The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

by | Sep 18, 2012 | - 1 - Gain Stories

A sexy insurance investigator attempts to expose the truth behind a robbery masterminded by a wealthy playboy—and to earn a reward for recovering the stolen money.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Alan R. Trustman

Director: Norman Jewison

Production Co.(s): The Mirisch Corporation; Simkoe; Solar Productions

The Story on the Screen

In The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the main character, Vicki Anderson, is an insurance investigator called in to solve a Boston bank robbery masterminded by a wealthy financial executive, Thomas Crown. We-the-audience know without doubt that Thomas is responsible for the crime, because the first quarter of the movie provides us with a ringside seat for its elaborate planning and execution.

The main character, Vicki Anderson, is an insurance investigator called in to solve a bank robbery masterminded by wealthy executive, Thomas Crown—whose motives remain unclear throughout the story.

From the moment that Thomas interviews the stooge getaway driver, Erwin, from behind a set of blaring lights until he launches the operation by issuing the "Go" command via public telephones to a set of operatives who are unknown to each other, we are aware that he is at the center of the caper. When Erwin deposits the bags of stolen money into a cemetery garbage can, it is the debonair Thomas who retrieves them and places them in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. And when Thomas returns to his mansion and toasts himself in the library mirror, we see that he is delighted for having pulled off the crime.

We just don't know why.

Is it because he needs the money to maintain his lifestyle? Is he so in love with money that he seeks every opportunity to get more, no matter how dangerous or illegal? Did he have a score to settle with the bank? Is crime his secret hobby? Does he delight in being clever? Is he addicted to the thrill of possibly being caught?

Or did he concoct and execute the crime as nothing more than a way to alleviate his boredom?

Regardless of his motives for committing the crime, the company that insures the bank against theft is not pleased with having to cut a check to cover the multimillion-dollar loss. And when the police investigation stalls early on for lack of clues and leads, the company brings in its own investigator—Vicki Anderson.

Vicki approaches her work with a no-nonsense pragmatism and is not above defying convention for the sake of bagging her prey.

Vicki approaches her work with a no-nonsense pragmatism, but there is nothing mundane about her methods. She is not above defying societal convention for the sake of bagging her prey or of resorting to criminal acts when necessary—for example, when she fakes the kidnapping of Erwin's son and instigates the theft of his car to get him to talk. And the sexy charm with which she has been gifted by Nature (and has no doubt refined on her own) is yet another tool in her arsenal.

And although she claims to be interested only in her cut of the recovered funds, her motivation seems to run deeper than mere money—and into the realm of gaming and the thrill of the hunt. She appears to enjoy outflanking and ensnaring her opponents, especially those who underestimate her. Like Thomas, she is somewhat enchanted with her own cleverness.

Behind the Scenes

Notwithstanding the film title, it is Vicki, not Thomas, who serves as the main character in the story. His name is merely the label applied to the case—in the same way that an inanimate wooden bridge steals the title in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Thomas does respond to circumstances when he is forced to do so, as he does at the end of the story when he must find a way to escape her machinations. But Vicki is the character whose intent moves the story forward and drives it toward its conclusion.

Even though Vicki's assignment involves recovery of stolen money, she is not a regain character, she is a gain character.

And even though her overall assignment involves recovery of the stolen money, which would be a regain action, her principal efforts involve the investigation and exposure of heretofore hidden information, which constitute gain actions. She is interested in recovering the money only because of the reward that the recovery will bring her—both monetary and egocentric (for having defeated another foe). If the money is recovered, she will feel enriched, not restored. Consequently, Vicki is a gain character. And her goal is the public exposure of Thomas as the mastermind behind the crime and revelation of the truth about what happened to the money and where it can be found.

In this sense, the treasure that Vicki attempts to gain in the story may be defined as the "possession of provable knowledge regarding who committed the crime." But at the beginning of her investigation that treasure belongs to Thomas himself, and his fate rests on preventing her from obtaining it. Therefore, Thomas is a keep character who directly opposes her efforts to gain her treasure.

