The Anderson Tapes (1971) – A Review
Sean Connery is John “Duke” Anderson, a burglar who has just been released from prison and immediately begins to plan a robbery. Eyeing his girlfriend Dyan Cannon’s ritzy New York apartment building, he plots a heist to get in and grab the valuable goods from all the tenants.
Anderson has to have some backing for this job and mobster Alan King provide’s the cash and resources Anderson will need to pull this off. It gets planned out, Anderson recruits his crew and this robbery should all go smoothly.
The quiet Labor Day weekend arrives and the heist commences. However, Anderson didn’t anticipate the new world of video and audio surveillance he’s been surrounded by since walking out of prison. By piecing together snippets of conversations from tapped phones and microphones from all the players involved, Anderson’s heist doesn’t stay quiet for very long.
I always thought it was kind of strange that Connery worked with director Sidney Lumet five times over three decades in his career – (The Hill, 1965, The Anderson Tapes, 1971, The Offense, 1972, Murder on the Orient Express, 1974, Family Business, 1989). Connery had worked with Lumet more times than any other director in his film career. Terence Young who directed him in three Bond films comes in second.
Lumet and Connery seem like such an unlikely pair – the director who came of age in television and became best known for New York set films and stories of social realism, partnering up with the Scotsman and former James Bond. To me, it’s a very unlikely team.
At the time of The Anderson Tapes, Connery was still trying to break free from his 007 shackles and establish himself as an actor who didn’t need to be sitting in Aston Martin’s and have jetpacks strapped to his back to be a success onscreen. Losing his toupee, playing a criminal and working with Lumet again seemed like the perfect way to shake up his cinematic image.
And The Anderson Tapes is a treat to watch. I always considered it an underrated Connery film. It might not be necessarily great and rank in the echelons of ‘classic heist movies’ and the tech involved in the film is obviously dated by today’s standards, but it is an entertaining yarn with a terrific cast.
John “Duke” Anderson gets out of prison and gets the idea to burgle all the apartments in girlfriend Cannon’s upper-class apartment building in a single day.
He gathers his crew, which includes a young tech whiz Christopher Walken in his film debut and Martin Balsam as an art expert. Balsam’s flamboyant gay performance would not fly today. Along with an older former jail mate by the name of Pops, who’s not adapting very well to life outside of prison.
The caper is planned over the Labor Day weekend. Thanks to mob boss Alan King, Anderson acquires all the equipment he needs for the job. However, along with a cut of the loot King also asks Anderson to bring along a thug on the caper for the sole purpose of killing him. Violence has to take place during this heist, whether Anderson likes it or not.
Throughout the film as the plan begins taking shape Anderson unknowingly walks into constant surveillance from a host of different agencies, the FBI, the DA, private investigators. None of whom are working together or even know of any of the others existence. The recordings from all the various parties in this crime becomes something like pieces of a puzzle that if someone was aware could pull them all together and discovery the larger picture that’s unfolding.
The film is really two stories, the surveillance tapes that are recording throughout the story and the actual caper. When Labor Day weekend arrives we not only get to see the criminals side of the heist as they move from apartment to apartment, overtake the tenants and start bagging the loot, but also the police who sure enough show up and try to figure out how to proceed in catching these crooks before they lose the element of surprise.
At times during the actual heist the film stops, fast forwards and we get glimpses of scenes during the aftermath after the heist. This is a pretty standard technique today, but at the time it was probably unique. It doesn’t play as stylish as it might have been when released.
In fact, the whole idea of ‘the Anderson tapes’ don’t really pay off in a very satisfying way. They’re less significant than you might expect in the context of the story. The accidental surveillance Anderson’s plan unknowingly wanders into is almost meaningless and plays as an afterthought. Even the way the heist is ultimately discovered doesn’t come from any of the ‘tapes’.
The surveillance angle the story has might provide more of a tone and visuals, such as viewing some scenes through monitors or hearing conversations through microphones, (plus allowing for an electronic score by Quincy Jones) but had the film lost that it wouldn’t have affected much in the story. I suppose at the time it gave the film a more modern feel. We were right on the cusp of Watergate and President Nixon’s audiotapes would captivate the world.
I’ve never read the book it’s based on, although I have heard the film doesn’t live up to it and the jumpy structure it apparently has which mimics the puzzle-like structure the tapes create for the story. This would make a decent double feature with 1974’s Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation – two films with a lot of the same elements, although The Conversation does a much better job utilizing surveillance and eaves dropping to a much more effective degree.
The cast are all quite good. Connery seems to be trying to inject a bit of a New York accent at times, but his heavy Scottish brogue just smothers it. He was probably not the best choice for the part, but he is good and certainly showed a larger range most movie audiences probably weren’t aware he had. He doesn’t seem to worry about gaining much sympathy from the audience either, his “Duke” is a straight up crook.
Cannon and Connery I thought had some pretty surprising sparks. Aside from his comedy, King could nail a dramatic role when needed and here he delivers.
I’m a big fan of Balsam. He’s always a welcome addition to see pop up in any movie. Here, he really dials up his homosexual character, camps it up, it’s practically a caricature performance.
It’s fun to see Walken in a small role. It’s interesting to see him just getting started in his film career. He’s literally called “The Kid”. Garrett Morris is a surprise addition to the cast who shows up as a policeman. There’s also Conrad Bain, Max Showalter and Margaret Hamilton (the wicked witch herself) as tenants of the targeted building.
But it’s Ralph Meeker who is the one who always leave a lasting impression on me as the police captain. He’s funny and somewhat blasé about this robbery he’s tasked to stop. There’s a wonderful shot in the film of him casually walking down the cordoned off street around the building acting as if he’s just a man on a casual stroll to Anderson’s prying eyes. Meanwhile the whole police force is just out of sight waiting for Meeker’s word to storm the building.
Speaking of the building Anderson robs I’ve always wanted to take a Meeker walk past it. I know it’s located 1 East 91st Street on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park. From what I’ve read about it once was a residence for millionaires, but at some point it became a girls’s school. I wonder if they have any Anderson Tapes memorabilia adorning the halls.
Yes, much like many of Lumet’s films the flavor of New York City comes oozing off the screen. It’s an unmistakable atmosphere the city gives to the movie. It’s like a ‘vintage New York City’, not the water-downed, saccharine, bland city we see today in films. Lumet’s grimy 1970’s New York has a real distinctive flavor. It might not always be pretty, but it’s certainly unique.
Connery playing a cad, the stage of Lumet’s 1970s New York, a host of character actors filling the scenes. Despite it’s shortcomings with the story and execution, it’s still an entertaining jaunt.
This was one film I always thought would be on Hollywood’s ‘Remake List’. Given all the upgrades of technology and surveillance that has happened since 1971 an updated telling of this tale would certainly look vastly different than the use of reel to reel tape machines, antennas and bulky microphones that plays a role in Anderson’s heist.
They might not even call it The Anderson Tapes anymore – is there anyone left who records on audiotape today?