Thomas Crown: The Windmills of His Mind
I LOVE the character potential in THOMAS CROWN. He is stylish, confident, charismatic and cultured yet complex and conflicted, with a roguish maverick’s edge. He loves the finer things in life and embraces them like there were no tomorrow. And yet, he is bored by the soulless vampirism of corporate capitalism. He therefore makes the audacious move of becoming a thief, for kicks.
Crown takes huge risks in that venture: masterminding robberies and possibly invoking the wrath of the disposable criminal hands he has deployed for his own amusement. He may therefore seem cold and unsympathetic, but his armor will be pierced (!) by..amour. Enter a female equal, counterpart and initial adversary and so begins a cat and mouse plot and coherent character arc.
It’s an erotic, elegant, seductive premise and makes for beautiful execution, especially to the haunting tune WINDMILLS OF YOUR MIND (star of a thousand compilation tapes I made years ago for the then muse du jour: ‘when you knew that it was over..you were suddenly aware..that the Autumn leaves were turning..to the colors of her hair’).
I remember discovering the movie via PIERCE BROSNAN’S remake of the original movie that had starred STEVE MCQUEEN. Brosnan was then at the height of his Bond power back in 1999 and there are of course certain superficial similarities between Bond and Crown.
Indeed, SEAN CONNERY was offered the original before McQueen stepped in and Connery himself had a rival heist movie out the same summer as Brosnan’s remake (check out ENTRAPMENT). Brosnan’s version is a softer, more subtle take on the Crown character’s methods (art theft replaces the implied violence of bank robbery) and the story’s endings differ. It also had an immediate impact, culturally.
Fans of the original movie had by then become the new generation of television Producers and so it was that SINNER MAN by NINA SIMONE (used so effectively in the Brosnan Crown caper) became a lazily rehashed musical motif in everything from JUDGE JOHN DEED adverts to a cue for Moriarty in the -dare one say -overrated? – BBC SHERLOCK.
Spot the Difference?
Soaps, too, were full of high stakes and glamorous heists around this time, with the aesthetic even working its way into EASTENDERS of all things (circa MARTIN KEMP as Steve Owen / LESLIE GRANTHAM returning as Dirty Den). It’s a British thing..trust me. Or a soap thing? A two way street: in fairness, Thomas Crown would not be out of place in an episode of vintage 1980s DYNASTY.
The (then) new Crown themes by BILL CONTI also became the supporting tune for VIRGIN TRAINS adverts (implication perhaps being that RICHARD BRANSON was a latter day Crown, just without the big thefts?). So the movie did have an instant and lasting legacy of imagery. ROBBIE COLTRANE (A co-star staple of the Brosnan Bonds) also had his own go at a pilot show: THE PLAN MAN (Bored Barrister stages robberies for kicks..sound familiar?).
EVERYONE, it seemed, was doing Thomas Crown mini tributes on a budget.
And even BIGGER budget Hollywood pieces probably did ‘ok’ out of the glamorous, pulpy, ultimately harmless heist forged from a modest remake pitch that the Brosnan Crown version pulled off. OCEANS ELEVEN/TWELVE/THIRTEEN, anyone?
The sexier and more stylish version is to my mind, still the original. Inimitable. Unbeatable. ‘THAT’ Chess scene between McQueen and Dunaway is leagues ahead of Pierce’s ‘Tommy’ and Rene Russo’s ‘Catherine’ humping marathons and grunting heavy breather sessions (‘DO YOU WANNA DANCE?': No, Pierce: we want you to be in a black tie but your Bond contract forbids it!). Oh and as for that reference to a ‘Boxing scholarship to Oxford’. Just NO! Stop it. Stop it, NOW, Dear Pierce!
That said, Pierce is a far better policeman of script, story and associated character beats than McQueen could ever have been. As with the Brosnan 007 tenure, we see a man who does have vulnerabilities. But those are never allowed to compromise the essential strength of the superficial power and polished panache projected by Brosnan, both as Bond and indeed as Crown. He is also adept at capturing the character’s ruthless superficiality, via an occasional smile here and there: just the right measure of underlying venom and resentment fused to an emerging soul and romance to the character.