As in all stories, the proposition of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) lies not in the mere course of action attempted by the main character but in her endeavor—which includes the why and how of the effort. In this case, the endeavor of the main character is colored heavily by the manner in which she goes about her job—not only the unconventional means that she uses but also the single-minded focus that causes her to downplay and disrespect human feelings, including her own.

The primary complication for Vicki is that as the investigation progresses, she finds herself becoming attracted to Thomas. The feelings that she is accustomed to downplaying begin to swell in her, affecting her judgment and commitment to her primary goal and ultimately creating for her a moral quandary regarding whom to betray—Thomas or the authorities who seek recovery of the money. In simple terms, her choice comes down to either doing her job and gaining a victory by tipping the authorities to Thomas's plan for another bank heist or honoring her own emotions by keeping silent and allowing him to slip away uncaught.

The storyteller's appear to consider Vicki's innate disregard for human feelings as inadvisable.

It appears as though the storytellers consider Vicki's innate disregard for human feelings to constitute an inadvisable stand; therefore, the proposition of the story may be stated as:

  • One should not attempt to gain personal conquest (and/or riches) at the expense of disrespecting human feelings, because success in the attempt will prevent her from experiencing the emotional richness that such respect brings.

In the end, Vicki succumbs to her innate nature and tips off the authorities to Thomas's plan. The same bank is robbed again, and again the money is deposited in a cemetery trash can. This time, however, the police are waiting to nab Thomas when he makes the pickup.

But when the Rolls Royce pulls up to the trash can, it is not Thomas who emerges but his butler, whom Thomas has asked to deliver a message to Vicki—inviting her to join him or to keep the Rolls Royce as a gift. He has correctly guessed that she would have the authorities waiting for him at the pickup spot and has literally "flown the coop."

Vicki laughs and tears up the message, throwing its pieces to the wind, having apparently gained an appreciation of Thomas's cleverness and possibly the validity of her own feelings. In this case, then, Vicki fails in her endeavor and we-the-audience are pleased that she does so, because it reaffirms the importance of feelings of human affairs and opens her to the possibility of an expanded perspective regarding life. Consequently, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) may be said to be a fail/pleased story.

It is unclear, however, whether the lessons available to Vicki in her failure truly hit home with her; consequently, the ending of the film lacks thematic power. The audience leaves the story having observed two clever people lock horns in a brief battle of wits but uncertain whether the encounter has made a significant difference in the life of either one.

It is unclear whether the lessons available to Vicki by means of her failure truly hit home with her.

By contrast, the 1999 remake of the film (The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) focuses much more clearly on the internal goals of its main character, which not only renders a stronger thematic statement for the story but changes the type of intent for the main character, so that she may be identified as a keep character.

A Look at the Storytelling Itself

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) relies heavily on visual images and techniques in its storytelling, including shifting split screens that are intended to heighten the tension at certain moments—such as during the bank heist that occurs at the beginning of the film. Such images are also used to help develop the sense of romance between Thomas and Vicki, particularly during a chess match one evening that takes a passionate turn when Thomas finds himself cornered on the chess board.

The structure of the story, however, tends to inhibit its development and the involvement of the audience. The bank heist that prompts the insurance investigation, for example, takes a long time to set up and execute. As a result, the main character, Vicki Anderson, does not show up until the film is already one third complete (at the 35-minute mark in a 102-minute film). And although the heist is interesting to watch unfold, the audience is inhibited from investing its outcome, because it has not been given clues regarding whom to care for and why.

It is natural to suppose that we-the-audience should not care for the thieves. After all, they do not even know or care for each other. But Thomas seems to be a primary player in the story, and we do not know much about him either, except that he is a wealthy, no-nonsense businessman. We are not told or shown the whys and wherefores of his instigation of the crime; consequently, we do not know what stakes might rely on his success or failure, which inhibits our willingness to care.

As a result, the story feels slow and unfocused, especially at the beginning, when we are watching to find out why Thomas masterminded the crime. And when it becomes clear that his primary motivation involves alleviating his own boredom, it is difficult to sympathize with him or to care whether he is caught—which is, perhaps, part of the reason that film critic Roger Ebert referred to the film as "possibly the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year" upon its release in 1968.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).

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