There’s a sequence in The Thomas Crown Affair that delights me every time I think about it. Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan), a billionaire Manhattan financier, has stolen a painting — a priceless Monet — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Why, exactly, did he steal it? That’s the merry enigma the movie revolves around. Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), who is without a doubt the world’s most spectacularly alluring insurance investigator, quickly deduces that Crown is the culprit (which only fuels her attraction to him), and she joins forces with a saturnine police detective (Denis Leary) who is heading up the case. But Crown, a master scoundrel, keeps tripping them up, never more so than when he decides to take the painting back.
How do you return a stolen masterpiece, right in the middle of the day, as surveillance cameras track your every move? Crown strolls with his briefcase into the lobby, where everyone can see him, and he then puts on a bowler hat, in homage to the famous Magritte painting of a bourgeois Everyman with an apple camouflaging his identity.
Suddenly, a dozen other men appear sporting bowlers and briefcases, and this army of Thomas Crowns effectively swallows the real one. Crown breezes through the corridors and galleries, and the song that accompanies his movements, Nina Simone’s ”Sinnerman,” has a funky, gliding, Caribbean-pop beauty. Our hero may be a debonair WASP tycoon, but the music expresses his inner spirit — the wild side of him that will always remain hidden. The entire sequence has been put together with the jubilant trickery that Brian De Palma tries for in his big, look-Ma-I’m-Hitchcock set pieces but is too self-conscious to bring off.
Brash, preposterous, synthetic, and very sexy, The Thomas Crown Affair is a romp of romantic larceny built out of spare parts we’ve seen in countless other films. There’s a high-tech heist; a ”hot” Latin dance number in which Catherine, clad in see-through Halston, lets Crown know exactly what he’s up against; and a climactic game of will-he-or-won’t-he (escape the law and carry her off, that is). What keeps the film aloft and twirling is its blithe, throwaway foxiness — the way it shrugs at the movieness of these caper shenanigans and, at the same time, treats them with freshly minted innocence. Brosnan, playing this Wall Street paragon who only pretends to follow the rules, never tips his hand — he doesn’t let you catch Crown behaving deviously — but the actor’s faintly inscrutable Euro jet-set charm has more spark here than it does in the Bond pictures, where his gestures can seem too small and refined to compete with the fireball action around him.
The movie is, of course, a remake of the 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway thriller confection, a picture remembered mostly for its Michel Legrand theme song (”The Windmills of Your Mind”) and the fact that it was one of the first Hollywood films to make complex use of split-screen imagery. McQueen, looking as if he’d rather go to prison than crack a smile, played Crown like a dyspeptic Marine, and the fuzzy suspense plot dissolved into a lot of late-’60s sports-car-on-the-beach nonsense.