital this last month, the nurses would ask him with surprise “You still work?” and dad’s reply was “Yeah.  Don’t you?”  He refused to ever retire.  He said he would never do it because then what would he do with himself.  He never stopped.  He never ever stopped, and I imagine he hasn’t stopped since he reunited with Linda and my grandmother Helen this past Thursday evening.  He is truly a windmill of the mind.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

By Marc S. Sanders

Sydney Pollack is such a hero of Hollywood filmmaking. He was a terrific actor and a better director. As Three Days Of The Condor opens I got completely engrossed in its simple, yet frightening set up.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) arrives at his office where he works day to day as a “book reader.” He chats a little with his colleagues, jots a few notes down, and steps out the back door to pick up lunch for everyone. When he returns, he finds the entire office staff has been shot to death. This seems like a common day in the life of an Everyman, until it’s not. Alfred Hitchcock capitalized on this motif over and over again.

Turner makes a phone call and is asked for his code name, but before he reveals he’s known as “Condor,” he asks a very good question to the man on the other end of the line. Why is it so important that Turner reveals his code name, but the man he called doesn’t feel the need to share his own?

Having recently watched the film adaptation of The Firm with Tom Cruise, made almost twenty years after this film, I can see that Sydney Pollack knows how to not only build suspense very, very quickly but also how to maintain it too. Still, in both films the complications of the why and how become overbearing. With Three Days Of The Condor, it’s best to just watch the tight editing and well drawn characterizations all the way from Max Von Sydow as a disciplined assassin to John Houseman as the elder authority who relaxes himself with his tweed suit and bow tie behind a large table as the problems unfold. Cliff Robertson is Higgins, the contact for Turner. He’s serviceable in the part.

The entire first hour of the film is perfection; taut and gripping as we uncover what purpose Turner as a book reader serves, and for whom. The second hour found me feeling less engaged, regrettably. To aid himself, Turner kidnaps a woman shopping in a sporting goods store. Faye Dunaway plays Kathy Hale. He forces Kathy to take him back to her apartment where he hides out. Never would it occur to me that these two characters over the course of a day and a half would fall for one another and make passionate love. This is not that kind of movie, and yet there it is. Some producer must have said “Fellas, we’ve got Dunaway and Redford on screen. This is a no brainer.” Faye Dunaway is fine in the part. I bought that out of desperation Redford would hold her at gun point and force her to help. But, c’mon! Really? They gotta bang each other too????

As for the plot behind killing people, the film doesn’t work its way into car and foot chases. It relies on its wording. The problem for me is that Turner works it all out himself. There’s little reference back to earlier moments for an audience to connect the dots along with the hero. So when Turner realizes one of the motivations is in regards to oil trading, I was trying to figure when anyone said anything about oil to begin with. Revelations just seem to be pulled out of a rabbit’s hat at times. They could have said people had to be murdered because the price of milk went up by fifty cents, and that would’ve held about just the same amount of weight as oil. What ABOUT oil????? Nothing ever needed to be so explicitly discussed here.

Part of the fun sometimes in Hitchcock films, for example, is simply seeing the man unexpectedly on the run and then watching how he outwits his adversaries. Harrison Ford does that in The Fugitive. Tom Cruise did it in The Firm. Cary Grant did it plenty of times with Hitchcock. In this film, however, I never felt there was any need to explain. Once it tried to grow a brain, I thought sometimes less is more, because now I’m stuck feeling frustratingly confused amid a lot of convoluted mumbo jumbo, on top of an out of left field, unsubstantiated love sequence.

Three Days Of The Condor was one of the best, edge of your seat suspense stories I’d seen…until it wasn’t.

THE TOWERING INFERNO

By Marc S. Sanders

The kid who played Bobby Brady of TV’s The Brady Bunch and Gregory Sierra (Julio from Sanford and Son) star alongside OJ Simpson and an Oscar nominated performance from Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno. This is one of the best films to be churned out of the Irwin Allen disaster machine of 1970s movie making.

