On paper, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) must’ve looked like a sure-fire hit. Its stars – Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway – were coming off highly regarded films – The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) respectively. Behind the camera, director Norman Jewison had just completed In the Heat of the Night (1967) and brought cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby along for the ride, injecting dazzling style into the heist film antics of this new project, which included the much-lauded use of the split-screen process, giving key scenes more importance. The end result was a fun ride and a classy popcorn film.
Thomas Crown (McQueen) is a suave, very wealthy playboy that confidently makes and breaks deals every day. In his spare time, he orchestrates complex heists with a team of men that never know his identity. Jewison first employs the split-screen technique during this sequence so that we can see everyone in action simultaneously. He uses it judiciously, however, so that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The team of four men are the epitome of professionalism, knowing exactly when the money will be available, how to neutralize the bank guards, and then how to make their getaway, ditching their disguises and disappearing into the busy Boston streets – all during the daytime!
It’s not like Crown needs the money – far from it. He gets off on the challenge of outwitting the law and the thrill of getting away it. For him, it is all a game and he meets his match in the form of independent insurance investigator Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) who is brought in to crack the case and recover the money. She is just as well-dressed, cultured and intelligent, exuding the same slick confidence. Naturally, these two beautiful people are attracted to each other and engage in a battle of wits that is fun to watch.
She teams up with police detective Eddie Malone (Paul Burke) and initially they don’t have much to go on. They put their brains together and try to figure out how it was done and who did it. The scene where they brainstorm ideas is a good one because it shows them trying to figure it out. Jewison also shows the legwork involved as they go over photographs and records, narrowing down the suspects.
Known for playing rough and ready, down-to-earth characters, McQueen is quite effective as a refined man so smart and wealthy that he creates elaborate schemes to steal money he doesn’t need simply to amuse himself. The actor plays Crown as an enigmatic character whose motivations are enticingly elusive and McQueen brings all of his considerable movie star charisma to the role.
Dunaway is his ideal foil as she plays a smart investigator that knows how to get Crown’s attention and engage him intellectually as evident in their first meeting where they flirt with each other while coyly probing to see what the other knows. Vicki is a beautiful and confident woman and the actress is clearly having fun in the role as evident in the mischievous smile that occasionally plays across her face. Both are willing to skirt the law to get what they want and she’s not afraid to admit that when Eddie calls the investigator on her questionable tactics.
The Thomas Crown Affair is a master class in editing as evident in the memorable scene where Jewison cuts between Crown and Vicki playing chess as we get close-ups of her mouth and his eyes mixed with shots of them playing as she uses all of her considerable charms to seduce him by coyly running her hand up her arm, running a finger slowly over her lips and suggestively stroking a chess piece. He fights off her advances for a little bit before succumbing. This is all done over Michel Legrand’s jazzy score, which epitomizes late 1960s cool. Jewison handles it all with a fantastic light touch as we watch these two beautiful people mess with each other and maybe even fall in love.
Boston lawyer Alan R.Trustman got the idea for The Thomas Crown Affair (originally entitled, The Crown Caper) one Sunday afternoon in 1966. He was bored and decided it would be fun to write a screenplay. He worked on it on Sundays and a few nights a week for two months until it was finished. He sent it to the William Morris Agency and got an agent. They, in turn, offered it to director Norman Jewison, fresh from The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) at the end of March 1966. Given very little time to decide, he agreed to direct almost immediately. According to Jewison, Trustman’s script was more of a legal brief than anything else. It was 30 pages and what got the director’s attention was the central storyline and the two principal characters. He then worked with Trustman on and off for 15 months, transforming the brief into a script. Immediately, he recognized that the movie would be a “matter of style over content,” but the bank robbery was “ingenious” and the characters were “charismatic.” He credited Trustman’s legal training and “clever imagination” with creating a flawless bank robbery. Together, they fleshed out the characters.
