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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Going When Movies Mattered Most

Where did it all begin for those consumed by the moviegoing experience? I mean consumption not limited to mere watching, but of anticipating weeks or months ahead, then reading magazine reviews and pondering ads from larger towns opening the film ahead of your own. My immersion by 1968 was near complete, one-sheet designs being stamped upon consciousness from first lobby sightings and never to be forgotten after. What recess of the brain makes such things vital to us but inconsequential for casual watchers? The Thomas Crown Affair was a big deal for me at fourteen. It was Suggested For Mature Audiences and I was particularly ripe for those. Everything this show did was hip and cool and modern. It forecast possibilities of adult living that suited me fine. Might any boy evolve into Steve McQueen? I saw The Thomas Crown Affair twice and wondered. Here was a virtual how-to manual for man-woman relations, with Steve holding all the trumps. He calls a girl early in the film, saying only 9:00 when she answers, that being the time he’ll pick her up … all it takes for him to get the date, and of course she’s gorgeous in that perpetual state of readiness women maintained when cast opposite Steve McQueen. If this was life as experienced by Mature Audiences, by all means cut me off a slice. To be McQueen was to be laconic. Girls came first to those who cared less, but would that work in real life? I’d be years getting a resounding no to that, but for the meantime, Thomas Crown raised hopes if not possibilities. Among these: Cigars in bed as post-coital ritual. Really? Maybe it got by in a few 1968 cribs … there’d likely be none such in 2009. Steve disdains protective helmets except for polo, which reminded me of one theory as to what killed him later, the asbestos in his racing headgear for Le Mans. There’s also belief he was doomed from early on thanks to toxic exposure during youth, which makes The Thomas Crown Affair all the queasier for seeing an expiration date stamped upon McQueen’s otherwise vital presence.

Now Thomas Crown’s another sixties antique that youngsters either laugh at or are bored by. I didn’t dream of such happening when it was new … evidence again of how passing years date us and shows we liked. I’m defensive of Crown and certain others though, for attacking such a relic reflects upon tastes I thought sophisticated, if not rarified, at the time. Steve McQueen’s appreciation for Mustangs and motorcycles holds up better than his movies, it seems. They're still using him to sell both, plus watches, sport pants, etc. He’s sacred object to men of a certain age who wish they could jump barbed wire on two-wheels. You Tube demonstrates modern uses Steve’s image serves. I’ve read that his is the most lucrative. Sheryl Crow sings about McQueen, but her video had no clips. Clearance problems maybe? There’s a snippet from a modern TV program where a veteran fireman slaps a rookie for not knowing who Steve McQueen is/was. You wouldn’t think anyone would be unfamiliar with him, but assuming such just shows how removed I am from today's mainstream. Everyone gets forgotten eventually, and McQueen’s been gone for nearly thirty years. Well, The Thomas Crown Affair is itself just past forty now, and viewing it again revealed at the least how bulky life was in days before life went digital. Clunky might be the better word. There are noisy computers more primitive looking than ones Spencer Tracy consulted in 1957’s Desk Set, while Faye Dunaway brandishes a movie camera (hand-held by design) that looks like something you could shoot 70mm with today. All this made me recall what effort our long ago miracles of technology required and patience it took to get reel-to-reel tape, television antennas, phonographs, and cameras (especially sticky Polaroids) to work. I might comment on how things have improved but for fear my computer will freeze up or break down in retaliation. The Thomas Crown Affair calls up much unexpected nostalgia beyond the obvious clothes and cars. Men still wore hats in 1968. They wouldn’t much longer, more’s the pity (I still do). Faye uses mascara that looks to have been dipped in chocolate syrup. The chess-playing scene was something a lot of people talked about then. To have missed The Thomas Crown Affair first-run is to never know how such a moment could define this movie for its public. The shock for me was less suggestiveness than robust open-mouthed kissing the sequence leads up to. Again I wondered if McQueen’s ardent slurping might be a technique worth emulating. Possibly no, as I’ve (thankfully) not witnessed screen osculation quite like his since.