Indeed, one could see those snapshots of Crown as mirroring Brosnan himself in a sense? Nobody has ever gone on record to say Pierce is anything other than ‘nice’ and yes indeed, he is ‘nice’. But make no mistake, this was also one of Hollywood’s most ambitious actors at work. He never gave up and never will. A dogged determination to triumph against the odds is ultimately what fuels that deceptively decent smile/laugh/’how’s it going, mate?’
Not a man to underestimate or misread. Ever.
Pierce just ‘gets’ the film business, both its ups and downs and knows how precarious the superficial niceties ultimately are. That is what made him both a great James Bond and a great Thomas Crown. And it’s why he is a star, with another big franchise coming his way, no doubt, in just a matter of time and luck. Appropriate for Bond/Crown, no?
Mr Brosnan is ‘almost there’ again: going the right way about things..simply searching for the right mentor/villain vehicle. See SURVIVOR and NO ESCAPE for recent examples. Just a few more career choices from restoration to total power, Pierce!
EXPENDABLES 4, perhaps? Or one of Spielberg’s ‘champagne villains’ in the next INDIANA JONES? Maybe a lost Jedi in STAR WARS? A MARVEL / DC character? Etc. I’d love to see him play a Bond villain but naturally, that would just be too ‘meta’ (he would have been great, though). Watch THE FOURTH PROTOCOL and THE TAILOR OF PANAMA for a glimpse of vintage cold, hungry, bad guy Brosnan onscreen. He can do that again, easily.
Back to the Crown..
Steve McQueen IS cooler than Brozza, though. Cooler than EVERYONE, anyone, anytime and especially the current crop of so called ‘stars’ in their comparatively winsome, undistinguished, cannot knock skin off a rice pudding zeitgeist. Wish he were around today. To do movies with JENNIFER LAWRENCE? She’d LOVE him.
Back in his own time, McQueen had genuine chemistry with FAYE DUNAWAY in a way that poor old Pierce and Rene try replicating but simply cannot (bless them, both). Rene is far more compelling in RANSOM, TIN CUP and LETHAL WEAPON 3 and frankly should have played it more like that but this was sadly the dawn of the ‘strong woman = dominatrix motif that has ironically setback the cause of genuine feminism on film. Shame. If a MAN can be vulnerable and tough, then why cannot his female counterpart be both strong and softly feminine?
Honestly: just watch Rene as Lorna Cole: high kicking internal affairs cop but still somehow soft and sweet. Or as the powerful sports psychologist with Golf swing to match in TIN CUP. Then watch her as Catherine Banning. Knuckle duster. Boots. Threatens to break Crown’s arms. Charming. Which would you rather encounter? I know my answer. So do you.
Had Pierce won another go at 007, then I dare say MGM and co would have prevented procrastination on the mooted sequel. A script was in development. But it just dragged on and on. And on. Every few years, we’d get some kind of update from Pierce. Nothing emerged. There was talk of it being a loose re-make of TOPKAPI (1964) and that ANGELINA JOLIE was circling the project, complete with a Polo playing set piece to mirror the McQueen Crown’s entrance to the screen.
In any event, nothing was shot and Angelina is busy with Brad, saving the world, making Disney sequels, directing worthy movies and..er..lunching with LORD WILLIAM HAGUE? Perhaps that’s for the best? Some heroes ARE distinctive and CAN be reinvented each generation. But that does NOT mean they get sequels!
Crown’s story arc begins and ends in one film and he is not a serial adventurer, though he does recapture our curiosity endlessly. That’s why pitching sequels / prequels / tv series with TOM SELLECK as Crown (yes, all nearly happened, apparently) was redundant from the outset. A re-make is therefore perfectly adequate to keep the legend alive. Pierce proved that with his take and so now, MICHAEL B JORDAN is apparently due to the same.
Meanwhile, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY also owes a little something to the Crown heritage: kinky sex replaces bank robbery /art theft and one lives the eponymous character’s billion dollar lifestyle, via an (initially and arguably, ultimately?) strong female character’s observations.
It will certainly be interesting to see how audiences respond to any new take on the Crown story, especially in our post OCCUPY WALL STREET era? Interestingly, DARK KNIGHT RISES sort of ‘went there’ already. The richest man in the room just MIGHT be the one with the greatest understanding of social poverty and the importance of ‘giving something back’, via a sexy counterpart female anti-heroine?
