Screengrab: 241, Yankee style

Two films that helped define America’s image of itself hits the box this week, says Richard Lutz.


You want a real good indication about how the value of your buck has fallen recently? Then, just turn on the TV for The Thomas Crown Affair (Wednesday, Sky Classic 00.01 am) to find out. You remember how to switch on the television, don’t you? It used to be popular before downloads and online traffic.

Steve McQueen is out to rob a Boston bank and an amazing $2.2 million. Back in 1968, when this mega heist movie came out, that was a lot of casharoonio. Now, it’ll get you a custard doughnut and a latte.

But despite the price differential, this fifty year old movie still got legs. McQueen is the mastermind of the caper. He doesn’t need the cash. Just the thrills. He’s chased by elegant insurance agent Faye Dunaway (just out of Bonnie and Clyde) and she just knows Steve has overseen the robbery and got the loot stashed in Switzerland. Of course, their characters become enmeshed as they dance around each other. Will they stick together? Will one upend the other? Will there be a winner and loser?

It’s a classy movie. McQueen is cool as usual doing his own stunts and setting up his driving skills for Bullitt which was unveiled later in the same year. Watch out too for the split screen techniques which were implanted after editor Hal Ashby was told to cut the duration of the opening credits. He did by slamming all the teaser shots into double boxes.

Director Norman Jewison put together a superb looking movie. Noel Harrison (aka son of Rex) sings the theme music Windmills of Your Mind that landed an Oscar. A 1999 re-make with Pierce Brosnan failed. A new third attempt is predicted with rising star Michael Bakari Johnson.

Once you’ve unglued yourself from McQueen and company, keep the 58″ HD crystal box alive because what follows will be a real trip: it’s Easy Rider (3.40am). So, put on your leather jacket, roll a metre-long joint and lay back and think of the sexiest Harley Davidson in the world. Peter Fonda is biker Wyatt and Dennis Hopper is Billy, two hog-riding dope dealers crossing the US in a drugs deal and getting lost in the American nightmare along with a very young Jack Nicholson.

Fonda always inferred that this was a modern stab at the great American western (Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid – get it?). The film came out in ’69, what with street riots, Woodstock, Vietnam, counter culture nonsense and a great big freaking fuck-you to the establishment. It heralded the New Hollywood era of Scorsese, Cimino and Coppola; independent film makers all intent on going their own way without studio control.

What turned out to be without control was the actual making of this $400,000 mess that caught the wind and grossed $60 million. Hopper directed without a script, everyone was stoned, everyone tried to get each other fired and chaos loomed so overwhelmingly that the wrap party had to suddenly end when someone announced they’d forgotten to film some of the scenes.

But Easy Rider grabbed the moment. Everyone went out and bought a leather jacket stitched with an American flag, grabbed a chopper and let their hair hang free…until they had to get a mortgage. Music by the Byrds, Steppenwolf, Hendrix and others catches the pungent flavour of the times. And, to add a bit of sweetness to this sharp acrid movie, Fonda’s famed biker’s jacket sold for $89,000 to raise cash for charity. Ain’t that sweet? The movie had a soft heart after all.