Cat and mouse

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in "The Thomas Crown Affair"

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in "The Thomas Crown Affair"

I was watching “The Thomas Crown Affair” tonight – the original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway (but it could’ve just as easily been the 1999 version with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo), and it put me in mind of the games men and women play when they begin a romance. These characters had to be somewhat cagey with each other because of the circumstances. Dunaway, an insurance investigator, was the cat pursuing McQueen’s bank-robbing mouse. But they were also attracted to each other – each seeing in the other a formidable and worthy complement to their own over-achieving, win-at-all-costs mentalities. One does not often get to meet one’s match, but it seems fairly common in movies. But back to the games …

So they fence and parry throughout their quick courtship. Director Norman Jewison even took it so far as to present it metaphorically in the famous scene of the couple playing chess before consummating their conflicted union. I am a big fan of Jewison’s films, but I always found that scene a bit corny. But it is stylish, and McQueen is the most accessible and amusing I’ve ever seen him on screen. (Granted, I’ve only seen a few of his films.) Apparently it was a part Jewison meant for Sean Connery, who would’ve been perfect. I mean if McQueen could get away with professing his love to someone, surely Connery could have despite his sex-without-love James Bond image.

McQueen’s Thomas Crown at one point deliberately takes out another woman to, as he tells Dunaway, put Dunaway “in touch with herself.” Essentially, he wanted to make Dunaway jealous and realize that she had more invested in him than the commission she’d recover for apprehending him. And I wondered why all that was necessary. Do you really have to play games to make your point in relationships – even if you are trying to keep from being caught for bank robbery?

Speaking of cops and robbers in love, one of my favorite movies with a similar cat and mouse theme is “Out of Sight” starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. You wouldn’t think they’d have so much chemistry on screen, but it is quite palpable. I always recommend it when I can because it’s a great film even beyond their lead characters and so few people saw it. It is directed by Steven Soderbergh who does a great job capturing Elmore Leonard’s novel about a savvy but unlucky bank robber (Clooney) and the smart, tough U.S. marshal on his trail (Lopez). 

From the moment they meet (here comes the cliché), it’s magic. But there’s no big build-up; they just click. Unlike the characters in “Thomas Crown,” they know from the beginning who is the cat and who is the mouse. In lieu of fencing, they have banter – in the trunk of a car, on the phone, and eventually, over bourbon in a hotel bar in one of the most understated and genuinely romantic scenes I’ve ever seen. But there are no games – except when they playfully try to be other people so they can have a moment without the looming showdown hanging over them. If there is a game, it is merely the chase and all the accoutrements of a chase. There’s no question they want to be together. The only hindrance is that she has to arrest him – at least, she’s supposed to arrest him. And she always gets her man.

So like Dunaway in “Thomas Crown,” Lopez has to decide whether she’s going to get her man and lose her love or keep her love and lose face with herself and her colleagues. The men in these dramas are more or less at the mercy of the women, which is unusual. Sure, both men have either the means or the opportunity to escape their circumstances, and they are fully aware that these women are smitten. But they also know they are being relentlessly pursued, and these women likely have more pride than sentiment.

 I’ve come to no conclusions on the necessity of game-playing between men and women. Obviously, these two movies offer up extreme circumstances, and there are far better examples of the machinations of people striving to love and be loved. These two examples are more about the chase, and I think these movies do show how much fun the chase can be – even with the extra element of danger in the outcome, or perhaps because of it.