Homage to THOMAS CROWN: DUPLICITY Strikes a Nostalgic Note

Made for $60M but grossing only $40M, Duplicity was a 2009 box office flop about two former spies turned corporate security experts who team up to defraud their respective companies while wondering whether they are being conned by each other.

Without commenting on the quality of the film, I did want to discuss the style of the trailer which is inspired by (or pays homage to) the campaign for the 1968 Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway hit, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, a film likewise featuring sexy stars romancing and conning each other against the backdrop of a high-stakes heist.

The music cue is ‘60’s cocktail: xylophone, wood block, brass, drums, and guitar deliver a percussive, jazzy and suspenseful sound bed. In the course of presenting Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Rome, New York and the Bahamas, as they run a triple play on their corporate employers, 100+ edit decisions are made in the 2:30 trailer. (I say “more than” because it’s hard to keep track given how quickly and simultaneously optical fx and edits are taking place.) A good deal of story information is delivered via dialogue and shot selection, but the graphic design is responsible for the non-verbal presentation of the film’ s “style” and “attitude.”

As for those design elements, big block letters (almost to the point of abstraction) in white, with smaller blue words within, convey stars, title and copy appeals. Whereas Duplicity uses diegetic dialogue to carry the burden of plot, The Thomas Crown Affair uses a Voice Over artist, as well as cards, for the same purpose. In Duplicity, the large block letter in white repeats the first letter of the smaller word in blue. The words “Stealing” and “Perfect,” however, are in black block letters, as an indication, perhaps, of their significance as shorthand for the story.

This trailer is distinguished by its use of optical effects, a choice that has become shorthand for nostalgia when not an explicit evocation of period. The classic wipe and the diagonal wipe (from the center going up left and down right) are used, as well as the expanding circle or IRIS effect. On screen, one image joins another, before pushing it out. Throughout, visual and verbal information are layered, with graphics and scenes overlapping and sharing the screen, implying the complexity of story and the emotional overlay of romance with greed and suspicion.

The split screen also makes its appearance—a technique developed by Eisenstein in the 20’s, but “rediscovered” in the 60’s by trailermakers like Jeff Kanew and Pablo Ferro, working on Madison Avenue in New York, who embraced it for the newly re-imagined mode of movie advertising. It’s a great way to tell two (or more) stories simultaneously or one quickly.

With respect to other editing choices, fades, dissolves, cuts to white (once) and cuts to black are exploited for emphasis, connection and termination. The trailer focuses on looking and listening, with shots of surveillance video, photographs, cell-phone captures joined by shots of lips to ears and satellite antennae for broadcast data, all of which underline the spy intrigue subject matter.

Romance is conveyed in faces and face to face transitions, notably, the match cutting between her laugh and his laugh, or his walking toward the screen followed by hers. The Godard-inspired jump cuts, which denaturalize movement while minimizing duration of unimportant shots, indicate the playful, theatrical quality of the entertainment being advertised.

The corporations targeted by our protagonists are represented by their respective CEO’s, whose personal animus is conveyed by a slow motion fight sequence, which personalizes and dramatizes whatever vague, probably non-essential details we learn about their businesses.

I invite you to take a look at the trailer for the Thomas Crown Affair, to see if you think I’ve made a compelling case for what I’m calling Duplicity’s homage. Pay attention, in particular to the use of split screen, the focus on anxious “romance” between leads who are “gaming” each other, the use of close-ups, innuendo, talk of dollars, and the chemistry that ignites (or fails to) between the leads.

I like this trailer. I like these stars, separately and together. I like this subject matter, which seems perennially popular as a star vehicle. But audiences, apparently, didn’t like the feature, however skillful the marketing materials.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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