The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 & 1999)

Posted on February 10, 2011

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The remake has a dapper Pierce Brosnan, a sexy Rene Russo in a diaphanous gown, steamy love scenes, and a clever art heist.

The original had Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway playing an erotic game of chess that ended with a head-spinningly sexy kiss. And that really is saying everything. Who cares if the bank robbery is the dullest in movie history or if film abuses the split screen technique to such a degree that somebody ought to have filed a petition.

The director, Norman Jewison, said that the film is a triumph of style over substance. It’s the sort of thing people say when they want to apologize and justify at the same time. He should have simply pointed at McQueen on the screen and that would have been all. Watching Steve McQueen play a super rich, suave Boston businessman, a character so utterly and completely against his macho screen persona, and pull it off as only McQueen can, is its own reward.

McQueen has the kind of screen presence that, to borrow a delightful phrase from the NY Times, creates its own gravitational pull. His co-stars had to be content with simply orbiting around him, but not Faye Dunaway. How she managed to pull off this gravity-defying stunt is beyond my power of analysis, but she has all my admiration and applause.

The film is about two people who are attracted to each other because of who they are and must also go different ways because of who they are. We should be grateful that no happy ending is tacked on to the film; the film is slick and cool and such maudlin mush would truly ruin the effect.

The remake is keenly aware that the original got away with a lame robbery only because Steve McQueen planned it. So the remake fixes the problem with a daring art heist: Crown plans an elaborate distraction and coolly walks away with a Monet in his briefcase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, he returns the Monet in an ingenious and suspenseful sequence scored to Nina Simone’s absolutely awesome Sinnerman.

But the remake is not just content with redoing the heist bit; it also wants to fix the romance by giving it a happy ending. The ending, to be fair, doesn’t come out of the blue; the film had been heading that way all along and all the misunderstandings are explained satisfactorily in the end. I should also point out that the remake takes so many liberties with the original that calling it a remake may be stretching it quite a bit and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The remake takes the idea of a rich bored man meeting his match in an insurance investigator and invents the rest of the story. It stands as a good heist film on its own and clearly does a far better job of it than the original. But when it comes to sheer charisma and magic, there is absolutely no comparison. Pierce and Rene are good, in fact very good, but they are not McQueen and Dunaway and there is no way their sexy dance can compete with the iconic game of chess.

Even though I don’t have any quarrel with the happy ending of the remake, there is something about the regret and heartbreak of the original that I love. When McQueen flies off in his plane at the end and Dunaway looks up, there was something haunting about it. An unfulfilled romance always gives you something to think about—an affair with Thomas Crown.

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