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The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

by | Mar 18, 2014

An insurance investigator attempts to maintain a posture of emotional ruthlessness as she works to expose the truth of an art theft masterminded by a wealthy playboy.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Leslie Dixon, Kurt Wimmer

Director: John McTiernan

Production Co.(s): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), United Artists, Irish DreamTime

Story by: Alan R. Trustman

The Story on the Screen

In The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), the main character, Catherine Banning, is an insurance investigator called in to solve an art theft masterminded by a wealthy executive, Thomas Crown. We-the-audience know that Thomas is responsible for the crime, because the first part of the movie shows us his explicit involvement in its execution—from his seemingly absentminded leaving behind of his briefcase in the gallery from which a valuable painting is later stolen to his role as an not-so-innocent bystander as a theft is attempted by a team of operatives... to his snatching of the painting while the museum guards are otherwise engaged... to his mounting of the painting in a secret vault in his study and the delight he seems to take in its possession.

When insurance investigator Catherine Banning is called in to solve an art theft, she finds herself in a cat-and-mouse game—and romantic entanglement—with the man we know committed the crime.

He did it. We-the-audience saw him do it. We just don't know why.

In addition to leading us through the particulars of the theft, the early part of the story provides plenty of evidence to suggest that Thomas is smart, savvy, debonair, and very wealthy. So the motivation for his crime probably does not stem from financial need or foolishness. Pure sport is a far more likely motive—to experience the delight of proving himself smarter than other people and better equipped to get what he desires.

Enter Catherine Banning, an investigator from the insurance company that would rather see the painting returned than pay $100 million to the museum from which it was stolen. Like Thomas, she is smart, savvy, and capable of great cunning. She is also very attractive and not above using her wiles to obtain what she wants in life—whether the object of her desire is the truth behind an insurance investigation or, possibly, anything else.

Catherine concludes rather quickly that Thomas is responsible for the crime and embarks on a personal mission to prove her conclusion correct. And she conducts that mission in what seems to be a characteristic rogue-like fashion, much of it independent of the official authorities who are investigating the crime.

Although The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) derives many elements from the 1968 film of which it is a remake, it differs in ways that significantly affect its structure and theme.

Although The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) derives many of its elements from an earlier film of the same title (see The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)), it differs in ways that significantly affect its structure and theme, as well as its ability to induce the audience to identify with its characters. It is told more efficiently than its namesake; the criminal caper that sets the story in motion consumes less screen time, and the main character (Catherine) appears at very outset of the investigation rather than after it has come to a standstill. And personal elements ascribed to the characters render them easier to like and identify with than those of the original film.

For one thing, the nature of the crime itself differs markedly between the two films. In the 1968 film, the crime involves the theft of mere money, which (as Chapter 5 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story points out) has no intrinsic subjective value. In the 1999 film, the theft involves a famous painting by Claude Monet the value of which (to Thomas) derives more from his appreciation of its beauty than what it could fetch in the marketplace. And although the knee-jerk desire to increase one's monetary supply is common to most people, it is also unremarkable. The appreciation of beauty, on the other hand, imbues a character with a spark of elevated humanity which it is possible to identify with and perhaps even aspire to. In short, it goes a long way toward rendering a character sympathetic to an audience.

Does Thomas steal the painting so that he can possess it forever? No, he does not. As the third act of the film reveals, he returns it secretly to the museum even before he has the slightest inkling that he is suspected of having stolen it. And he retains for himself only a copy—but a copy the borders of which can prove that at one time he possessed the real thing.

In the 1999 film, the Catherine character is more vulnerable than she was in the 1968 film, which renders her more sympathetic.

The films differ, too, in the depth of character built into the insurance investigator as the main character. In both stories, she demonstrates a supreme confidence in her abilities and a subtle ruthlessness of character that compels her to break rules of all kinds in pursuit of her goals. But in the newer film, she seems more vulnerable to circumstances that threaten to make her reveal her inner feelings and more bothered by the small setbacks on the way to her external goal, especially when she feels herself to have been bested in a battle of wits, which is supposed to be her strong suit.

