After hitting career paydirt with the Oscar-winning, anti-racist drama In the Heat of the Night [M] (1967), director Norman Jewison went to the other spectrum and opted for pure fluff, filming Alan Trustman’s simple story of a bored arbiter named Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) who pulls off a meticulous bank heist, and waits for the police to catch him.
Of course, on their own, the cops are utterly stumped, so the bank’s insurer brings in Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunawaye, starring in her 4th feature film), a woman known for a high success rate because she circumvents the rules and has fun toying with her mark, even sleeping with him if he happens to have the sex appeal of a Steve McQueen.
Lead detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) isn’t amused, but he has no choice to pair up with Vicki, and when she begins to fall for her subject, he shows no mercy, forcing her to choose between love, and following through with justice.
The first two-thirds of Crown are near-perfect in mixing light plotting with caper fun, cheeky humour, gamesmanship, cock-teasing, and a brilliant choreography of commercial images – in portraiture or split-screen – and a pop-jazz score, but when things get serious and the two rivals start to fall in love, Jewison runs into a serious problem: because the two pretty leads have no backstories, and never develop into deeper characters, there’s no new event left except whether Vicki will nab Thomas for stealing $2 million in cash.
The solution: more montages of shopping, strolling, flying over sand dunes in a buggy, and Detective Malone becoming increasingly pissed off as he waits for Vicki to do her job. Malone’s clearly pegged her for a whore for money and sex, but the word is never uttered because it would darken the lightness Jewison’s managed to sustain for more than an hour.
When the end comes, it’s almost perfunctory, and told in a rapid mixed image montage that raises the issue of how much footage was shot and ultimately condensed into a 102 min. film. The tonal shift from breezy fun to emotional tragedy barely succeeds because composer Michel Legrand had already been layering in themes and moody variations which telegraph the ephemeral, doomed nature of the couple’s relationship, as well as the impossibility of any genuine union.
Flaws aside, Crown remains a shining example of storytelling done through visuals, sounds, music, and minimal dialogue exchanges. Jewison injects aspects of realism by restricting score for obvious montages, like the robbers’ getaway rather than the heist, or more overtly, Crown’s exceptionally melancholic glider loops as he weighs his next move and future in America, knowing Vicki will ultimately go in for the kill.
The sound design is pure docu-drama, emphasizing location sounds, mechanical noises, clangs, and background ambiance, and it’s a stylistic carryover from In the Heat of the Night, where natural sounds were as important as score.
Jewison and his editors (including co-editor Hal Ashby) also play with sound bleeding from the next scene into the last shot of an ending scene, creating transitions as fluid as the visual montages, and occasionally a bit of amusement. (A key example is Thomas laughing at Vicki after she tells him in an auction house that she’s out to catch him, and the dockyard horn from the next scene obliterates Thomas’ laughter.)
Haskell Wexler, who gave Heat a docu-drama feel, opted for a glossy commercial look this time, rendering every frame like a magazine ad, and exploiting modern architecture, sleek rectangular furniture, or frequently placing actors within existing frames. In one memorable shot, a robber awaiting Thomas’ phone call to proceed is filmed from a distance, and as the zoom pulls back, we move through the layers of multiple phone booths, which introduces multiple chrome frames surrounding each booth’s glass pane.
Borrowed from Heat, however, is a constant motion of between focal planes. Whether deliberate, a docu-drama leftover, or the result of limited focal depth because of the use of zoom lenses, faces don’t always dominate shots, allowing for aspects of rooms or buildings to fade up in a pulse of clarity.
The chosen colour spectrum – bright reds, pastel pinks, grey marble, or flat wooden panels of a long rectangular cabinet – shows off the best stylistic elements of the late sixties, where colours and shapes were lean; clean geometric lines forced eyes to fixate on simplistic details, and faces were transformed into elegant commercial portraits selling the actor’s charisma, their eyes, sexually provocative lips, and charm.
The apex of maximizing the impact of the actors’ faces is the memorable chess game, which can’t be summarized as some directorial stunt.
It’s an important synthesis of the game that’s ongoing between Thomas and Vicki, regardless of the emerging affection and doomed love. At first it’s a seduction tactic, but symbolically the chess game represents the two trying out traditional rules, and abandoning them in favour of a no-holds barred match where the goal is to make the other feel vulnerable in order to win. When Vicki moves a chess piece and calls out “check,” Thomas walks away from the table, then grabs Vicki and goes for a lush kiss because the competition has moved to a new plain – and her acquiescence means the game is on.
Jewison’s said in past interviews that the sequence was a challenge to show foreplay without being graphic, and it’s one of the sexiest, most playful seductions ever but on film without anyone disrobing. Wexler’s close-ups consist of softly-lit faces that hover in front of dark brown backgrounds, and the editing organized shots into levels of nervousness, frustration, and teasing using the actor’s faces; they’ve looked beautiful in other films, but never so elegant - particularly McQueen, who played against his macho rough person by donning expensive suits, and looking like a meticulous financier / gambler.
The other reason the sequence succeeds so perfectly is Legand’s score, which supports the foreplay above and below the chess table, and Thomas’ increasing frustration in realizing Vicki is a worthy opponent.
When John McTiernan remade the film in 1999, it wasn’t a foolhardy endeavor because he recognized, along with writers Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, that Trustman’s script had plenty of holes to fill, and by changing some key elements – stealing art instead of money – it opened the door for deepening the characters Jewison felt could work using pure star charisma, and fun visuals.
The original Crown may be marginally dated, but it’s still one of the finest examples of filmmakers trying to create pure fluff, and almost getting away with it. It’s also one fo the best showcases of intelligent split-screen montage, which Jewison left in the hands of iconic graphic designer Pablo Ferro, who broke new ground in 1964 with his debut title design for Dr. Strangelove, and later Bullitt (1968).
Trustman also wrote the procedural police drama Bullit, which starred McQueen, and the first sequel to Heat, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970).
Among the cast is fellow Canadian Gordon Pinsent as an unhappy insurance adjustor, Yaphet Kotto as one of the robbers, and Astrid Heeren as the marginalized girlfriend he uses to tease Vicki’s suppressed jealousy. Heeren would co-star in Castle Keep (1969) and the slasher Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974) before disappearing from film.
Michael Legrand’s subsequent scores were (ironically) Castle Keep, and Steve McQueen’s minimalist Formula One racing drama Le Mans (1971).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan