Sony // 1971 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // September 23rd, 2008
It would have been the crime of the century...
Coppola's 1974 The Conversation is often pointed to as the first movie to dramatize the insidious dangers inherent in surveillance technology; however, Sidney Lumet's 1971 The Anderson Tapes, about a building heist that somehow fails to be spoiled by surveillance, offers a slightly different take on the subject matter, examining the pervasiveness of surveillance, as well as the inability of government agencies to share information.
Sony brings us The Anderson Tapes to DVD as part of its "Martini Movies" series. While the movie features an intriguing story and some solid performances, the movie doesn't quite steal our hearts.
Duke Anderson (Sean Connery, Dr. No) has just finished a ten year sentence for burglary. Exiting his cellblock for the last time, Anderson flips a bird at the security camera. Now, he thinks, no one will be keeping tabs on him. Soon enough, he realizes his folly -- security cameras are now everywhere -- even the bus station and his girlfriend's posh East Side apartment building have cameras at every turn. Ingrid (Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait), Duke's call girl girlfriend, mentions that the cameras are there for a reason -- the residents are all loaded. The only reason she's there is because she's being kept in style by one of her regulars. Anderson immediately hatches a plan to hit every apartment in the building over the Labor Day weekend. His team includes the Kid (Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter) and gay fence Tommy Haskins (Martin Balsam, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3). He calls in a marker with mob boss Pat Angelo (Alan King, Casino) to bankroll the operation.
After ten years in prison, Anderson doesn't realize just how difficult it is to maintain a secret these days. Ingrid's sugar daddy has microphones planted in the apartment. The NYPD has just planted a bug in Tommy's store because he's a suspected fence. The Kid, a drug dealer, is being watched by the BNDD (a precursor of the DEA). The man Anderson hires as a driver is under surveillance by the FBI due to his connections with Black militants. And Angelo is being monitored by the IRS. All of these tapes feature details about the robbery, but because none of the agencies are interested in Anderson, none of them realize what they're hearing. When Ingrid's client figures it out, he doesn't care about Anderson or the job; he just uses the tape as leverage to keep Ingrid all to himself.
The robbery starts off well; phone lines are cut (no cell phones in 1971), exits are blocked, and as each apartment is hit, the residents are collected and brought to a central apartment. But one apartment has an asthmatic, paraplegic boy who can't be taken from his air-conditioned room. Anderson lets the boy stay in his room. Ironically, it's not the surveillance that ultimately brings down Duke, but his compassion. The boy has an amateur radio set tucked away in the closet, and the boy promptly uses the radio to contact the police. As the burglars finish up, the police have cleared the streets, amassed forces outside, and have entered the building from the roof. Anderson realizes the jig is up when he looks out a window and sees the deserted streets, but it's too late. The team ends up dead or in custody -- Anderson, though wounded, initially eludes the police by hiding in Ingrid's apartment, but the police later discover the tape recorder in the basement and hear his labored breathing through the microphone. The movie ends as the various agencies, embarrassed that they actually heard the job being planned but failed to take action, and afraid that their illegal surveillances will become public, erase all of the tapes.
If you're into a "Fate is a capricious bitch" sort of movie, The Anderson Tapes might be just what you need. We feel sorry for Duke Anderson from the very beginning, as he is forced to endure a jailhouse group therapy session. We feel sorry for him as it becomes obvious that his grand plan isn't quite going to work out. (OK, we don't feel particularly sorry for him when he beds Dyan Cannon, but apart from that...) He has grand plans for a final job, but he simply doesn't realize how much the world has changed. Even the mob has changed -- Angelo doesn't agree to bankroll Anderson because of the cut -- just one of his bookmaking houses makes that much in a week. But to a mobster whose operations have become almost indistinguishable from legitimate business, bankrolling Anderson becomes a means for some vicarious thrills.
The film, released the same year Diamonds are Forever, helped break Connery out of the typecasting rut that drove him from the Bond series. Connery plays Duke as likable and intelligent, but he's hardly a superman; we see doubt, concern, and fear play across his face throughout the movie -- and we never see the confident swagger that epitomized Bond. The rest of the cast is competent, if not stellar. A ridiculously young Christopher Walken has his feature film debut as the Kid, an alarm specialist. While the borderline psychotic facial tics aren't yet present, Walken's characteristic way of speaking is already in evidence. Martin Balsam really catches you off guard as the gay Tommy, who can turn his flamboyance off and on as the situation warrants. Balsam never goes over the top with his portrayal, making homosexuality just part of Tommy's character. The strongest supporting turn is from comedian Alan King as the mob boss who bankrolls the operation as a personal favor. King brings some unexpected depth to a roll that could have been ridiculous, particularly in the scene in which he "discusses" Duke's proposition with his clearly senile father. Dyan Cannon looks good, and that's about it -- though to be fair, the role doesn't ask much else of her. Towards the end, look for a pre-SNL Garrett Morris as Sergeant Everson, who leads the assault team into the apartment building, as well as Margaret Hamilton -- the Wicked Witch of the West herself -- as one of the burglary victims.
There are some editing choices that mark the movie as from the early 70s even more than the wardrobe. During the heist, as the burglars first encounter each resident, there is a quick cut to police interviewing the resident afterwards. While the cuts are jarring at first, they have a curious effect -- on the one hand, they reassure the viewer that none of the residents will be caught in crossfire when the shit hits the fan. At the same time, the fact that there are no such shots for the burglars lend a fatalistic air to the proceedings. But even with those sequences, the film has a gritty, realistic feel. Ocean's Eleven this ain't.
Video is pretty good. The anamorphic picture has its fair share of grain, but there aren't a lot of noticeable scratches or blemishes. Color is somewhat inconsistent, particularly flesh tones. The Dolby 2.0 mono mix is surprisingly clear, and shows off Quincy Jones' rather curious score -- a quirky combination of jazz and computer-generated tones. Dialogue in the quieter scenes is hard to discern at times, though that could just as well be a result of Connery's accent as the soundmix.
There are some pacing and tone problems that keep the film from being as effective as it could be. The movie takes God's own sweet time getting to the actual robbery; after a while, there's only so many ways you can underscore the fact that this is an ill-fated heist. Moreover, at times you start to wonder if the film is having trouble deciding if it wants to be a crime drama or a crime comedy. The revelation of more and more people watching Anderson breeds a fatalistic tone; had anyone less cool than Connery played Anderson, it would be easy to categorize him as a lovable loser. The extended scenes involving the police movie into position, including traversing between buildings on ropes, are almost parodic, particularly when coupled with a buffoonish police captain (Ralph Meeker, Brannigan). More aggressive editing in the police scenes could have eliminated some of the silliness and more effectively ratcheted up the tension. Lumet clearly learned some lessons about this sort of movie; in his next heist gone wrong film, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, he went straight to the heist itself.
There are no extras to speak of apart from the original trailer. There are a couple of one-minute "Martini-trailers," but apart from being utter fluff, they are basically mini-commercials for the "Martini Movie" series that make little or no sense.
A caper-gone-bad film, The Anderson Tapes is a taut thriller in places, but the police sequences are a bit too silly and spoil the mood. In addition to the movie's entertainment value, it's also a historical artifact of sorts, as it is the film that broke Connery out of the Bond stereotype, and because it shows the development of one of our better directors, Sidney Lumet.
The defendant has the court's gratitude for bringing this minor gem of early 70s film to DVD, but the court would be remiss if it didn't express its disappointment that so little thought went into developing the extras.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Original Trailer
* Martini Minutes
* Wikipedia: The Anderson Tapes