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Remake/Remodel: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) vs. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Remake/Remodel: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) vs. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

John McTiernan’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), a remake of the 1968 heist romance by Norman Jewison starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, feels and operates like a polished final draft compared to the original. The remake doesn’t just tweak the rough spots; it reimagines the film’s core elements into a better story, with stronger characters and cast, a more affable dynamic between the two crime-crossed lovers, a tighter narrative structure and slick visuals that don’t so much pay homage to the original as serve as a point of comparison with Jewison’s split-camera device (thereby inadvertently underscoring its gimmickry).

In a film based on two headstrong characters, casting matters. In Jewison’s Affair, Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown is a man of few words; this should make him intriguing, or at least proffer him an air of mystery even if there’s nothing underneath. But Jewison’s decision to shorten much of McQueen’s dialogue—edited on purpose to counteract McQueen’s slightly brutish tendencies—ends up undercutting the sizzling dynamic he’s supposed to have with Dunaway’s Vicki Anderson. Crown is supposed to be a suave smart aleck whose witticisms fare comparably with the smooth operating traps of Anderson, but she usually ends up with the better lines, upsetting the balance between the two.

thethomascrownaffair2Pierce Brosnan’s Crown, by comparison, makes everything look effortless. Both he and McQueen have charisma, but only Brosnan oozes it. Not only does he look better in a suit, he makes outlandish richie-rich hobbies look genuinely exhilarating: flying planes, crash-sailing expensive boats, making six-digit dollar bets while golfing. He takes genuine, cultivated pleasure out of life. He enjoys the finer things, including the art he steals. When the Anderson character, now renamed Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), tells him, “You live very well,” a line repeated from the original, one is wont to believe her. It’s less convincing out of Dunaway’s mouth. McQueen’s Crown dabbles in similar hobbies, but there’s a hardy athleticism in his polo moves that demonstrates effort and work (the actor spent six weeks learning to play the sport). Russo’s Banning is a savory treat: as the two get more intimate, she begins to relax and enjoy their lascivious proclivities, fooling herself into thinking she has a handle on the affair. She also begins to reveal herself (literally when she sunbathes topless) and then convincingly feels torn when she realizes her smitten fate.

Dunaway could have been equally as charming but is never granted as many opportunities. That’s because the performances in both films are partially borne out of the quality of the writing. In the remake, writers Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer were smart enough to incorporate the sexy banter of screwball comedies into the mix. The genre reappropriation is not a straight-up throwback to the ‘30s; it quite clearly signifies the gendered discourse of the ‘90s and the cutthroat seriousness of the adversaries’ professions. And 14 years later, it’s perhaps too early to tell if the film appears dated, whereas there is no question about Jewison’s film; perhaps part of the reason why there is little sexual chemistry between the two leads is because, at the time, such fatalistic romantic scenarios could only be imagined with characters who were as modern as they were aloof.

thethomascrownaffair3Where Jewison was content letting the love affair play out as a literal game of sexualized chess, McTiernan upped the cleverness, indulging his characters’ predilection for mind games. Jewison’s Crown doesn’t need the cash but steals it and finds a use for it anyway. McTiernan’s Crown is too sophisticated to commit such a petty crime. Why dabble in criminality unless there’s a real challenge, a theft of something truly priceless, and in a gesture that’s symbolically apt? Why not upset the art world, where intellectualism allegedly rules? McTiernan likes to play as clever as his fictional pets; in an early scene, one of the security guards gently mocks Crown for admiring the Van Gogh’s Noon: Rest From Work (After Millet) (his “haystacks”) instead of the $100 million-dollar Claude Monet work, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk. Of course, it’s the Monet that Crown soon thereafter steals.

Strangely, McTiernan’s happy Hollywood ending works. Certainly, the 1968 ending is more pragmatic, insofar as underscoring the implications of two lovers who inherently cannot trust one another. But is the Breathless route is necessary in the remake, where love and leisure are heavily emphasized as the ultimate escape from the tyranny and monotony of boring professions (financial management, insurance)? There is a degree of comfort and safety offered by their budding relationship. It’s perturbing when the film beings to amp up to Banning’s betrayal, and if the film wraps up its central dilemma too neatly, that’s because it’s predicated on the nature of their relationship, and knowing each other too well (specifically, Crown being two steps ahead of Banning). Stealing the Monet was always a game for Crown; a risk, for sure, but harmless seeing as he returns it only two days later. When Banning takes an interest in him, he decides to play along as if he could actually get caught. He gives her exactly what she wants because he always knew what would happen anyway. Crown knew Banning too well, and if that isn’t a sign of trust I don’t know what is.

        6 Comments on this Post

        1. Lucius

          I must say that I’m a Thomas Crown enthusiast and am always interested in hearing what people have to say about both films.
          I actually prefer the original.It’s one of my favorite films of all time.I hasten to add that it’s not because I prefer one set of actors over the other,indeed Pierce Brosnan was a childhood idol of mine.I prefer the original because I find it a more serious,deeper story.Yes,many things are a little dated,but those are mainly cosmetic.What endures is the mood and overall atmosphere of the story,which is dark.I also feel that it’s a drama,with something real to say,not an high class action film.A Sophisticated Batman/Catwoman Story ,if you will,with Crown playing the Cat.Not that the latter film doesn’t have merit.Pierce was born to play this kind of role and it shows,dancing around his Remington Steele / James Bond personas with ease.Rene Russo is uber sexy in her role and plays it with a kind of old hollywood semi comic flair.But I still feel the remake while enjoyable and clever is ultimately a lightweight film.Pierce’s Crown,for one thing,is superior to Russo’s Banning.What I mean by that is they aren’t equal.Pierce’s Crown KNOWS Banning far more than she knows him.Nothing happens without him wanting it to.It’s His World,his rules, his GAME.In The Original,the roles were almost reversed,with the Anderson character being more of the dominant, at least superficially.In This Film,McQueen’s Crown and Dunaway’s Anderson are.at least to my eye,more equal.I thought the chess match exemplified this.They were also COLDER emotionally.Their’s was a romance I don’t think either one was expecting.Brosnan’ Crown and Russo’s Banning are full on romantics and they wear that nature openly.The Original Film’s Ending is a masterstroke, saying that their relationship was a brief interlude.It could not end any other way as neither will give up who they are for the other.In the remake,however,Russo’s Banning,however cleverly constructed, gives up who she is for Crown in the end,something Dunaway’s Anderson would never have done.That Alone says to me that the original is a far more modern film and is one of the reasons I prefer it.

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        2. Mira Baig

          I don’t think there is any man or woman worth their salt who will ever compare Pierce Brosnan to Steve McQueen or say Brosnan looks better in a suit than McQueen. The article became a joke after that comment. Steve McQueen in the Thomas Crown Affair is the benchmark with which all male sartorial style is measured. Timeless elegance and the chemistry between McQueen and the stunning Faye Dunaway is unparalleled. The 99 Crown Affair was average at best and nobody talks about Pierce Brosnan or his wardrobe and that film was made 30 odd years after the original.

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        3. I just rewatched the McQueen/Dunning version yesterday for the first time, and while I very much enjoyed it, I think the writers did a much better job fleshing out the story in the ’99 remake. Thomas Crown makes much more sense as an art thief than cash, and I thought the action scenes were stunning and clever in the remake. The girlfriend/art forger was much better explained in the remake- the whole story went together much better. I will say that in the original I thought the two characters to be equals- and that’s not the case in the remake- which is why they both needed different endings. That said, I don’t need to watch the exact same movie twice, so I thought the ending of the McQueen version a pleasant surprise that fit both their characters very well.

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        4. Tom Sklens

          Snelks
          The lead characters in the 99 film were somewhat better than those in the Jewison version. The thing thing that totally turned me off in the 99 film was the foiled heist . The boys and their helicopter scene was awful, unbelievable, and unnecessary. Any number scenarios could have used. I must say that I enjoyed both films.

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        5. Manuel Fernandez

          As a man of 78 and been around, just a little. The 99 version has NO CLASS ! The early version shows the class of the male, McQueen, and a man who is in COMPLETE CONTROL After I watched both of the movies, I looked into the screen play, and as I suspected–the 1999 version has the hand of a woman, where the earlier version was written from a MALES POINT OF VIEW, by a man.
          Once again, what we enjoy is from our knowledge and experience.
          The Steve McQueen version WILL ALWAYS be considered the best by those with YEAR & YEARS OF “LIFE EXPERIENCES”.

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        6. Janney Junifer

          ..notice the obelisk in McQueen’s office in the 68 film…similar to the obelisk in the painting by dutch painter Govert Flinck that was stolen from Boston’s Gardner museum, “Landscape With An Obelisk.”

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