The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

I have a thing for heist films. Give me a clever one, and I can watch it again and again. The other day, I was reminded ofThe Thomas Crown Affair, which—to a teenaged me—was only about The Windmills of Your Mind, since I’d never seen the film itself. And, to an older me, it was Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in a film with one of the most deliciously clever endings I’d ever seen. Time to watch the original, I decided, if only to see if it was as clever as the remake.

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair

The Thomas Crown Affair begins in a hotel corridor, where Erwin (Jack Weston), looks furtively around before knocking on a door and entering. This is an employment interview of sorts: Erwin is being taken on for a job. As soon as he enters, a bright light shines straight into his eyes, blinding him.

Erwin arrives for his interview

A man is sitting in the room, but half-hidden in the shadows. Even his voice is metallic, a possible playing back of something recorded earlier. The man asks Erwin a few quick questions, then assigns him a task: Erwin has to buy himself a car (a Ford Wagon), bring it on so-and-so date, at so-and-so time, to so-and-so place. And some more instructions.

Erwin is mystified, but more than that, nervous. But he agrees. After all, he’s being paid $50,000 for this job. As he’s leaving, his new boss says he won’t tell Erwin any more, because the less Erwin knows, the better.

The scene now shifts to the plush office of the eponymous Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen), where he, the head of an obviously big company, is concluding a deal regarding the sale of some property. Crown signs the contract and leaves his visitors to see themselves out, while he goes into his office. There he gives some instructions to an assistant, before assigning a couple of tasks to his secretary, one of them being the booking of a ticket to Geneva.

Crown gives some instructions

That out of the way, he starts making phone calls, all very quick, very precise, very short, to a series of men. All the men receive the calls in public phone booths, and in all cases, the instruction passed on is something very simple: “Go!” being the usual. In a series of split screens, we see the men, dressed in suits and wearing dark glasses, moving swiftly through the streets—and converging on one building: the Boston Mercantile Bank.

... and some more.

The procedure is carried out with well-synchronized, well-organized precision. Two of the men hold up one of the lifts on the 7th floor. At a given time (exactly when over $2 million is being brought out, in sacks, to the lift lobby), they bring the lift down and hold up the guards bringing the money. Other accomplices arrive on the scene simultaneously, and within moments, everybody around—bank employees, the guards, visitors, etc—are held at gunpoint while the sacks of money are taken off the small trolley.

The robbery in progress

Just as swiftly, after having let loose some smoke bombs, the men disperse, each carrying out a sack or two, which they dump in the boot of Erwin’s car, outside. The last of the men slams the boot shut and Erwin drives off.  He drives the car to a secluded cemetery, where he dumps all the sacks—along with the car’s fake number plate (exposing the original number plate below)—in a trashcan.

Erwin drives off, and immediately, Thomas Crown drives in. He retrieves the sacks and drives home, where he exults in solitude. A phone call is made to a sultry brunette, obviously Crown’s girlfriend, fixing up a date.
That done, Crown proceeds—with two packed and heavy suitcases—to Geneva. While he’s busy handing over stacks of dollar bills to a banker in Geneva…

Crown hands over the money to a Swiss bank

… back in Boston, the police investigating the robbery are going crazy. No numbers are available for any of the notes, because they were of such small denominations. The thirty-two people who witnessed the incident fill the police station and cannot seem to agree on anything, not even the features of the men they saw. The police artist is going mad.

And the cop in charge of the case, Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) is at the receiving end of dirty looks and snide remarks by the bankers as well as the insurance agent Jamie (Gordon Pinsent).
Fortunately for Malone, Jamie is an old friend, never mind the current disgust he feels for the police’s inability to crack the case. So Jamie brings in an expert: an independent insurance investigator.

Jamie and Malone

To Malone’s surprise, this turns out to be the beautiful Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway). Barely into the case, and she informs him that several nations—the Swiss, for example— are notorious for turning a blind eye when money is brought in, so it’s perfectly plausible that all that vast amount of cash could have been packed into suitcases and taken to Europe.

Malone is impressed.

Vicki impresses Malone

In the meantime, Thomas Crown, back home in America after that brief trip to Geneva, settles back in and has a brief chat with his assistant about plans for the future: maybe he’ll travel the world, Crown says.

Meanwhile, Vicki Anderson is beginning her investigation. A brainwave, and she realizes that the bank has five entrances [Wow. Isn’t that bad for security?], and the robbers each may well have entered from five different doors. Which could mean they hadn’t even met each other before, may even not know each other. So this isn’t a gang, just a group of men organized and set on a job by someone who’s orchestrated the entire operation. Somebody very clever.

.., and figures out what happened.

And, looking through photographs of likely suspects, Vicki comes to the conclusion that Thomas Crown is the one [Why is she so sure? No very plausible explanation is offered. Neither is one offered for why Crown should be on the list of suspects, either]. When she discovers he’s recently been to Geneva, too, Vicki becomes even more certain. Her next task is to find proof.