And now: over to your guest host today, Nicolás Suszczyk, for more in depth analysis of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.
Thomas Crown: The Windmills of His Mind
As yet another remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is on the works starring Michael B Jordan, according to some media, it is good to reanalyze both versions of Alan Trustman’s story, released in two different eras and with different approaches.
Three decades separate the 1968 movie directed by Norman Jewison and the 1999 remake directed by John McTiernan, both done by the same studio, United Artists, and using the trademark of the movie: Michel Legrand’s acclaimed title song “The Windmills of Your Mind”, variations performed by Noel Harrison and Sting.
The story is basically the same: a millionaire, bored of his fortune and senseless life, decides to make a heist just for fun. The female investigator hired to solve the crime comes up with him and both play a cat-and-mouse game that involves sex, love and betrayal.
Steve McQueen portrayed Thomas Crown with some kind of roughness and confidence, cheekily organizing the rob of a bank by just calling a few assailants trough the coziness of his office and then cheering up the success of the attack with outrageous laughs and a glass of whisky alone in his enormous flat. Pierce Brosnan, instead, donned him with the refined touches of his then James Bond persona (the movie –which he also co-produced– was released two months before his third 007 outing, The World is not Enough).
Brosnan’s Crown is somewhat ethical, gentlemanly and soft-hearted in comparison to McQueen, who seems to control everything with his mind. In the 1999, the bank assault scheme was changed by the elaborate robbery of a Monet, stolen by Crown himself as a diversion was executed by his accomplices. In the same way, the character portrayed by McQueen doesn’t mind to get his hands dirty as he knock outs a policeman while escaping, while the Thomas Crown played by Brosnan never gets his hands dirty.
A particular scene reflects this. It is a very similar scene in both movies where Crown is forced to sell some of his possessions. As the auctioneers and acquisitions specialists smile at Crown’s face as he signs the papers, the millionaire replies “Have you figured out what you’re gonna say to your board when they learn that you paid me 30 million more than others were offering?” in the 1999 movie. In the same situation, McQueen just delivers a blunt “You overpaid”.
The same happens with Crown’s relationship with his female opponent: Faye Dunaway playing insurance investigator Vicki Anderson for the 1968 version and Rene Russo in the same role, this time renamed Catherine Banning for the remake.
McQueen and Dunaway’s relationship is purely based on attraction and psychological games, while there are some hints of romance towards the movie’s climax. On the other hand, Brosnan and Russo seem to really fall in love, including an explicit jealousy and tears scene as Catherine finds Thomas with a young woman played by Spanish actress Esther Cañandas.
Both relationships end in a very different way, of course, as in the original film Vicki is seen crying while Thomas comfortably escapes on a plane towards South America and in the McTiernan film there is the happy ending with the couple kissing on a plane, after some kind of unofficial “amnesty” is given to Crown by Catherine’s superior played by Dennis Leary.
Both movies are different in style, particularly in music and cinematography. Michel Legrand’s soundtrack for the 1968 flick is filled of luscious jazzy tracks, while Bill Conti’s more subtle sounds give the film a less extravagant and more romantic vibe.
Director of Photography Haskell Wexler shot the 1968 film in an extravagant Technicolor palette very appropriate for the late 1960s as the editing by Hal Ashby adopted the split-screen technique for the first time in a movie, something extended to the timeless main title sequence designed by Cuban artist Pablo Ferro.
These topics hold the winning hand for the Norman Jewison film over the remake in the artistic ground, as the Irish Dreamtime production (then headed and co-run with Brosnan by the late, great BEAU ST CLAIR, RIP) from 1999 does feature a nice cinematography and soundtrack but is second to none in comparison to the tour de force that meant the original film.
It’s hard to predict precisely what the rumored third version/ second remake is offering, but it will have to compete with two jewels of cinema history. Both adaptations are unique and entertaining in their own way and there is still to see what the Michael B Jordan portrayal can bring to the same persona masterfully immortalized by Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan, two actors who were the epitome of style in the 1960s and 1990s.
Nicolás Suszczyk runs the website The GoldenEye Dossier and has been a Bond fan since 1998, shortly after watching GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies starring Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. He studies Communication and Journalism in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he currently lives.