Paranoia and Cynicism in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1999)

According to Merriam-Webster, a cynic is “one who attributes all actions to selfish motives” and paranoia is “a psychosis marked by…irrational suspicion.” Paranoia and cynicism are both evident in this 1999 remake of the film The Thomas Crown Affair. Many of the characters – Thomas Crown, Catherine, the police officers and detectives – exhibit one or both of these attitudes. Thomas is cynical of Catherine, believing she will betray him, and paranoid the police are watching (of course, despite some irrationality, he is right). Catherine is cynical in her decision to betray Thomas instead of believing his declaration of love.  The police are paranoid that he will escape despite the odds. The scene in which all of these conflicting motives and suspicions come to a head is the movie’s climactic scene in which Crown returns a painting he has stolen.

Formally, the switch to black and white informs the audience that we’re watching a surveillance tape. The police are being paranoid because they have no actual evidence that Thomas Crown is the culprit, only suspicions and theories from Catherine. They are cynical because they think he’s not going to return the painting but instead follow his own selfish motives. The choreography of Crown’s grand entrance shows us his paranoia. Next, a cut from Thomas Crown’s hand to the hand of an identically dressed businessman in which we do not see the face of the other businessman is one of many references to the famous Rene Magritte painting of a faceless businessman, called “The Son of Man.” The costumes of Crown and the other man perfectly match the painting. An extreme close-up on Rene Russo’s character Catherine Banning shows her slowly broadening into a smile as the camera follows her gaze to a poster of the Magritte painting behind her. The film’s interpretation of the painting is itself cynical. Catherine in an earlier scene describes the businessman as without individuality, a part of the system in the economic machine, a tog in the assembly line, sacrificing others in his own quest for wealth, as a slave to his job. This climactic scene as a whole is a visual references to the cynicism of that interpretation – a tongue in cheek reference to when Russo accused Crown, “You are the faceless businessman.” The soundtrack also plays a huge part in the scene’s atmosphere of paranoia, cynicism, and busy chaos; Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” is a fast, upbeat paced song, telling us criminal schemes are fun. The music slowly increases in volume and tempo with the lyrics, “Oh Sinner Man/Where are you going to run to?” You cannot even understand what the police force is talking about as their dialogue overlaps beneath the music. They cease to make sense. All you can pick up on is pandemonium, stress, and chaos. The audiences becomes paranoid themselves of the outcome – will it go smoothly? The camera sweeps across a wall of the museum so close that the viewer cannot tell what he or she is looking at. Our gaze lands on Thomas Crown as he is spinning, and we are completely disoriented, just like the police. When the camera zooms on his confident smirk, he strolls along, while in contrast the police men, ever more frantic, huff and puff trying to keep up with Thomas Crown. The director and writers are cynical in that they make the criminal the smart, attractive guy and the police force the stupid, chubby, men who cannot keep up with the criminal. The policemen huff and puff up and down flights of stairs after the calmly walking Thomas Crown/business man clones.

As mentioned in “Cine Paranoia: Conspiracies Unmasked, 1973-75,” in 1970s, paranoia was rampant throughout the United States because of various political and social events. One such event was the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, which, due to a great deal of media coverage, caused fear to emanate throughout the country. Another event at the time was the Watergate Scandal. Collectively, Americans began to question how their president, accountable for the safety and public image of the country, could be so corrupt. This loss of trust and increase in fear brought forth the popularity of a new genre – the “disaster film.” The popularity of this new genre, like the existence of the ever-popular “heist film” genre, shows a level of cynicism in society at large. Criminals are the heroes of heist films. Disaster films let us watch horrible things happen to other people for our own amusement. The fact that Mr. Crown, in both the 1968 original and the 1999 remake, is so very recognizable as what has become the “bored billionaire” archetype emphasizes that these are not hopeful, sweet stories, but rather evidence of the film industry reflecting and proliferating the cynical attitude of society at large. Some things do change, however, and this version of The Thomas Crown Affair featured the titular character in a painting heist instead of an armed robbery (as in the McQueen version), likely because by 1999 we as audiences would no longer be willing to sympathize with a violent criminal. 1999 was, after all, the year of the violent Columbine shooting as well as the height of the war in Kosovo. As the emergence of both the “disaster film” genre and the continued popularity of the “heist film” genre show, culture affects film and vice versa ad infinitum.

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