Michel Legrand - The Thomas Crown Affair
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"Set my pen free to trace an unfettered path and thus epitomize the story of the movie." -- Michel Legrand to Norman Jewison
Just imagine if a score-composer suggested that to a filmmaker today? A resounding “huh?” would surely occur. But the late 1960s was a different scene; a time when being iconoclastic and intellectual were seen as hip and even sellable traits. It was also a time when French composer, Michel Legrand, was at the top the soundtrack game—in the ranks of John Barry and Burt Bacharach. Classically trained and the ability to play a dozen instruments, Legrand’s chief passion was jazz and he first made a name for himself in the 1950s with his distinct jazz arrangements (working with the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane). In the early and mid 1960s, Legrand began his prolific work in the movies, scoring numerous French films, including the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Jean-Luc Godard’s Band Of Outsiders (one of my favorite movies and scores). Eventually, he took to Hollywood’s call and scored perhaps my favorite score for perhaps my favorite film, 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Like many directors, Jewison was clearly influenced by the work of Godard—with his spontaneous mixture of pulp pretense and explorations into the ambiguities of male/female relationships—so it was indeed appropriate to enlist Legrand for The Thomas Crown Affair, whom worked on so many of Godard’s films as well as others dubbed French New Wave.
Before the bulk of “Thomas Crown” was edited, Jewison showed Legrand various scenes, one of which was the split-screen crazed bank-robbery. Inspired, Legrand proposed a daring idea to Jewison; he suggested that the director hold on editing the rest of the film and allow him to compose the soundtrack based solely on the rough footage he was provided with. Jewison agreed and Legrand went to work. The final result was a musical body of such kinetic jazz character that Jewison edited the film accordingly: one of the few cases—if not the only case—in which a film was edited to suit the score rather than the other way around.
The emotional and sensual drive of the film’s love story is intensified by its reciprocity with the adjoining music. The first evidence of this is the seductive chess game scene (entitled “The Chess Game” on soundtrack); gentle strums of harpsichord, guitar and harp sparsely breeze across a hanging space as various percussion instruments rub and rattle with amorous ceremony; horns and strings appear periodically to push forward the chess game—the elegant, fireside foreplay—dictated onscreen via each suggestive musical cue. Subsequent montages of the lovers as courtship—shadowed by a caper—elapses to the rhythm and mood of Legrand’s score. “Playing The Field” is a fervent stream of jazz with a walking bass and fast-played keys rushing manically to the end of each measure—giving the soundtrack listener (and watcher of the movie) the impression of euphoric lovers trying to take in as much as possible before crisis derails their dune buggy. “Doubting Thomas” is a somber piece of smooth jazz with beautifully phrased horns, each overlapping a moodier variation of the main love theme and foreshadowing the end to this affair.
Although the Oscar-winning and quickly-turned standard, “The Windmills Of Your Mind” is labeled “Theme From The Thomas Crown Affair” it is actually the piece entitled “His Eyes, Her Eyes” that is the predominant theme throughout the film—the above mentioned love motif. However, “His Eyes, Her Eyes” is the weakest use of the theme on the soundtrack; this is firstly due to the more conventional, cocktail jazz arrangement and secondly, to Michel Legrand’s syrupy vocals. “The Windmills Of Your Mind” is also hindered by vocals—this time, the dandy crooning of Noel Harrison—although the haunting arrangement and clever lyrics are first-class. Its impressive, looping wordplay will cause more discerning listeners to pine for a day when there was true lyrical craft in song writing. Nonetheless, it would have been better if Legrand hired Dusty Springfield to sing “Windmills” (she did a marvelous job singing it on Dusty In Memphis).
The two most exciting pieces on the Thomas Crown soundtrack are the two most upbeat numbers. “Cash and Carry” takes the listener on a stimulating wallop through the busy streets of Boston; blaring, catchy horns sound off as the bank heist is completed; bells clang and resound; funky bass grooves; this is swinger music at its most swingingness. “The Boston Wrangler” has a similar fun swing to it, but with the sublime addition of tense keys and strings dropping in and out, plus a crazy organ fill that gives a subtle touch of psychedelia to the piece.
Overall, The Thomas Crown Affair soundtrack is a satisfying listening experience independent of the film. When added to Norman Jewison’s hip imagery—as well as McQueen and Dunaway’s onscreen charisma—the music takes on an even greater life. I won’t say it’s a perfect marriage of sight and sound (that cliché is far too restrictive); I’d say it’s a passionate affair.
Insert Thomas Crown guffaw with cigar.
By: Edwin C. Faust
Published on: 2003-09-01