So Vicki goes for the kill: she decides to get acquainted with Crown. At a polo match where Crown’s playing, Vicki unselfconsciously (in fact, outright brazenly) shoots a video of him, making sure that Crown sees her thus checking him out. Crown is amused and intrigued, but Vicki doesn’t approach him right now…

… Instead, she makes sure she accidentally meets Crown at an art auction shortly after, where both of them bid for the same lithograph. That is enough excuse for Crown to approach Vicki and get talking, until they agree to have dinner together.

The very start of an affair

At dinner, Vicki tells Crown the truth: that she’s an insurance investigator, that she’ll get 10% of the money recovered if she solves the case, and that she’s convinced Crown did it. She lays her cards on the table, but Crown doesn’t seem to be fazed by this. He’s so sure that Vicki won’t be able to get any evidence, he doesn’t worry.

Vicki, however, has an ace up her sleeve. She puts out an ad in the newspaper, offering a massive reward for news on anybody who recently bought a Ford Wagon, but doesn’t have any plausible means of income for having afforded it.

Erwin’s wife happens to see the ad, and realizes the truth.

Before he knows it, Erwin’s son has been kidnapped—and when he goes, to hand over the $5,000 ransom money asked for the child, the little boy is safe and sound, but there’s this pretty lady who wants to ask Erwin some questions.

Erwin is caught

Yes, it’s a cat and mouse game. Vicki seems to be getting ahead, gathering evidence that will send Crown to jail. And yet, there’s the tension between the two adversaries, tension that builds up until it becomes more than the mere friction between two people in opposing camps, but the highly charged sexual tension between two people who find each other very attractive indeed.

Who will win? Will Vicki find enough evidence to nail Crown even though she’s fallen for him? Or will Crown manage to evade her?

Vicki? Crown?

What I liked about this film:

The suspense around what will happen—will Vicki win, or will Thomas Crown? And how? No, it’s not edge-of-your seat gripping, but it’s interesting enough. Especially as, with the progression of the film, Vicki finds herself increasingly pulled in two directions. On the one hand, she’s fallen in love with Crown; on the other, she’s still loyal to her job, still dedicated to bringing to justice the man who robbed the Boston Mercantile Bank. Which loyalty will win? That’s the question that remains unanswered till the last scene.

The Oscar-winning title song. The windmills of your mind has been one of my favourite songs since I was a teenager (though the version I knew back then was the one sung by Petula Clark; the film’s version was sung by Noel Harrison). The lyrics of the song, by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, are brilliant, and very apt, especially when you’ve finished watching the film and look back on the story.

What I didn’t like:

“I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on government funds!” yells Eddy Malone towards the end of the film, while he’s talking to Vicki. It’s his frustration showing, not because he’s attracted to Vicki himself (that initial interest in her soon fizzles out), but because he has realized—since Vicki makes no attempt to hide it—that Vicki is having a torrid affair with Crown. Not surprisingly, her loyalties become suspect, and I can understand why the cop in charge of the case should be worried that the main investigator seems to be on the side of the suspect.

And that brings me to what annoyed me the most about this film: the weird, contrary character of Vicki Anderson. Crown I find easier to deal with: he’s complex, but he’s rather more logical—more amoral, perhaps more self-serving, but more believable. I end up finding Vicki a mass of contradictions, and I can’t get my head around most of these. Why, for example, does she tell Crown who she is and why she’s after him pretty much at the start? Is it an arrogance born of self-confidence in her own ability to expose him? She speculates that Crown, despite being so wealthy, committed the robbery because he ‘gets a high out of it’—could it be that she gets a high out of letting her quarry know that she’s the hunter? Also, Vicki is the one who makes the first overt move in the affair—why? Does she not realize what this can lead to? Or is the clever investigator really more stupid than clever when it comes to matters of the heart?

Faye Dunaway as Vicki Anderson

Lastly, the heist. The Thomas Crown Affair, while touted as a heist film, is more a film about a relationship, and about loyalties. If you go into it expecting smart moves and brilliant twists, you’ll probably end up disappointed. (Okay, that sort of describes me).

Little bit of trivia:

This is the only film I’ve watched so far in which, when a cop arrests someone and reads them their rights, he actually reads them (from a paper he pulls out of his pocket), and prefaces it with a reference to the Miranda Case. The case was from 1966, so I assume that this was still something relatively new at the time.

Comparisons, comparisons:

Every time I review a film of which I’ve seen more than one version (or of which I’ve read a source material—book, play, whatever), I like to compare the two: one cinematic adaptation to the other, the book to the film, and so on.