William Holden is the proud builder of a beautiful new skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco. Paul Newman is the sensible architect who manages to acknowledge what’s wrong the construction of the building. Namely, a jerky Richard Chamberlain, as the building’s electrician, opted for faulty, less expensive wiring that conveniently overheats on the eve of the building’s grand celebration that includes a Senator (Robert Vaughn) and the Mayor with his wife in a loud, baggy Pepto Bismol colored dress. Seriously, it’s never hard to make this woman out among a sea of formally dressed extras who are celebrating on the grand opening located on the building’s promenade floor. Floor number 135 to be more precise. Because it’s so high up, we are treated to a scenic, outside elevator that’ll eventually not make it to the ground allowing a couple of screaming extras to be held in treacherous suspense. Good stuff here, for sure.

Steve McQueen’s coolness eventually arrives as the main fire chief leading the high rise charge against the blazes. His Thomas Crown Affair co-star, Faye Dunaway, is here to cue the romantic rhythms of John Williams’ score, and to hop into bed with Newman for some afternoon delight.

The story is that Newman and McQueen were at odds for who was getting top billing. Watch the very beginning of the film for the inventive compromise for the name placement in the credits.

The real stars of this who’s who cast are the special effects. Now I truly mean this. Nearly fifty years later, and the visual effects of the massive fires, explosions, helicopter sequences, and enormous heights still hold up. There’s lots of good footage that burns up, crushes, floods and drops a handful of extras for a fast paced three-hour epic disaster flick.

Astaire might have been the sole acting nominee but I just can’t get over how the debonair, prime for a Love Boat appearance with no hair out of place Robert Wagner didn’t get any recognition. This man puts just a damp washcloth on his head, promises his half naked sweetie that he’ll “be back with the whole fire department,” and sprints straight into the flames for the grandest death scene in film history. It’s a glorious scene for sure when Wagner buys it. I cheer every time I see it. The dude just face plants into the flames. Doesn’t even bend down or kneel to pray. This guy just topples over like a Jenga tower, with the washcloth remaining on his head.

The Towering Inferno amazingly did not beat out The Godfather Part II for Best Picture. I know. I’m stunned as well, reader. Uh huh! Nevertheless, it’s still worth a watch all these years later. If anything, you get to see some pretty eye-popping visual effects and action scenes directed personally by Irwin Allen. You also get to familiarize yourself with the best talent in Hollywood that was working at the time. There are also lots of great moments amid the soapy cheesiness of the script.

Most of all, and this is where I finally get sincere, it’s a film that does not make light of our country’s firefighters who continue to risk their lives everyday so that any one of us can survive. Not enough films embrace the proud men and women who stand between us and danger. The Towering Inferno salutes that immeasurable bravery.

NETWORK

By Marc S. Sanders

Without question, what would become the absolute most prophetic film ever made is Sidney Lumet’s biting, satirical masterpiece called Network with its script from Paddy Chayefsky. 

Network works on all cylinders because it was released following a shedding of maybe the last of pure American innocence.  The country had finally pulled out of a losing war in Vietnam.  Our President Nixon was shamed out of office.  Happy housewife programs like The Donna Reed Show and Leave It To Beaver were behind us.  The outright, prejudiced Archie Bunker was who Americans were tuning in to each week.  There was even an incident of a newscaster, named Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself dead on live television.  Looking back, today in 2022, it all seems inevitable that we would arrive at where we are now; where we are always seeking some semblance of showmanship and we’ll get our own brand of infamy no matter how desperate we become.

