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This film is quite outdated by now.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.