The Anderson Tapes (1971) Blu Ray & DVD (Powerhouse/Indicator)
Sean Connery plays Duke Anderson, a professional thief who has just emerged from a 10-year prison stretch. When he visits his old girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon) who is now living in an opulent, security camera-fitted apartment complex, she reveals details of her various affluent neighbours. Anderson hits on the idea of staging a massive heist on the building, so he approaches mobster Angelo (Alan King) for funding to recruit the finest criminal talent he can lay his hands on.
While Angelo deliberates the deal Anderson goes ahead with enlisting the help of his old cohorts Tommy (Martin Balsam), The Kid (Christopher Walken), Pop (Stan Gottlieb) and Spencer (Dick Anthony Williams). However it soon emerges that there are some extra complications: for one thing, Angelo will only agree to fund the heist for a 50/50 split of the takings, along with the extra added provision that Anderson brings along one of his own men named “Socks” Parelli (Val Avery) - and then has him rubbed out during the job. It’s a factor that doesn’t sit well with either Anderson or most of his assembled gang. An even greater issue is that they are blissfully unaware that the cops are carrying out an extensive surveillance operation on both the mob and themselves.
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The Anderson Tapes isn’t one of Sidney Lumet’s best. It’s an entertaining film with some nice details but it is ultimately more than a little muddled. The film displays a clear obsession with video and audio recording technology and how it permeates society, even to the extent of turning caught-on-camera criminals into overnight celebrities. Recording and monitoring equipment of every kind seems to be worked into most scenes, be it the playback of videos of Anderson’s prison counselling sessions, the audio bugging of his girlfriend’s apartment resulting in officers eavesdropping on the sounds of a lovemaking session, or the bank of video screens that the complex’s hallway security guard watches like a hawk. The soundtrack makes extensive use of avant-garde electronic bleeps to engender the film’s tech-obsessed style. However, the techno-paranoid message Lumet seems to be aiming for gets lost in the straightforward caper/heist movie narrative and ends up coming across as gimmicky and pretentious.
Despite this issue, however, there is still plenty to enjoy here. Sean Connery gave some of his best performances under the direction of Lumet, and while this doesn’t quite match the sustained brilliance of their next collaboration (The Offence) he is given plenty of opportunities to flex his acting muscles right from a terrific opening monologue:
“What's advertising but a legalised con game? And what the hell's marriage? Extortion, prostitution, soliciting with a government stamp on it. And what the hell's your stock market? A fixed horse race. Some business guy steals a bank, he's a big success story. Face in all the magazines. Some other guy steals the magazine and he's busted.”
These kinds of memorable mouthpiece characters are typical of Lumet, and it’s a pity that the film couldn’t have revolved a little more around him and less around the machinations of the heist he executes. The supporting cast is well up to snuff, including an early appearance by Christopher Walken as a very 1970s “cool cat” kind of guy, Stan Gottlieb as an elderly gang member who is physically ailing but clearly has nowhere to turn to other than continuing his life of crime, and Martin Balsam as an aesthetically fussy, effeminate gay. The latter plays his role as a bit too much of a campy stereotype early on, but his character does solidify into a more well-rounded shape as the film progresses.
The heist itself takes up most of the film’s second half and, aside from a few annoying flash-forwards to the police getting victim statements (signaled by those blasted invasive electronic blip noises), it is quite gripping and enjoyable. While there are some scenes of action and violence the film is less about that than the surprising behaviour of the various characters involved in the heist’s progress, be they the victims or perpetrators. A hilarious highlight is an elderly couple - who are unusually welcoming to these rare and unexpected visitors - and another a smart paraplegic child who proves to be quite a match for these meticulous crooks. The palatial nature of the apartment complex and quirky decor of its myriad of inhabitants almost makes it as much a star of the movie as the various actors are.
In many ways The Anderson Tapes encapsulates the nature of cinema in the early 1970s - both good and bad. Then-cutting edge technologies such as video recorders and computer terminals are both embraced and feared from the film’s POV. The Black Panthers are acknowledged by their contemporary image as a threat by a (predominantly white) power structure and the saviours of a (predominantly black) underclass; we are introduced to Spencer as he hides out (in presumed safety) above one of their offices. Gay males are portrayed by default as bitchy, preening effeminate types. Criminals are seen as anti-heroes railing against a corrupt and hypocritical system. Their activities are presented onscreen for the voyeuristic pleasure of the audience. As a movie, it’s better in parts than as a whole, but as a snapshot of its time, it has its own fascination.
Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: Sidney Lumet
Script: Frank Pierson, from a novel by Lawrence Sanders
Starring: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Alan King, Ralph Meeker, Christopher Walken, Val Avery, Dick Anthony Williams, Garrett Morris, Stan Gottlieb, Margaret Hamilton
Bar some occasional flicker and fluctuations it looks great, the early 1970s pastel colour scheme resembling something from a furniture magazine from the era. It’s always a good sign when those funky shirts from the time period come out in all of their finery.
The mixture of electronic noises, jazz and dialogue generally melds into an impressively captivating soundscape.
We get the usual Powerhouse/Indicator booklet, which features four articles. The first, “The Anderson Tapes” by Thirza Wakefield examines the themes Lumet explores in the film (albeit, in my opinion, in a rather muddled fashion). We also learn that it doesn’t exactly stand as one of the director’s personal favourites, being as it is largely neglected by his 1995 memoir Making Movies. The second is an archive review from the December 1971 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin written by Richard Combs. He notes that the film’s obvious potential in purveying a “governmental abuse of technology” message is never properly put into practice - with the narrative instead going in favour of a vague “criminal vs. the system” theme. We also get a snippet from Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies” revealing that the filming of the mafia funeral scene drew complaints from the local Italian mob, who weren’t happy about the excessively stereotypical portrayal of their kind! Finally, we get an excerpt from Lawrence Sanders’ source novel, which (in contrast to the semi-conventional heist movie flavour of the film) was written in the style of a series of only partially-decipherable audio tape transcripts.
On the disc itself are the following:
Audio commentary by Glenn Kenny
The film critic talks mainly about the various actors involved in the film. Sean Connery’s working relationship with Sidney Lumet over the course of five productions was unusual since the actor rarely formed solid bonds with others during his career. However, the director has been recorded as expressing a huge degree of respect for the star. This was also the first film he appeared in without his Bond-era toupee. Stan Gottlieb (who played Pops) was working at a film distribution house that focussed on Czech art films prior to his career as an actor. One of the old ladies in the apartment was played by Margaret Hamilton - best known as The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. We also get a good insight into contemporary reviews of the film (not always positive) plus some discussion of a different ending that was originally shot. Not a bad commentary, if a little on the dry side.
A 16-minute version for the Super-8 home viewing format; something similar was provided on Powerhouse/Indicator’s disc of The New Centurions. While on the face of it a pretty pointless inclusion, the short runtime focuses leanly on the heist minus most of the techno-clutter and flash-forwards. As such, it could be argued that it actually works better than the full-length version.
The Anderson Tapes might not be the finest film by Sidney Lumet, but it is an enjoyable relic from its era. A very nice print with reasonable extras.