Chayefsky’s script focuses on the fictional network of UBS in present day, 1976.  Well known newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces on air that the following week will be his last broadcast as the network has opted to let him go due to poor ratings.  So, he entices his viewers to tune in when he will kill himself live on the air.  It’s a hilarious scene actually due to the ignorance of everyone else in the studio.  The director is flirting with his assistant. Another crew member is eating a sandwich.  No one is even paying attention to the centerpiece they have on the air.  Howard Beale has been taken for a granted as a has been for so long, it really doesn’t matter what he has to say as long as he’s reading the cue cards.  Who’d ever announce on live television in front of millions of viewers that he was intending to kill himself?

Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the news division, takes his friend into hiding from the media frenzy suddenly created.  Yet, the next night and after much convincing, Beale is permitted to go on the air again, and make a statement to undo whatever outlandish damage this has all become.  Instead, he decries that life is bull shit.  Max, fed up with the corporate tugs of war already, opts to leave him on and ironically a new opportunity presents itself.  Beale’s moment of insanity and his gradual mental breakdown might be real, but man, this could also pull the UBS news division out its ratings slump and bring it ahead of CBS, NBC and ABC. 

The young and energetic Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) in the entertainment division, works her way into the news division and takes over its programming from Max.  She convinces the corporate honchos like Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to use Beale as a ratings appeal.  The entire company eventually understands what Diana foresees could actually work when a rain-soaked Beale storms on to the studio set urging his viewers to shout out their windows that they are “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Now, the evening news consists of sections featuring Howard’s ranting and ramblings, as well as Sybil The Soothsayer and other such nonsense, most notably a new program from an actual terrorist group known as The Ecumenical Liberation Army. 

From there, the detritus of what UBS commits to for lead ratings night after night only validates that television is not about morals and objectivity in the industry of news reporting.  A slight telling moment has Beale come to Max with an old black and white photograph of them posing with the likes of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite.  They reflect joyfully on the memories, but now they are just memories. These kinds of men of the airwaves no longer exist. Beale is now a jester to the masses who tune in for his mad man speeches labeled as “news.” 

Long before the buffoonery of out of touch Presidential Candidates and over opinionated newscasters who lacked any merit or research to uphold their viewpoints, Chayefsky and Lumet were nervy enough to actually believe moviegoers would buy this satire. 

No matter the medium, satire is maybe the riskiest category of entertainment.  Someone is going to be pissed off and offended.  Others won’t believe this could ever be possible.  In elementary school, I remember reading a short story that proposed cutting down on overpopulation by having people eat their young.  You know what?  After much discussion with fellow classmates at the time, the idea had some logic to it.  Recently, Adam McKay wrote and directed a film called Don’t Look Up that presented a what if scenario to the inevitable end of the world by means of an incoming comet crashing down into Earth.  Unlike Network, some of the elements in that film didn’t work for me.  So, satire is a crap shoot.

Had I seen Network when it was first released, I wonder what I would have thought.  Would I have bought all of its absurdity?  I believe I saw it before reality television became such a novelty and ever since that first time watching, I truly accepted the logic that comes across the decision makers at the UBS network.  Corporate functionality, no matter the industry, relies on monies.  Nothing else matters.  UBS quickly learns that image can be spared.  Money is what keeps everyone happy and afloat.  If the performance of the company falters, changes need to be made; no matter how desperate those actions may appear to be. 

So, Howard Beale becomes a sensation for the UBS network and he is at least besting or tying with top rated shows like All In The Family and Little House On The Prairie.  Yet, Howard is also a mentally ill raving lunatic who needs treatment.  What happens when he declares something to the public that is detrimental to the corporate future of UBS, its top one percent, and its shareholders.  You can’t censor a lunatic with reason.  Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the all-powerful, emperor like CEO, delivers a commanding scene that is one for the ages in response.  He truly deserved his sole career Oscar nomination here…all for one scene perfectly staged in a dimly lit board room with his giant stature poised behind rows of green banker lamps.  He turns Beale into his own prophesized pawn.  Now, that may satisfy the man at the top of the pyramid, but at the end of the day, what about the ratings?????