Therefore, a comparison of the 1968 film with the 1999 version, which starred Pierce Brosnan as Thomas Crown (in this case, an acquisitions expert—so apt!), with Rene Russo as Catherine, the insurance investigator who handles the case. The basics of the story are all in place: wealthy billionaire pulls off a robbery for the thrill he gets out of it; the woman who investigates the robbery confronts him head-on and ends up sleeping with him—all in a very hard-headed, calculating way (also definitely fueled by a good deal of sexual attraction on both sides)—and soon falls in love with him. There are scenes that are similar: one on a golf course, for instance, one on a beach; and one of a light aircraft flying, soaring through the skies.

But there are differences, the main one being that in this case, Crown steals, not money, but a piece of art: an extremely valuable Monet. And it’s done in a very clever way. Besides, unlike Steve McQueen’s Crown, Brosnan’s Crown plays an active role in the acquisition of the stolen item—in fact, he’s the one who actually steals it, albeit with support.

Now for the less superficial aspects, the characters of Crown and Vicki/Catherine. If you’re watching the film for the thrill of the heist and the subsequent investigation, it’s easy to overlook the subtle way in which these people (in the 1999 film) are not just different from their counterparts of 1968, but have a different relationship too.

Catherine, for instance, is demonstrably more intelligent and much sharper (where Vicki is shown to come up with suspicions and ideas for no good reason, Catherine’s deductions are more rooted in fact, more logical). Also, Catherine has an almost mercenary, business-like attitude that makes her seem more hard-nosed than Vicki. Both women try to seduce Crown into revealing his secrets, but Catherine gives the impression of holding onto her heart much longer, of not falling in love with Crown at the drop of a hat. Yet, she’s eventually as vulnerable as Vicki—though still different. Catherine’s loyalties, eventually, are shown to be less ambiguous than Vicki’s; when she does give way and demonstrate that she’s loyal to her job, Catherine is doing so for a good reason, not just because she can’t make up her mind between Crown and her job. Vicki, on the other hand, sways between Crown and job, trying (unsuccessfully) to juggle both.

Rene Russo as Catherine

Brosnan’s Crown is a more likeable character than McQueen’s (that might have something to do with the fact that I don’t like McQueen, but have been a fan of Brosnan’s since the Remington Steele days). The 1968 Crown seems less vulnerable (though there are moments—one enticing scene in a dune buggy, for instance—when one wonders what is going through this man’s head), more amoral. A man who is, ultimately, all for himself, and who will not take kindly to rivals, even if that rival is a job that must be done.

The 1999 Crown, on the other hand, is a man who—as it eventually emerges—does have some ethics. He’s also a man with a sense of humour (which I found lacking not just in McQueen’s Crown, but in the entire 1968 film too).

Pierce Brosnan as Thomas Crown

The result of the coming together of these two different types of personalities, both male and female, is slightly different. It’s erotic as well as candidly physical—with no hint of the heart being involved, at least in the beginning—in both cases. But in the 1999 film, there’s a certain lightness, a humour tinging their relationship, that makes for a less tense latter half of the film. To pander to audience tastes, too (I’m guessing), the 1999 film gives the relationship a different twist that puts both Crown’s and Catherine’s characters (as well as their subsequent actions) in perspective.

The 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair

All in all, I found the 1999 film more satisfying. As a heist film, it’s much cleverer (and the climax, as I mentioned at the start of this review, is memorable). As a film about a relationship, too, it’s very watchable. The 1968 film is perhaps more thought-provoking, more cynical in some ways, and more about the deep things that go on in our hearts, our minds, our souls. The 1999 film is frothier in that respect, but also more enjoyable.

And, yes, I think Sting’s version of The Windmills of Your Mind is better than Noel Harrison’s 1968 version.

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21 thoughts on “The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

  1. I was wondering how you’d reviewed The Thomas Crown Affair, because, to me, it was always Pierce Brosnan. I’d conveniently forgotten Steve McQueen. :)

    I thought the earlier film was darker in tone, and in one way, more satisfying even though I share your frustration with Faye Dunaway’s character.

    However, like you, I liked the modern version better because I’m a huge Brosnan fan. Have you watched his The Tailor of Panama?

    • No, I’ve not watched The Tailor of Panama. Good, I suppose, since you’re mentioning it?

      I did think that the earlier film was darker and definitely deeper, more intense – but Faye Dunaway’s character was too frustratingly scripted for me to feel for her – and eventually for her relationship as well. In comparison, the second film obviously panders to popular tastes (and is more ‘Hollywood-ised’).

  2. The original all the way for me & that’s the one I saw way before the remake. Love the stylish noir feel of the former,the constant tension and the simmering chemistry of McQueen & Dunnaway. Whilst I like Brosnan, I felt the character of Crown was epitomised perfectly by the subtle,mysterious & sheer coolness of McQueen. I think the more flippant, humorous way it was played by Brosnan & indeed the lighter tone of the remake turned it into a completely different film/character that served to make it a less interesting & memorable than the original.

