The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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To watch the original Thomas Crown Affair now is to see a film that is so completely and confidently of its time. It opens with a Bond-esque enigmatic title theme, “Windmills of The Mind,” playing against blocked split-screen images composing the credits. As such, it’s easily dated by its 60s suavity, which nevertheless serves the film handsomely as it progresses and sinks into its story.

A heist is in its latent stages, composed of the same stylized patchwork of images visually coordinating all the parties involved as Steve McQueen pulls all the switches from the comforts of his corporate office. The streamlining techniques being utilized effectively consolidate the footage and make us more overtly aware of Hal Ashby’s influence serving as the film’s editor. It’s at times discombobulating, particularly when used extensively later on during the polo match to multiply the frames. But it more than serves its purpose through the stylized manipulation of the individual images.

It’s only a heist film for what seems like a few solitary minutes but it’s immaculate in both conception and execution as all parties converge on their target, get in and get out with their prize and very few complications. In this regard, those familiar with Kansas City Confidential (1952) might notice some nominal similarities. The brilliance of the crime comes in using robbers who have never met and can never be tied back to each other again.

The money is dropped off at a checkpoint and all parties involved will get their money when things cool off. In these opening moments you’ll wonder if Steve McQueen is actually a bad guy and where Faye Dunaway is because, after all, she robs banks too. When things begin to unfold and we see where we are destined, it’s not at all what I imagined with McQueen and Dunaway batting for different teams much of the film.

Insurance Investigator Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) is brought on as a favor to her friend to help a harried detective gain some much-needed closure on the case. She makes a stunning entrance and never lets up with the wardrobe changes. Ms. Anderson has an immaculate outfit to coincide with each subsequent scene and an answer for every situation. In fact, she’s the one who intuitively pins Thomas Crown as her man. All she’s got to do is prove it and she certainly can be very persuasive.

McQueen is the eponymous affluent playboy businessman who’s bored stiff by his day-to-day. It includes diversions like polo, dune buggy rides sliding across the sand and soaring through the skies in his custom-built sailplane. For a man like him, it’s not enough so he devotes himself to the perfect crime and it’s his lucky day when he meets a ravishing woman looking to trap him. It makes life a bit more exhilarating.

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Among other rendezvous, they play a literal chess match in his parlor, which serves the dual purpose. Not only does it reflect the sparring going on between the two of them but it effectively accentuates the romantic chemistry pulsing through them with every headlong glance, every thoughtful thrumming of the fingers, or caress of a chess piece. It’s near-wordless with Michel Legrand’s score impeccably setting the quietly sultry mood in the low light.

On top of the title track, Legrand devised his score by composing against the uncut footage and in a generally unprecedented move, the movie was cut to his work. What we are met with within the same extended sequence are faces eventually framed in lingering close-ups. Eyes, mouths, nervous ticks denoting concentration. What’s more, it all culminates into a spiraling kissing extravaganza kaleidoscope of color.

As Vickie closes in on Thomas, he knows she cares about him and he must force her hand instigating a nearly identical heist to draw out her response. She can either work with the authorities or chase after him as he soars away in his jet decked out in his iconic blue-tinged Persol sunglasses. It’s her choice.

The Thomas Crown Affair is the most backward game of cat and mouse with the coolest rodent you ever did see crossing wits with an equally wily and lovely feline. But the stakes are minor in this sumptuous affair as it’s all style over substance in this second teaming of McQueen with director Norman Jewison. Of course, when you have two stars as scintillating as McQueen and Dunaway one could argue that you don’t need much else. Purportedly McQueen jokingly christened his unestablished costar “Done Fade-Away” as a little picture called Bonnie and Clyde (1967) hadn’t been released yet. Boy, was he wrong. She was here to stay.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève Emery

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I still maintain Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are my two favorite actresses respectively. That started early on thanks to films like Roman Holiday and Rear Window and quickly blossomed even more following subsequent film viewings. But it’s important to note that both of these actresses came out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Both actresses were English language stars. And both are, sadly, no longer with us.

In all honesty, I cannot quite remember the first time I ever saw Catherine Deneuve, whether it was Belle De Jour, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Repulsion or somewhere else. However, seeing this 19 year old girl, so serenely and quietly beautiful in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, certainly left an impression on me during my own teen years.

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While Jacques Demy’s whimsical operatic love story of fate charmed me, it was Deneuve who was an emblem of this film. The fact that Geneviève was herself wrapped in a glorious love affair that slowly became tragic, only made her more beautiful in her solemnity. Her piercing eyes. The loneliness that dwells deep within her. The tears slowly trickling down her cheeks. It only enhances her eternal grace — seeing her so melancholy and distant.

Also, it probably helped, ironically, that I don’t speak French. It is yet another barrier between me and this character of Geneviève. I cannot fully understand her plight, because I cannot even completely comprehend the language that she speaks, as melodic as it may be. The heart-wrenching melodies of Michel Legrand as well as Umbrella’s vibrant palette of colors are equally evocative. It’s no fluke that Deneuve bursts onto the scene right here. Everything is going for her with Jacques Demy at the epoch of his creative powers.

And the fun of this particular story is that Catherine Deneuve is still with us and still making a good many movies. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of her newer roles after The Last Metro (1980), but I’ll get around to them someday. It was fun to find a star of a bygone era, who did not die 20 years before I was even born and for that Deneuve was a welcomed discovery. She continues to fascinate audiences, not least among them me.

I still am partial to Audrey and Grace, but I would say unequivocally that Catherine Deneuve comes in a close third. How can you not be won over by Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an extraordinary debut from a phenomenal body of work?