Chayefsky’s script is one of the greatest ever written.  Not only are the satirical ideas so clearly drawn, but the dialogue is biting with truth in its sarcasm and wit.  When Diana suggests giving The Ecumenical Liberation Army its own weekly program depicting real life footage of their massacres and kidnappings across the country, a staffer retorts “What do you wanna call it?  The Mao Tse Tung Hour?”  When Beale asks the god like image of Arthur Jensen “Why me?”, the response is simply “Because you’re on television, Dummy!”

Maybe we thought the limit of influence stopped with television.  The script for Network felt sure of that.  Yet, we’ve graduated from the simplicity of television and we’ve entered the age of the internet.  Suicides and violence, pornography, slander, opinions and viewpoints can all easily be conjured up by the devices we use to access the internet and we can slant our own news stories in our own way.  News is no longer reported with an objective, omnipotent narration.  It’s dramatized.  I may be a resident in Florida but if someone captures a live on-going police car chase happening on the freeways of Los Angeles, it’s brought to my attention for the thrill of the story.  From a news perspective how is a car chase on the other side of the country relevant to me?  I don’t know the drivers or what motivated them.  I don’t live there.  So, it’s not going to affect my commute home.  Yet, my local news station finds it imperative to show it to me.  No matter the heights of insanity a subject may be, if it’s watchable with a ratings potential, I can rely on my local journalists to bring it to me fast and immediate with zoom in close ups and hi definition.  They’ll even replay it for me in slow motion a hundred times, just to stretch the story until the commercial break.

Network also explores the corporate obsession America entered into by the mid-70s.  Chayefsky uses the Diana Christensen character as a departure from the wholesome Donna Reed image.  Women are working in the offices now.  They are beautiful, smart, strong and assured.  Yet, have they also lost their humanity?  Has this happened to only women?  Diana uses her edge to sleep with her mentor, Max, a much older married man of 26 years.  The aging Max surrenders to his libido but is it worth it?  Diana is too quick in bed and while she’s love making, she’s orgasming to the latest ratings poll from her wunderkind, Howard Beale.  Chayefsky demonstrates how maddening corporate America has become by sucking any emotion of love, loss, happiness and sadness that people are heretically born with.  It’s as if a cancer has killed whatever natural stimuli people were gifted with, and he’s not wrong.  People don’t work 9 to 5 jobs any more.  They work 12 to 12.  When they are not working, they are enhancing their “social status” by means of social media. 

Network is one of the greatest films ever made.  Lumet and Chayefsky put everything on display in its no holds barred honesty.  Still, the performances must be recognized.  This film has one of the greatest casts ever assembled.  Dunaway is magnificent as the young woman with the drive to turn the television industry on its ear.  She deserved her Oscar.  Robert Duvall never received enough credit as the unforgiving corporate lackey resting just under the top while making sure profit is provided before anything else.  William Holden was already in his golden years of film acting by this time.  With Beatrice Straight, playing his wife (in her brief but Oscar winning role), they represent an honorable profession and household that is now long gone.  His character is fired twice within the first hour of the film by the modern corporate mentality, and then he’s resigned to write a tired book about his journalistic accomplishments because there is simply nothing left to do.  He’s a dinosaur in the modern age of television and business.  Peter Finch was the first to win a posthumous Oscar for his turn as Howard Beale.  If this character were real and was televised as the film demonstrates, I can’t deny that I would buy into his raving rhetoric.  I’d have no idea what he’s talking about.  I wouldn’t care, but I would tune in later in the week when John Belushi would mimic him on Saturday Night Live.

With each viewing of Network, you find something new to relate with every time.  The reason is that it stays consistent with the evolution of our planetary function.  Even in this age of Covid where stories are never consistent yet always hyped for dramatic impact, there is something to nod at and understand from the messages of Network.  It could be a world war, a new president, an assassination, a school shooting, a police chase, a riot or a pandemic.  Network had already considered the response to any topic that’s ever been the top story. 

Network is one of the most important films ever made.