Scene Unseen: The Thomas Crown Affair: Take the Monet and Run

"Anyway we did an elaborate thing of folding the painting into the brief case and people were so offended by it that I sorta hadda cut it out and make it much briefer." -- John McTiernan, director.

I first saw the modern remake of The Thomas Crown Affair when I was working at an art gallery and the dislocation between what appears on the screen and the actuality of the administration and staffing of a museum were fairly stunning. For the first time I knew how a doctor felt when watching e.r. or a cop watching a police procedural -- trying to enjoy the piece of entertainment for what it is while at the same time know were all the inaccuracy and whitewash appears.

Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) concocts an elaborate scheme featuring a bunch of non-descript East Europeans who are trying to steal a bunch of paintings from one end of the gallery while he 'borrows' a Monet from the other. So far, so intriguing. Funnily enough I can live with most of what happens -- I worked in a provincial gallery not the major metropolitan Manhattan artifice which features in the film. But this moment pops me out every time and only the appearance of Rene Russo in those boots flicking her car keys in that way can drag me back in again.

The problem comes when he steals the painting. He rips it from the wall, knocks it out of the frame, opens up a briefcase he had stashed under a nearby bench, lays the Monet into a case which he then closes, literally folding the painting in half. He carries it home, where in a later scene it appears entirely unharmed, hanging on the wall. Can someone explain to me how he managed to do this without destroying the painting!?! If you fold canvas in half it creases. Add in the oil paint and it'll fray as well; then there's the wooden back frame which would have been too rigid the fold anyway. So what ever happens you've got a conservator's nightmare at best and an international treasure destroyed at the other.

On the dvd commentary John McTiernan elaborates that they did have a whole plan set out for how they would justify the folding of the painting. He doesn't go into much detail, but it has something to do with the breaking of the back frame to give the painting greater flexibility presumably so that it would bend into the case rather than fold. So this is in fact a great example of the decision a director has to take between going with pacing in the editing suite rather than reality. And what really interests me that he says that people were offended by the process of the getting the painting into the case 'safely' because it took too long. Which sounds like some kind of madness. Or am I an art lover who takes things too seriously?


sujal said...

No, you're not taking it too seriously. I really hate watching that part because I keep imagining the frame splintering and shredding the canvas, let alone what happened to the paint.

Anyway, this is one of my all time favorite movies and I ended up googling it today because I was watching it again and was wondering if they had an explanation for how the painting was a damaged wreck...

Anonymous said...

Yeah i just saw it again, the only explanation i got was: that there was some type of blade in the suitcase that cut only deep enough to cut the wooden frame but not the canvas, hence the painting could be folded and although perhaps flimsy, could be unfolded and be stable if held correctly. He wouldve had to crazy glue it though when he gave it back as a pizzaro.

Keiren said...

Just rewatching it. The frame isn’t cut. As he takes it out of the briefcase he holds it up to the secret space behind the wall and shows the audience the back of the frame, which is intact. I think the whole thing was artistic license and has no real life ability unfortunately.