Over the weekend I watched The Thomas Crown Affair, the original with Steve McQueen, not the irrelevant remake. A more self-consciously stylized film could scarcely be imagined; watching this film feels like you're flipping through Vogue magazine, circa 1967. The story line, such as it is, is patently ludicrous: McQueen plays a successful businessman (how do we know he's successful? Because he makes snap decisions that confound his hapless, decidedly unstylish associates, negotiates ruthlessly, and is always glowering powerfully behind an executive desk when he's not leading a pack of underlings out of some high-pressure, high-stakes meeting. For all that, it's not too clear what he does -- he's the generic businessman as superhero) who, having conquered everything legitimate business has to offer, turns to executing sophisticated heists to extend his feelings of complete mastery. He directs a bunch of henchmen stationed at payphones to execue his plan, and it's the perfect image of the successful division of labor -- these criminals who have never met are able to work in concert to pull off bank jobs without a hitch.
That is, until the film introduces Faye Dunaway, as one the most implausible insurance-company supersleuths in film history. She's supposed to help a police detective (played by Paul Burke) solve the crime, but her main function seems to wear a series of different candy-colored outfits and try to look as much as possible as Catherine Denueve in a Jacques Demy musical. In fact, this whole film is a strange attempt to make a heist movie in the manner of a Jacques Demy musical, or Un Homme et une Femme, right down to the blasting Michel Legrand soundtrack, which telegraphs every emotional cue with over-the-top orchestrations that make every human interaction and dialogue in this film into lush camp. This is especially true of the chess playing scene, where Dunaway and McQueen first hook up, in one of the most feral and aggressive make-out sequences I've ever seen -- it looks like McQueen is trying to chew her face.
McQueen was probably cast in the image of Jean-Louis Trintignant in Un Homme et une Femme, to be a brooding race-car driver type, short on words, but rich in masuline posing. McQueen poses everywhere: in elevators, behind desks, at the chessboard, in airplanes -- every shot makes him static, puts him in a pose, flattens the film to a stack of photographs. And he's perfect for the role, despite his slightly schlumpy, twerpy profile. And you can see why there's been a resurgence in McQueen worship recently -- he crops up in fashion magazines hawking watches and things like that and on hipster T-shirts -- it's because he is one of the few film stars to make posing seem masculine, making him an icon in an era where little more than posturing can be accommodated in public society, in a civic sphere where posing is the primary mode of discourse. And McQueen, who always has to have his masculine totems -- his race car or his cigar or cigarette and so on -- makes a perfect shill for the lifestyle products that dominate the landscape even more today, the products one is expected to require to bolster one's sense of gender. The new ads with McQueen basically treat him as a symbol of this mentality -- the cool guy who likes his macho gadgets. (If you want to see McQueen act, you have to see him in Peckinpah's The Getaway, where, predictably, his hypermasculinity is made brooding and violent.)
The film is self-aware enough to have Burke chastize Dunaway for conducting her investigation like a prostitute all while obviously lusting for her himself. And it emphasizes her disposability by making her indistinguishable, for the most part, from McQueen's other lover. The point is that she is an especially stylish accoutrement to McQueen's lifestyle, the perfect woman to tool around with in your dune buggy. Her thorough objectification assures that we won't take her investigation seriously, and that McQueen will outsmart her in the end. Indeed, he sets up and executes another elaborate heist, not for the money at all, but simply to extricate himself from the relationship when it gets emotionally complicated. It's a pefect byzantine exit strategy, a great indication of how great a length a man will go to avoid emotional directness and confrontation, and how far society will go to make his evasiveness seem stylish, au courant, a marker of having attained the height of social power and prestige.
The film plays like a commercial now, an ad for a kind of jet-set lifestyle that we can no longer dream of emulating without being perversely anachronistic. Thus we can enjoy the film much more, as an expose of that lifestyle relic, as amusing encyclopaedia of its tropes and of the methods the filmmaker tries to use to make it seductive. We can comfortably feel like we transcend such marketing ploys, and can observe them from some safe place, insulated from their pull while still capable of luxuriating in their sensualism. The unfolding of style replaces the film's plot, which is largely formulaic to begin with and requires little of our attention anyway. But while the fulfillment of formula is usually the attraction in most popular entertainments, what The Thomas Crown Affair suggests is that we can be more entertained by explicitly ad-like content even in a preserve where such motives are supposed to banished or suspended. The formulaic story is a pretense for selling a style, as in ads themselves. So saturated by commercials, we may now import the criteria we apply to ads to all entertainments. This film proves that an ad can hold your attention for an hour and a half, and there's something troubling in that.-