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The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

Donkey Skin (1970)

donkeyskin1Donkey Skin takes the unique world of Jacques Demy and steps it up a couple of notches. The story is based off a fairy tale and brims with all the necessary trappings accented by the French director’s own flourishes.

Once again the music is supplied by Michel Legrand and the songs are a mix of playfully fun and sometimes solemn songs that help dictate the path the story takes. As far as the tale itself goes, it revolves around a beautiful princess who sends herself into a forced exile wearing a donkey skin. It all sounds rather odd, but she is given the idea from her fairy godmother, in order to keep her father from marrying the princess.

The world is a fanciful array of gaudy fake interiors, blue people, red horses, a treasure-dropping donkey, oddly-masked creatures, a talking parrot, princesses, princes, and some rather alarming potential incest. This is no Disney endeavor by any means and its bright colors often call to mind Hippy culture.

donkeyskin2Into this land, the princess flees covered in her donkey skin and takes on the lowly role of a scullery maid where she is belittled and looked down upon. However, a glum young prince happens upon her in all her beauty and wants nothing more than to marry her. In fact, he plays sick just so he can be with his gorgeous vision. Instead of Cinderella’s slipper, this story deals with a ring which is only to fit the finger of his true love. A whole to do is made out of it with people coming from far and wide. However, the prince already knows who he wishes to wear it, after all, it came in a cake that Donkey Skin baked for him.

In the end, this fairy tale receives the happy denouement that is expected with plenty of riches and love for all. The film used simple but nonetheless mesmerizing special effects that add a touch of magic to this tale. It also gets bookended by some obligatory narration concluding an enchanting fairy story fit for children, mothers, grandmas and anyone else who is willing to partake. Although not as memorable as his earlier musicals, it seems that Donkey Skin sees Jacques Demy at his fully realized creative powers in a way that is uniquely his and fits with many of the trademarks he developed earlier. Furthermore, Catherine Deneuve proved that she is beautiful even wearing a donkey skin hoodie. It’s hard to say no to a movie with her in it, no matter the topic.

3.5/5 Stars

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

umbrellas1 It is hard to remember a time when I was so devastatingly sad due to a film, and it does not leave a deep hurt but a more wistful despondency that is far more real. However, that’s enough misery for the time being. Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an exquisitely young Catherine Deneuve, this cinematic opera is a moving musical piece that looks to be conventional and turns out to be quite the opposite. 

The story begins in November of 1957 with a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) who is deeply in love with the beautiful 16-year-old Genevieve (Deneuve). Guy cares a great deal for his godmother Elise who has a caregiver to look after her. Genevieve helps out her mother in running a small umbrellas shop in Cherbourg which allows them to scrape by. They must sell some family heirlooms to a kindly jeweler who is smitten with Genevieve. However, Genevieve and Guy have plans of marriage until Guy learns suddenly that he has been drafted for the war in Algeria. They spend their last hours together, and she vows to wait for his return. 

umbrellas7In the following months, it becomes evident that Genevieve is pregnant, but her mother tells her that Guy has probably forgotten her already. The jeweler, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), professes his love for Genevieve and agrees to adopt her unborn child. Thus, partially on the urging of her mother Genevieve accepts his proposal and they are soon married leaving Cherbourg for good. 

Finally, Guy returns from the war and things have changed. He now has a limp and is fed up with his old work at the garage. Furthermore, the Umbrellas shop is sold and Genevieve is wed and gone. Adding insult to injury his godmother soon passes away. With no one else to turn to, he looks to the caretaker Madeleine, and he realizes her love for him. They get married and he turns his life around with her help. 

The years pass, and now during Christmas of 1963, a car pulls into Guy’s new gas station. After many years, the two former lovers come face to face once more. Now they have marriages and children, and their interactions are painfully aloof. They have moved on with their lives and they have moved on from their passionate romance. 

umbrellas13True, their lives have become sensible, but in this opera that Demy has constructed, this conclusion is sad and bittersweet. And yet if this were the only painful moment that would be one thing, but there are so many that touch the heart and move the viewer. When Guy goes off to the army and takes off on the train we can feel the great weight of anguish. More often than not, you can read the sadness on the face of these characters which complement the beautiful ballads they utter. In other words, it’s one thing to recount the plot and quite another to watch the events unfold.

I have to say that I had never seen a film that played out entirely through song, and even in the opening sequence, Demy consciously melds the diverse forms of film and opera. Umbrellas has the vibrancy and color of movies and takes the dramatic story line and songs of opera, to create a unique piece of musical artistry complete with acts and all. Its colors are bright and vibrant–utterly distinct in their composition. Everything from the bikes to the umbrellas and even back alleyways are beautiful. Although there are many magnificent melodies, rather surprisingly there is not one specific song that stands out (Well, maybe the theme), but instead, it plays rather like one continuous song with different sections and overtures that complement while not overshadowing each other.

umbrellas4Demy’s earlier film Lola also gives an interesting insight into the character of Roland Cassard who once again becomes acquainted with a mother and her daughter in a shop. This time around he has accomplished his dream of traveling the world as a diamond merchant, however, Lola is still heavy on his heart. Another thing that is remarkable about the film is the weather which in many ways plays as another character. The varying degrees of rain and snow dictate the mood and shift with the changing seasons. There’s no doubt that Jacques Demy and his collaborator Michel Legrand created something special here that elevates the musical to a heartfelt tragedy of romance. That’s something many men would not be brave enough to do. 


4.5/5 Stars