Coincidental to the screenings of Boston movies I set up, the Brattle Theater is showing the original 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair as part of its great United Artists retrospective. That seemed like the perfect excuse to offer this excerpt about the movie, a film so blatantly "fabulous" that you have to cut it slack for having little relation to reality.
1968. Directed by Norman Jewison. Written by Alan Trustman. With Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke and Jack Weston. Cinematography by Haskell Wexler.
I HAVE VERY VAGUE recollection of the media coverage of the glittery Boston premiere that greeted Norman Jewison’s movie. Such events were (and still are) a very rare occurrence down around here, but for some reason Hollywood really, really liked Boston in 1968. Along with Charly and The Boston Strangler, the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair gave the city a Hollywood hat trick that year. For better or worse, none of them is as “Hollywood” as this glossy romantic drama.
It’s a state-of-the-art confection set in an impossibly urbane Boston concocted by Alan Trustman, a local lawyer who went on to pen more movies. Director Jewison and composer Michel Legrand then buffed it to a spiffy sheen. Steve McQueen plays the title character, a blue-blooded investment wiz who, between buying low and selling high at his Post Office Square headquarters, masterminds crimes and seeks thrills wherever he can find them, whether it’s from golf-course betting or piloting gliders. He’s a sort of American James Bond in a three-piece suit, but he serves only his own interests.
As with The Boston Strangler, this exercise in style shows the influence of the split-screen films screened at Expo ’67—Christopher Chapman’s A Place to Stand in this case. Jewison uses multiple imagery often in the story’s first third, when a Crown-hired crew descends on a bank and robs it of $2.6 million (in scenes shot at the old Shawmut Bank on Congress Street). The build-up and execution of the heist are thrilling and offer glimpses of a wide variety of sights, from Washington Street and Stuart Street to the corner of Cambridge and Linden Streets, with the Allston train yard behind it.
The little celebratory dance and chuckle in which Crown privately indulges once the job is done, and he can kick back in his Mt. Vernon Street townhouse, tells you all you need to know about why he takes risks that jeopardize his cushy life. He gets a life-affirming kick out of it. Posh insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Dunaway) recognizes Crown’s need to push himself because she has the same sort of driven personality. When she’s called in to crack the case, The Thomas Crown Affair ignites its romantic sparks and turns into the tale of two alpha dogs in heat. Canine personalities aside, their affair is pure cat-and-mouse stuff, with Vicky telling him why she’s in town and why she’s keeping an eye on him, and Crown similarly finding her to be both a kindred spirit and an enemy.
But sometimes the movie overdoes it. It’s one thing for the romance to be a metaphorical chess game, it’s another for it to have Crown and Vicky sit down and play chess, especially with the overripe chess-as-sex images that accompany the game. It’s enough to make you think the moviemakers aren’t in on the fact that the movie is a fluffy, silly diversion, nothing more. Then again, any movie containing the hats Dunaway wears would have to be partially silly.
Jewison estimates on the movie’s DVD that he shot “70%” of The Thomas Crown Affair on location. Hamilton’s Myopia Hunt Club (the polo sequence) and Crane Beach’s dunes provide outside-the-city scenery, Cambridge Cemetery figures heavily in the plot and the Haymarket and Copp’s Hill Burying Ground add urban atmosphere. Of course, the 1999 remake decided Boston just wasn’t upscale enough
and moved the story to New York.
►Locations: Beacon Hill, Financial District, Allston, North End, Back Bay, Boston; Cambridge; Ipswich; Hamilton; Beverly; Belmont.
►Accents: McQueen attempted a Boston accent in rehearsals, but it was decided against. Hopefully, someone told him a character like Crown most likely wouldn’t even have a Boston accent. Locals in supporting roles provide the accents here, including Worcester-born Nina Marlowe as cop Paul Burke’s secretary and the two real Boston Police patrolmen who rouse the detective that Crown KO’s, douses in
booze and then puts in a car.
►Local color: While there are plenty of familiar and not-so-familiar sights on display, the movie takes place in a rarefied, upper-class Boston. For those of us who don’t drive a Rolls, stable a polo mount at the Myopia and bed down in a Beacon Hill townhouse (complete with butler), this is a Bizarro Boston we don’t generally experience. But it is true to Crown’s world. The color is more class-specific than location-specific, since Crown has more in common with other rich people, regardless of where they’re from, than he does with other Bostonians. It’s not as if he’s hanging out with bookies from Jamaica Plain or cheering on Ken Harrelson from the bleachers at Fenway.