Steve McQueen wanted to play Thomas Crown very badly and begged Jewison to cast him but the director wanted Sean Connery for the part. Trustman even had the latter in mind when he wrote the script! Connery wanted to take some time off after making the latest James Bond movie and so Jewison considered other actors rather than McQueen whom he felt was wrong for the role. The actor was determined and met with the director. He was struck by the actor pleading his case in person and that it “wasn’t about money or the deal or stardom. It was about the role.” He was impressed by the actor’s passion for the project and gave him the part.
Having worked with him before, Jewison knew that McQueen was a man of few words and had Trustman turn Crown “into a more laconic character.” The writer wasn’t happy with the casting of the actor but ended up watching all of his movies to get an idea of the man’s sensibilities. Trustman then rewrote the script with the actor in mind. McQueen was drawn to the part because he had wanted to change his image for over a year and saw Crown as “a rebel, like me. Sure, a high society rebel, but he’s my kind of cat. It was just that his outer fur was different – so I got me some fur.” To get ready for the role, he learned how to play polo in three weeks. Jewison remembered, “He was so competitive that he got out on the polo field and played until his hands bled.”
For the role of Vicki, Jewison wanted a European actress to play the role and considered the likes of Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Anouk Aimee, and Samantha Egger until Brigitte Bardot, whom Jewison also contacted, suggested the role by played by an American without an accent. He agreed and considered Sharon Tate, Candace Bergen and Raquel Welch. By mid-1967 he still hadn’t found the right actress. He wanted a beautiful woman with charisma and acting chops that could hold her own with McQueen. He had seen Faye Dunaway in an off-Broadway play a couple of years before and thought that she was good. He met with Arthur Penn who was editing his film Bonnie and Clyde and saw some of her scenes. She looked great and held her own with co-star Warren Beatty and he cast her as Vicki. She was drawn to the character because she was “an audacious woman who stopped at nothing. A risk-taker she was, always one jump ahead of everyone else. She was smarter than any of the boys, classier than any of the girls.”
Principal photography was scheduled to start in June ‘67 and by April the script was ready. In search of style over content, Jewison took cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby to Expo 67 in Montreal in June where they saw a short documentary entitled, “A Place to Stand” by Chris Chapman that employed multi-image screen techniques that impressed Jewison. He thought, “We could use the same technique in our movie, not as a gimmick but as a legitimate editorial tool and stylistic storytelling device.”
Jewison shot the first robbery with concealed cameras known only to the crew, the bank guards and the tellers. “Our actors 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.” They spent three days shooting the famous chess scene. The kiss itself took a full day to shoot because Jewison wanted to get the lighting just right for the moment. According to Wexler, there was genuine heat between the two actors but off-camera she kept McQueen at arm’s length. Dunaway said of the scene: “Every man I’ve ever met since then, if we talk long enough, has mentioned the chess scene to me. And every man I’ve known since then who has been in love with me has loved that movie.”
The Thomas Crown Affair was made for $4 million and grossed $14 million at the box office but critics weren’t crazy about it. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out for four stars and felt that it was “possibly the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year.” In her review for The New York Times, Renata Adler said it was “just the movie to see if you want to see an ordinary, not wonderful, but highly enjoyable movie.” Pauline Kael provided one of the more perceptive reviews when she wrote, “If we don’t deny the pleasures to be had from certain kinds of trash and accept The Thomas Crown Affair as a pretty fair example of entertaining trash, then we may ask if a piece of trash like this has any relationship to art. And I think it does.”
The joy of watching The Thomas Crown Affair is seeing Crown and Vicki get the upper hand on one another over the course of the film as we try to figure out if he will get away with it or if she will catch him. We also wonder just how personally involved each of them are – when does it stop being a game and get real? For some cineastes, “light entertainment” is a dirty phrase that connotes compromise and complacency but stylish trifles have their place too. The Thomas Crown Affair isn’t particularly deep but it isn’t supposed to be. Jewison’s film is a well-acted, beautifully shot piece of entertainment featuring two attractive leads engaged in a playful game of cat and mouse. Sometimes that is enough.
Dunaway, Faye with Betsy Sharkey. Looking for Gatsby. Simon & Schuster. 1995.
Jewison, Norman. This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography. Thomas Dunne Books. 2005.
Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. Plexus. 1993.