Six Damn Fine Degrees #35: Michel Legrand’s Thomas Crown Affair

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Gangster portraits in recent movies have tended towards more and more nasty realism, as Julie so admirably analysed in last week’s post on iconic  French gangster Jacques Mesrine. Long gone seem the late golden days of Hollywood gangster glamour, in which style prevailed over morality and sexiness seemed to make up for all crimes committed. 

There’s probably no more famous example of this style-over-substance approach to gangsters and crime than Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Much of its cool and light-hearted effect obviously comes from its two leads at the height of their fame: Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown has never been more suave and sibyllic and the chemistry with Faye Dunaway’s resourceful yet romantic insurance agent sent out to bring Crown down is palpable – not only in the infamous, often referenced chess game . 

The cat-and-mouse game between the two is lensed so slickly and elegantly by legendary cinematographer Haskel Wexler that one feels thrown into all the fashion magazines of the late ’60s, in which every pair of sunglasses, every Dunaway hairdo and costume and every car demands immediate attention.

To me, the thing that holds all the random glitz and strangely disassociated storytelling together, however, is Michel Legrand’s Oscar-nominated score and the famous Oscar-winning song “The Windmills of Your Mind”, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. 

Take the moment the song appears for the first time in the film, for example. The version heard here, by the way, is the less famous original sung by Noel Harrison, rather than Dusty Springfield’s hit recording produced later. Here, Crown is seen flying a noiseless yellow glider across green pastures while an unnamed beauty (straight from a fashion magazine and with a then-common thick European accent) awaits him after a smooth landing. There’s little narrative function to this scene really than maybe to display Crown’s wealth and detachedness while overlooking the landscape, but it’s the song that gives us the impression of depth. The Bergmans have penned some of the most mysterious set of lyrics (“Round like a circle in a spiral / Like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning in an ever spinning wheel”) and the effect is mesmerising: it makes us believe that there is more behind the sunglasses, the half-smile and the casual brushing off of his girlfriend – even if really, there isn’t.

Or take the aforementioned iconic chess game between McQueen and Dunaway. The sensuality of the two leads descending into passionate lovemaking thanks to her gently stroking the phallic chess figures in eye-popping close-ups has been hilariously spoofed in one of the Austin Powers films, but it’s Legrand’s second song for the film (“His Eyes, Her Eyes” – sung by the composer himself) that make the impossible work and have made this scene so famous. Here his score doesn’t just ape sexiness but it starts playfully and then swirls into romantic heights, giving truthfulness to the possibility of the two sharing more than a night – even if really, they won’t.

This is probably Legrand’s greatest moment as a film composer that saw countless successes, both in France (practically all the musicals directed by Jacques Demy) and internationally (Le Mans, The Three Musketeers, Yentl), not to mention his indelible career in jazz. Never again have his swirling strings paired with cool jazz and big band bursts worked better than here and have elevated the really rather thin content to grand cinematic heights. It’s really the music that ties together whatever doesn’t gel in The Thomas Crown Affair and makes this a dazzling experience, even if we care little about whether the gangster is never caught and the romance never consummated. At the end, it’s the music that gets the final punch, as Crown flies off (in a jet plane this time) and Dunaway stays behind, betrayed. Legrand makes this final brush-off seem, well, rather cool. 

(SIDE NOTE BY A BOND FAN: What worked so well for Legrand in The Thomas Crown Affair would later prove completely off when the composer was hired to gloss over and save the frankly terrible non-official James Bond outing Never Say Never Again in 1983. The same musical moves – plus an atrocious title song with lyrics by the Bergmans and sung by Lani Hall – did next to nothing in elevating Sean Connery’s final adventure and, of course, the lack of the official Bond theme was sadly felt. Maybe Thomas Crownwasn’t such an empty movie after all…)

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