The Anderson Tapes (1971) dir. Sidney Lumet
Starring: Sean Connery, Dian Cannon, Christopher Walken, Alan King
Everything I knew about the Anderson Tapes pointed to a minor cinema classic – a heist film made by one of the great filmmakers of the 60’s and 70’s, a period film that captured the zeitgeist of Watergate-era surveillance paranoia. But I hadn’t seen it. Sadly upon first viewing the film after all this time, it just does not stand up to the scrutiny of the great heist films that came before it, nor the great surveillance films that came after it.
Sean Connery plays Duke Anderson a burglar just released from prison. He quickly hooks up with an old fling, Ingrid (Dyan Cannon). In between their sexual encounters Duke hatches up a plan to rob the other wealthy tenants of the building. Meanwhile Duke is under surveillance by the police. They carefully watch and listen to his every move. Duke assembles his team and the financing needed to pull the job off. The heist goes as planned until a small slipup puts a wrench in the works.
As with the genre, we see the four stages to the heist – recruiting the perpetrators, casing the scene, executing the heist and the escape/aftermath. The recruitment and casing are well-executed. Lumet even casts a young Christopher Walken in his first major role. And Martin Balsam turns in a flamboyant performance as a gay interior decorator who appraises the goods.
Frank Pierson, one of the most successful writers in the 60’s, and 70’s, is curiously sloppy with his writing. Immediately after Duke meets up at Ingrid’s apartment it’s revealed that the Duke is under surveillance. By whom, and why? These questions are never answered. The film continues to intercut the surveillance on Duke in almost every place he goes to. The cops are everywhere and seem to predict his every move. Yet conveniently they don’t figure out that he’s about to rob Ingrid’s building. And when the cops do catch on, it’s not because of the surveillance, but because of the paraplegic kid who has a ham radio in his room. The surveillance story line is not only dropped without resolution but its consequential to the film.
Pierson doesn’t give us the minute details the genre demands either. The casing scene works well as a piece of comedy, but the job seems to easy for us to be impressed. And the idea of knocking off a building full of rich doctors is certainly one of the lamer scenarios in the genre. Even the mobsters who fund Duke’s operation admit the revenue they’d get from this small job is not even worth the risk. So why should we care?
The film also suffers from the technical experimentation common in films of its era. Lumet uses jarring sharp cuts as transitions between scenes. Of course David Lean used hard cuts between scenes, but his cuts were so precise and drew greater meaning from the film. Lumet’s transitions just feel careless and amateurish.
Typically, the film is shot with on-location authenticity. The lighting is harsh and the sound is, well, just plain bad sometimes. But it’s the 70’s and the rawness is part of the streetwise New York aesthetic. If anything “The Anderson Tapes” was the first of the surveillance paranoia films of the 70’s, made even before Watergate was exposed. Unfortunately Lumet and Pierson show lots of audio taping and wiretapping, but it has little impact on the story and remains a theme unconnected to the action or characters.
Curiously this film seems to have a cult audience. The new DVD is bringing much praise for Sony who dug the film out of the Columbia vaults. Film buffs who have fond memories may continue to enjoy the film for nostalgic qualities, but for others who are discovering it for the time will be in for a lackluster genre experience and nowhere near some of the great heist films that came before it (“The Italian Job”, “Topkapi”, “Rififi”) or even the surveillance films that came after it (“The Conversation”, “All the President’s Men” “Blow Out”).
“The Anderson Tapes” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment