June 19, 2013, marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the release of The Thomas Crown Affair—the original version, directed by Norman Jewison and written by Alan Trustman. While for most of us the anniversary of a film might not seem like cause for celebration, I find that birthdays ending in zeros or fives have a momentous quality that welcomes grave rumination. And as we enter blockbuster season, a time of rich and disposable spectacle, it is amazing to revisit this high-gloss 1968 potboiler—what once passed for a summer blockbuster—and discover that not only is it still fresh, but, in the context of some of our most pressing contemporary anxieties, it is disconcertingly prophetic. In short, The Thomas Crown Affair is a paeon to the forces of globalization.
In The Thomas Crown Affair, globalization takes the literal form of a blank globe. Whenever I look at this production still—Steve McQueen in business attire resting a proprietary hand on this sphere of power, this atom of capital—I have the same reaction that Ralph Waldo Emerson had when he read Shakespeare: “I actually shade my eyes.” In this photograph, we see a perfect articulation of a deep, ideological commitment to the tenets of globalization: the world reduced to a single, borderless place; a compressed rendering of a new world order.
For those who have not seen the film: a millionaire Boston financier, played by Steve McQueen, out of a strange mélange of boredom and a desire to win, organizes a successful bank heist. He does not actually take part in the robbery, but rather directs it, anonymously contacting diverse and criminal individuals who know neither one another nor him. He provides them with precise instructions which they follow to the letter. After securing over $2 million (an impossible sum of money, we are told), the anonymous crooks deposit the entire sum in a cemetery garbage can, where Crown, rolling through in a Mercedes-Benz, picks it up. Unable to make sense of Crown’s clever plan, the police turn in desperation to a private investigator, Viki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), sent by the benighted bank’s outraged insurance provider. In the course of solving the crime, Anderson attends glamorous art auctions and polo matches with Crown; they play an intensely erotic game of chess; they steam in a sauna; they drive an expensive-looking dune buggy on the beach at low-tide—you know, a standard insurance investigation. In the midst of all this glamorous excitement, Anderson and Crown fall in love, despite Viki’s ostensible mission to put Crown behind bars. With both Anderson and the police hot on his trail, Crown, who has been hiding his ill-gotten gains in a private account in Geneva, pulls yet another heist, at the same bank no less. Forced to decide between the man she loves and the commission that would come her way should she solve the crime, Anderson chooses duty, money, and the law. As a result, she loses her man, both as a lover and as prey. The film ends with our cunning millionaire, having eluded both prison and romantic commitment, sailing away at 30,000 feet in a jet plane, bound for who knows where.
And somewhere in the middle of what is a remarkably coherent story, we see Crown and his assistant talking business in his gigantic, top-floor office. Discussing the future of his company, Crown crosses in front of the camera and begins to absentmindedly spin a blank globe.
The year is 1968; it is the Cold War; the country is roiling over divisive issues like the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Why is the globe blank? What revolution has taken place in the office suites of the Thomas Crown Corporation? What led Hollywood set designers to fashion this frankly utopian rendering of the planet? As either celebration or denunciation of a phenomenon that was so new (or, according to some, nonexistent) it did not yet have a name, The Thomas Crown Affair captures all the glamor and ambiguity of globalization’s aesthetic. (So much so that it inspired Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to issue a remake in 1999; as America looked deep into the yawning chasm that was the end of history, Hollywood suddenly discovered how appropriate The Thomas Crown Affair of 1968 was to their own, soon-to-be-history-less time.)
The movie is about a corporate crook who beats the system from which he has already profited. He is a man without personality, constantly in motion, in cars, airplanes, even gliders in which he makes long, elegant loop-the-loops. He is intelligent and manipulative, but also entirely devoid of personal taste. When he and Viki meet an art auction, he has no idea what to buy. But just because he has no taste does not mean his house is not finely decorated. He keeps the paraphernalia of American history on the walls of his rumpus room, some eighteenth-century-looking wooden mantelpiece, complete with bald eagles and flags. He lives in an old house in Boston, the heart of the American Revolution—and not just any old house, but the Second Harrison Gray Otis House on Beacon Hill. A high expression of the Federal-style mansion, the house was designed in 1800 by the Massachusetts State House architect Charles Bulfinch for congressman Harrison Gray Otis. Otis himself was a delegate to the Massachusetts State constitutional convention, the Continental Congress, the Hartford convention, and later the U.S. Senate; he afterward served as mayor of Boston. Despite living at the center of American history, and quite literally flying the flag, Crown tells us he has no attachment to any of it, and leads us to believe that he would be just as happy in Geneva, or perhaps London.
Crown wins by tilting the playing field. In those two moments of the film in which he is evenly matched against an opponent—golf and chess—he loses. It is only with money, position, and privilege that he can win. He gets his thrills not by robbing a bank himself, but by managing the robbery of a bank. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, released only two months before The Thomas Crown Affair, we watch obviously-government-subsidized, high-tech space vessels traveling to Jupiter on a mission of dispassionate scientific discovery on the moon. Thomas Crown uses a telephone. He brings together individuals who work together in anonymity, with the exception of Crown himself, who takes no immediate risks, knows everyone, and, without lifting a finger, walks away with the lion’s share of a profit that he in no way can be said to need. He is able to rob the system because he knows it, helped build it, daily profits from it, and so can also successfully defy it. The government, in the form of the police, is helpless to stop him. It is not smart enough, too humble in its resources, hampered by the law itself, a body of rules that make it nearly impossible to prove Thomas Crown’s guilt. It takes a private investigator from an insurance agency to put the finger on Crown, because she does not follow the rules. In addition, she works on commission instead of salary. She can catch him because it is the irresistible profit motive that drives her. In the end her big mistake comes from siding with the law instead of joining Thomas Crown.
For Crown, all the world is merely one place, a place without features, any place and everyplace, which is to say, no place. A blank globe that he can spin at leisure, undifferentiated by borders and so entirely accessible, but also entirely meaningless, except as a symbol of power. Whenever globalization can be said to “begin,” its aesthetics are clearly present in The Thomas Crown Affair of 1968. Historian Daniel Sargent makes a compelling argument that globalization can be properly said to commence in the 1970s when policymakers realized, as a result of the oil shock of 1973, that the United States was not as autarkic as it might have hoped. “The birth pains of a new of globalization in the 1970s,” Sargent argues, “bequeathed a new order of challenge for the United States.” While it might not have been until the 1970s that government officials understood just how much the country was caught in a web of international “interdependence” (globalization as a word has its provenance in the 1980s), obviously Americans in the late 1960s understood the allure as well as the dangers of a blank globe.
Historian Jefferson Cowie has shown us in Capital Moves the incredible mobility of capital investment in the American economy, at least since the 1930s. But what makes The Thomas Crown Affair so appropriate for this moment, on its forty-fifth birthday, is the purity of its expression. Even now, after multiple viewings, I am still not sure if the movie is a celebration or a withering critique of mobile capital, white-collar lawlessness, the slow death of the labor movement, legal immunity, and radical divestment from the public interest. Either way, it is a remarkably spot-on articulation. It is no accident. Thomas Crown’s blank globe reaffirms the lesson most of us should have already learned by now: globalization did not and does not “happen”; globalization was not an agent of its own creation. Since at least the late 1960s, those with capital have been taking part in the act of globalization. Like Thomas Crown in his office, they have been spinning the blank globe.
Jason Z. Resnikoff formerly investigated police misconduct for the City of New York. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in American history at Columbia University.