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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> April 2000 >> The Thomas Crown Affair
Thirty-one years makes a tremendous difference in what filmmakers can do. That's the elapsed time between the releases of Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair and John McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair. There have certainly been advances in technology since then, and an R rating is significantly more lenient these days. As an added bonus, McTiernan had plenty of time to dissect Jewison's work and correct what may not have been ideal. The 1968 didn't strike me as all that terrific because of its abrupt abandonment of the chase, so there was certainly plenty of room for McTiernan to improve. Do we come out better or worse?
The 1968 film's R rating was largely the result of one incredibly sensual scene between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. There was no nudity then, just lingering looks and tight, tight close- ups. In 1999, we have both Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan going completely nude, and the heat isn't there. McTiernan must underestimate both the power of suggestion and the brain as an erogenous zone. Russo may have the body for that dress, which hides absolutely nothing when the light hits it just right, but it only makes her body sexy. It should make her character sexy.
1968: 1, 1999: 0
The bank heists in the 1968 movie were based on nothing more than exquisite planning. There was no particular technological trickery involved, just thorough knowledge of the prey. In the 1999 movie, technology plays a much larger role, and puzzling out the nature of the heist becomes much more interesting. 1968 also faltered because its second robbery didn't do anything different from the first. In fact, they condensed it from thirty minutes of screen time down to less than five because it had already been done. The 1999 starts over from scratch with an entirely different scheme, and one that is as funny as it is slick. I'm sure Magritte would be proud.
1968: 1, 1999: 1
This is a much tougher decision. Catherine Banning certainly seems better at prolonging the hunt than Vicki Anderson. She seems to stay emotionally detached a bit longer, too. Unfortunately, Banning is repeatedly revealed to be unrealistically sensitive, and prone to breaking down in a big way. I wanted a much stronger character who was able to stay ahead of Crown. Perhaps I shouldn't compare it so much with, say, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I must also fault McTiernan for recycling the tired filmmaker's shorthand of showing a character walking through the rain without attempting to stay dry. This is such a cliché that it appears in Ebert's Little Movie Glossary. We'll call this round a draw.
1968: 2, 1999: 2
It's hard to argue that bags of money are as interesting a robbery target as an original Monet. There are plenty of bags of money in the world, but only one painting. Besides, paintings are more colorful, and they almost become characters by themselves. McTiernan's choice to have an Impressionist gallery filled with portraits amplifies that.
Of course, Thomas Crown is fabulously wealthy both times, but he has more showing off to do now. Instead of being isolated metaphorically and physically in a one-seat glider, he's got a duo. More importantly, the quality of modern film stock results in spectacularly vibrant colors and much sharper definition, so the foliage below is more stunning. The abandoned beach house may have been nice in 1968, but Martinique definitely has its appeal.
1968: 2, 1999: 3
One of the great setbacks of movie making in the past three decades is the proliferation of product placement. Seeing a major character walk into a room and chug a perfectly-angled brand-name soft drink detracts from the message of the scene: she does things on her own time.
1968: 3, 1999: 3
I must say that 1999 is simply more entertaining in the end, both in terms of the ending and in overall effect. The 1968 ending felt falsely poignant. The 1999 ending goes for no cheap sentiment, and settles for happily ever after. It would be pointlessly snobbish and insincere of me to try to say that a happy ending is wrong, so I'll go with it.
It's rare for something as simple as menu design to be clever and striking, but I have to give big points for the gallery behind the main menu. It's a beautiful combination of the themes in the movie, with some of the better music from the score behind it. The selector is also very clear in all but the language menu. For extras, the disc offers a commentary track with director McTiernan and trailers for both the 1999 and 1968 movies.
The audio and subtitles are both available in English and French. The language selector lists French in French, a nice detail. The English subtitles, as with far too many other DVDs, lack transcriptions of the non-English text. When Russo goes in to divine the nationality of the thief, her rapid shifts between languages should be noted. Granted, these are subtitles and not captions, but I'd love to know what she's saying, since it doesn't sound like the usual "Do you speak X?" question to which most movie investigators would resort. Actually, the commentary reveals that McTiernan really didn't want subtitles for the scene, even in theaters, because it would take attention away from Rene Russo's acting. The sound is fantastic, though, and even my dinky two-speaker setup sounded great with the 5.1 audio.