Certainly by the late sixties, it was enough to oppose "the system" and what villainy that implied. Being no longer necessary to identify corrupt elements within that system, the thing itself was regarded as sufficiently corrupt and beyond redemption. Formerly anti-social behavior such as bank robbing became righteous means of sticking it to the Establishment. Bonnie and Clyde had made crime chic a year before, even if those two didn’t get away with it as Thomas Crown would. McQueen makes larceny a glamorous enterprise. He and this movie would have been the recently discarded Production Code’s worst nightmare. We could laugh off an opening heist easier but for a guy who’s shot in the leg and writhes painfully on the floor (that portion plays especially quaint beside hold-ups elaborately staged in the later Heat and recent The Dark Knight). Thomas Crown is smug and modern reviewers find him unsympathetic (I suspect 1968’ers dug his sensibilities more). Moral issues arising out of what he does are not even addressed. It’s understood that Faye Dunaway’s a chump for not helping him steal more money and running away with him. I wish I could remember better what I thought about all this back then (would a younger kid conclude stealing was OK?), but chances are it was that chess game distracting me most. This and such attractive leads do make crime seem to pay. McQueen was trying something new for an image and played elegant for the first time. Toward charting said horizons, he breaks into startling guffaws (often) that I must assume someone (Norman Jewison?) talked him into (ill-advisedly). Dunaway anticipates Network and on-set tantrums we’d hear about with readings unusually strident for an actress just getting a start in major leads, a plus she always had over conventional actresses. I don’t wonder that Dunaway and McQueen never got close. The picture mopes along as they loll about beaches and steam rooms, a complaint again filed by youngsters not around in 1968 who couldn’t know that at that time, these were enough. Multiple split screens borrowed from Expos and World’s Fairgrounds were new to movies then, as was Michel LeGrand music that probably had as much to do with the film’s success as its stars. The Thomas Crown Affair earned domestic rentals of $6.2 million and $5.3 foreign. Interestingly, United Artists’ bigger hit of that year would be an ultra-square Establishment comedy, Yours, Mine, and Ours, which did a whopping $11.6 million in domestic rentals, but lost ground with a far lesser $1.9 foreign.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We must be about the same age as I saw TH0MAS CROWN AFFAIR first run in Norfolk, Va at the Suburban theatre, which always showed UA releases. I remember being somewhat humiliated (as only a teenager can be) as I went with my father and he brought unshelled peanuts to eat at the show, which made noise. As for the film... I still like it. I even have the cd of the score. McQueen certainly was 60's cool personified... and I know after seeing BULLIT I wanted to have a corteroy jacket like he wore (it didn't look as good on me). And yes... 60's technology can look clunky by today's standards. The Bond films high tech devices are decidedly quaint looking now... and even 2001, great film that it remains, has moments where you have to sigh. Thanks for speaking so eloquently about THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and for this great site.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

McQueen is / was a one-of-a-kind.

The less dialogue he had, the better he liked it. He acted with his face.

Check out his WANTED:DEAD OR ALIVE TV series (all episodes are available on DVD). I watched every episode. His screen presence took the average western series to a higher notch on the jam-crowded TV schedule of its day when there were close to forty TV prime-time oaters on the tube every week.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other key piece of technology in Thomas Crown Affair is the Ford station wagon--"the big one--with wood on the sides" as McQueen describes it. Such a perfect getaway vehicle; so eminently respectable. For me the one laughable point in the film is the men walking out of the bank, in sunglasses, with huge heavy canvas bags, dropping them in the back of the station wagon--and nobody notices. Such was the aura of respectability generated by the Ford Country Squire (and isn't Crown a country squire, in a way?)

And has there ever been a greater entrance than Dunaway's in this
picture? Even a knowing audience, smirking at the 60s-ness of it all, gets it. I see her performance--especially that entrance--as an actress reveling in being a *movie star* for the first time, hats (Theodora Van Runkle?) and all.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sheryl Crow's music is derived from and informed by 70's blues-rock. I'd guess McQueen was chosen because of his mention in the Stones paean to 70's celebrity excess, (lyrics NSFW and then some) Star, Star.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Erich Scholz said...

You must have MGM HD...I just watched this off the DVR and loved your commentary. I wasn't around in '68 but the style and sophistication from Dunaway and McQueen's wardrobes to the opulent if dated home furnishings are enough to make even me...nostalgic. The great thing about Thomas Crown is it's temporal encapsulation. Everything is hermeticly sealed, waiting to be devoured. It's a film that that can't be examined solely for it's narrative. One must drink it all in -- as a whole piece.

BTW a few years back I was working as an entertainment journalist in NYC. I was finishing up interviewing various young celebrities on the red carpet outside a Lower Manhattan hotel and was putting my audio recorder away when Faye Dunaway walked up to me. It's strange seeing someone in the flesh who you've seen your entire life on the screen. At first I thought she was a long-lost relative. She was apparently inebriated but was pleasant and we chatted for bit. She asked me to pick her up and carry her over the velvet ropes toward the main dining area of the hotel. Of course I obliged. For one split second I considered planting a kiss on her as I held her in my arms...but thought better of it. She looked to be older than my own mother but still had something special.

5:31 PM  

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