It is this vulnerability that renders her sympathetic to us-the-audience and allows us to appreciate her conduct, whether or not we approve of her approach. The vulnerability also identifies her as a redeemable soul whom we might root for to let go of her finely crafted emotional shields—which she props up through her manner of "doing"—so that she could experience the deeper aspects of life.

What is at stake for Catherine is not the money that she will receive as a reward. Her lifestyle suggests that she does not really need it. And she does not seem to be overly concerned for the painting itself—her pursuit of it is merely part of her job.

Behind the Scenery

When looked at from a thematic standpoint, Catherine's main fight appears to be that of "getting her man" so that she can maintain her reputation as a top-notch investigator and reaffirm the validity of her approach. Her outer goal is to get the goods on Thomas and demonstrate that she is his superior in the battle. But her inner goal is to reaffirm and validate her approach to her job (and life)—which is one of emotional ruthlessness (to herself, as well as others). In essence, then, she may be thought of as a keep character, and her treasure is the survival of her self-image as someone who cannot be bested or "taken."

As the main character, Catherine is a keep character wherein her treasure is the survival of her self-image as someone who cannot be bested.

This same principle applies quite often to stories in which the attitude or approach of the main character is subject to scrutiny and challenge. And in this sense, Catherine shares a fundamental characteristic with Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The main difference between them is that while Scrooge's manner of dealing with life is subject to direct assault by agents of change (the Christmas ghosts), the threat to Catherine's approach is entirely indirect and is, in fact, prompted by her use of the approach itself. By using it to go after Thomas, she subjects it to testing so severe that it might break. But her sense of self depends on its validation and endurance; therefore, she continues to trust in and use the approach even when it appears to be failing.

The storytellers appear to consider Catherine's defense of her approach to be an inadvisable endeavor; therefore, the proposition of the story may be stated as:

  • One should not attempt to maintain (keep) a posture of emotional ruthlessness in the face of a challenge to its validity, because success in the attempt will deny her the emotional richness that vulnerability and respect for emotion brings.

In the final stages of the film, Catherine senses her emotional shields shuddering under blows of her own creation. When she appears ready to drop the shields, however, a series of circumstances suggesting that Thomas cannot be trusted cause her to erect them again. But even as she does so, she feels the loss of a joy she glimpsed only briefly. And when, shortly thereafter, Thomas keeps a promise to restore the stolen painting to its rightful place and does so in a clever fashion that leaves him free and hurts no one in the process, she casts off her emotional shields with joy and races to a rendezvous to which he invited her but she did not plan to attend.

In the final stages of the film, Catherine sense her emotional shields shuddering under blows of her own creation.

When she finds him to be missing at the rendezvous point, she feels the loss deep in her soul. The shields are shattered, no longer able to be raised. She is simply devastated... until his sudden, sensible appearance in her darkest hour lifts her again to the heights of joy.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) is a great example of a fail/pleased story.

In this case, then, Catherine fails in her endeavor and we-the-audience are pleased that she does so, because her failure opens her to the possibility of experiencing emotional richness. Consequently, The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), like its earlier namesake, may be said to be a fail/pleased story. But because the main character is rewarded for her failure with joy and hope, its theme is much clearer and the ending may be easily categorized as happy.

Aspects to Admire Especially

By focusing the story on the internal goals of the main character, rather than on her outward course of action, the storytellers accomplish two important objectives. One, they gift the main character with a sympathetic "stickiness" to which we-the-audience can easily attach. And two, they clarify her internal journey and identify for her an emotionally rich type of intent. The namesake 1968 film revolves mainly around the external goal of the main character, Vicki Anderson, which falls in the realm of gaining. The journey of Catherine Banning, as noted above, is best thought of in terms of keeping.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.

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