    • I agree with you on the fact that the second film is actually a very different one (rather like The Talented Mr Ripley, while having basically the same story as Plein Soleil, is very different). The 1999 film was the first one I saw – back when it was released – so that was what I was expecting. If I’d seen the 1968 version on its own, I’d probably have liked it better than I did this time around. If Faye Dunaway’s character was better done, and if it starred someone other than Steve McQueen. That man really doesn’t bring much to the party, as far as I’m concerned. A young Mitchum or Cary Grant (young in comparison to the ages they actually were in 1968) would have been more my style,

  3. I have seen the Pierce Brosnon movie in bits on TV. I will try to catch up with it. I love Pierce too, ever since the Reminton Steele days. He was so good in that. I even like his Bond films better..

    • I remember being absolutely besotted with Brosnan as Remington Steele – he was so good! I’ve seen only one of the Bond films he worked in (the one with Halle Berry), but since I’m not really into Bond, it’s pretty much a blank for me now.

      • Bond films with Sean Connery rocked. Roger Moore films, barring Live and Let Die and partly The Spy who loved me are not great. Man with the Golden Gun was ok. I stopped viewing Bond films after Moore, as the human element was gone. Current films are more style and technology. Less fun. Al IMHO

        • True, the tech and the SFX are what the current Bond films (not even current – for a long while now) are all about. I was never too keen on Bond anyway (though I watched almost all of them as a teenager), but now I don’t even bother to watch them.

  4. Pancham did an inspiration of Windmills of your mind. I thought the inspiration was better than the original though. The video sound quality is not good, in the sense, that the original audio which I used to hear on vinyl is much sharper. This was 1980.

    • I hadn’t heard Kiski sadaayein mujhko bulaayein before. Thanks for this, Anirudha. I like the fact that he’s altered it sufficiently for it to not be immediately recognizable (at least to a novice like me) as an adaptation of The windmills of your mind.

    • Thank you! :-) I was so glad to be featured alongside some real stalwarts of the Bollywood-trivia-fan club. Learnt a lot of interesting things, too, which I hadn’t known before.

      If you like Steve McQueen, you should certainly watch The Thomas Crown Affair. I’ve heard several fans gushing about how very cool and stylish he is in this film.

  5. Brilliant review, dear Madhu!
    Now you want to make me watch both the versions. I personally like to see heroes, when they are completely amoral, gives my synapses, which were fed on Hindi films, something to chew on.
    Talking of Faye Dunaway, I always confuse her with Catherine Deneuve.

    • Thank you so much, Harvey – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. :-) Yes, do watch both versions of this film. If you like to see amoral heroes, the 1968 version is the one to watch, because Brosnan’s Thomas Crown isn’t really amoral after all. He has a quirky sense of humour, but that’s about it, eventually.

  6. “I have a thing for heist films.”

    Heh. Me too. :-) I had the exact same trajectory for “The Thomas Crown Affair” as you – theme music first, the Brosnan remake next and then finally the McQueen original. Also like you, I preferred the remake to the original. I liked the relationship between Crown and Catherine much better than the one between Crown/Vicki. The relationship in the latter film was *warmer*, more equal, more playful, more – as you put it – satisfying. It also helps that while I like McQueen, I don’t find him attractive while Brosnan is gorgeous. :-) The original is fun to watch for it’s 60s stylishness but the remake, IMO, is the better, more entertaining film.

    I’m going to have “The Windmills of your mind” playing in my head all day now. Thanks! :-)

    • I’m glad we agree on this one, Shalini – and thank you for reminding me of the stylishness of the 1968 version. It was, indeed. Faye Dunaway’s clothes, her hairstyles, especially: so chic.

      “I’m going to have “The Windmills of your mind” playing in my head all day now. Thanks! :-)

      I ended up getting such a bad case of “I can’t get this song out of my head” that I ended up listening to one version after another – every one from Dusty Springfield to Nana Mouskouri (the latter is one of my favourite singers of the 60s). And this one, which I liked the best: Frida Boccara singing Les Moulins de Mon Coeur. It gave me gooseflesh, it’s so beautiful. Probably my favourite so far.

  7. “A man who is, ultimately, all for himself, and who will not take kindly to rivals, even if that rival is a job that must be done.” Just beautiful.
    I have just finished watching the 1968 version and honestly, I was filled with ambiguity at the ending. I so badly wanted some idea or inkling that maybe ‘the pair’ would maybe get it together, at some point.
    In the 1998 version, Crown asks, how do 2 hedgehogs make love? Faye Dunaway who plays his therapist says, the same way two people will highly developed self defence mechanisms do, very carefully.

    After reading your review, all is clear. Love it!

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