In 1999, John McTiernan had quite a tumultuous month of August. Mired in the disastrous shoot/post-production/feudal malaise that was The 13th Warrior, which would open August 27 and promptly bomb, McTiernan released his remake of Norman Jewison’s breezy caper picture at the beginning of the month. The original starred Steve McQueen as the debonair thief Crown, and Faye Dunaway as the insurance agent pursuing him.
McTiernan’s remake is superior for a number of reasons, and one of the key reasons it stands above Jewison’s enjoyable original is the duo of Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, whose chemistry together is off the charts. Brosnan is perfect as the aloof high-end criminal, but this film belongs to Russo for a number of reasons, reasons I laid out in Chapter 23 of my book John McTiernan: The Rise and Fall of an Action Movie Icon.
Here is that chapter. Thank you for reading, and if you like what you’re reading you can purchase a copy of the book:
Chapter 23 – The Catherine Banning Affair
Pierce Brosnan’s slick businessman and part-time art thief might be the title
character of The Thomas Crown Affair, but something is made perfectly clear as the story advances: this is a film about the journey of Rene Russo’s Catherine Banning.
John McTiernan paid special attention to the Banning character that is, by the
sheer fact that forty-five-year-old Russo is cast in the role, the most important character in the film. Movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, blithe adult capers with intense romances at their core, had almost exclusively involved an older actor and a romantic lead who is five, or ten, or maybe fifteen years younger than the male protagonist. The original Thomas Crown is a perfect example, with a thirty-eight-year-old Steve McQueen romancing twenty-seven-year-old Faye Dunaway.
The same year as McTiernan’s remake, the teacher/student heist film Entrapment featured a sixty-nine-year-old Sean Connery in a battle of wits against a twenty-nine-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones. The age disparity between actor and actress subconsciously allows the male lead to play the dominant force in the relationship. Even when romance is not directly involved, as with the aforementioned Entrapment, the fact that the male lead is the older of the two implies his being the wiser. Not this time around, however.
The early scene where Banning is interrogating one of the pitiful criminals, where
McTiernan opted to remove unimportant subtitles from the scene, is one of the first
instances where McTiernan worked to build Banning’s sexual independence. Instead of reading, the viewer grows captivated by Russo’s performance, as Banning pushes in on this weaker male thief, manipulating him with her overt sexuality. She squeezes a confession from the thief, who finds himself almost powerless in her presence.
From early in the film Catherine Banning is set up not as an object of desire for
Thomas Crown, but a romantic equal. She is less enthralled with Crown than she sees him as a worthy adversary in her own game. There is a moment after one of their first dates together where Crown, working on an assumption, makes a move to insinuate he will be following Banning upstairs to her apartment. With a telling glance and playful glare, Banning pushes back his advances, taking immediate control of the situation. This character is in charge of her body more than most female leads in Hollywood movies, including Faye Dunaway’s Vicki in the original Thomas Crown Affair, who is left in bed by McQueen’s Crown, wilting like a dry flower. Banning, on the other hand, will let Crown know when she is ready to take their relationship to the next level.
Crown and Banning are both hardened characters who commit wholly to their
work and leave romantic relationships sidelined; that is, until they met each other. It is likely that neither of them had ever maintained a long-term relationship. Keeping their love lives in check is a form of control, and that is not a trait exclusively belonging to Crown.
Once these two rulers of their respective realms fall into each other’s arms,
following a sexually charged dance sequence, McTiernan stages many of these passionate moments with an acute attention to Banning’s orientation in the shot. An early glimpse of the two naked and making their way across Crown’s apartment frames Russo in Brosnan’s arms, but lifted above his head and looking down. While it represents Crown’s strength, it is an intentionally dominant blocking setup for Banning as she towers over her prey.
There is a scene shortly thereafter where the two lovers lie together, naked in bed,
and this is a clear indicator that McTiernan wants to replace Dunaway’s weakened
character with the confident, imposing persona of Catherine Banning. Rather than have Banning lie next to Crown in bed, framed in the background behind him, McTiernan shoots the scene with Banning draped over the top of him. The shot is a strong visual cue regarding the relationship dynamics of these two characters. Banning is in charge.
The sex scenes in the picture are tastefully framed and steeped in eroticism more
so than physicality or shock value; and they are some of the most electric, scorching
scenes of their kind, at least in a lighthearted caper movie of this ilk. The scenes were out of McTiernan’s comfort zone as a filmmaker—eroticism in the 1990s belonged to directors like Adrian Lyne—but he has always been eager to tell a new romance in a familiar setting. What he helps create, in turn, is the pinnacle performance in Rene Russo’s career.
Banning is not only a sexually liberated female lead, and the perfect romantic foil
for Thomas Crown, she is confident in all avenues of her life. She is perfectly unkempt in her mannerisms, gulping a can of soda right out of the vending machine or choking down green goop while she paces the police station break room; her hair is never entirely in place, but she is always dressed impeccably and brimming with confidence, parading her feminine power and flaunting her independence in the presence of these flummoxed New York cops. When she eventually does sleep with Crown, Banning is not simply swept up by some charming scoundrel; she knows the angles too, and she plays the game right along with him.
The relationship between Banning and Denis Leary’s sad-sack detective, Michael
McCann, is another interesting power play working in Banning’s advantage. McCann clearly fancies her, but he is almost immediately intimidated by her Alpha female confidence. She wears incredible, expensive clothing, she floats through life with seemingly nothing to weigh her down, and even though she shares this theft investigation with McCann, she could not be from a place less accessible to him.
It could be argued that Banning is ultimately punished for her sexual
individuality. She falls in love with Crown, and shortly thereafter she is shown photos (given to her by McCann, who of course wants Catherine to himself) of Crown with a mysterious young blonde. Their relationship fractures, and Banning has moments where her confidence has clearly been broken. She cries on the stairs, she stands in the rain, set adrift by the emotional attachment she felt with Crown, pushed away from her stern presence into just another victim of love.
McTiernan and costume designers Kate Harrington and Mark Zunino
intentionally soften Banning’s attire as she begins to gradually open herself up to Crown. This is not a punishment, but a breach of the emotional wall she had built around herself. It breaks her down, sure, and we have moments watching her trying to get that hardened persona back in place. It doesn’t work. She has finally found an emotional attachment, and she is not so much punished for this as knocked off her center. Banning has changed, and in these moments her arc becomes the focus of the entire film.
Thomas Crown is the title character, but he exists in the background of his own story, creating various catalysts in order for the plot to move forward. His emotional journey takes a definite backseat to the evolution of Catherine Banning, however. Make no mistake, Rene Russo is the lead character from just about every conceivable angle, no matter what the title says.