Stars Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken, Ralph Meeker, Val Avery, Garrett Morris, Judith Lowry, Margaret Hamilton, Dick Williams, Richard B. Schull, Stan Gottlieb.
Between ATMs, fast food drive-thrus, shopping malls, supermarkets, and the like, Americans are now said to be caught on camera an average of 70 times a day. Imagine how it must have felt in 1971 for professional safe-blower John “Duke” Anderson (Sean Connery) to greet the then-nascent technology after recently wrapping up a 10-year stint in the hoosegow. Sandwiched between two paragons of scrutinous cinematic surveillance — Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) — The Anderson Tapes has the feel of a made-for-TV crime flick in spite of director Sidney Lumet’s insistence on pushing the material in the direction of artsy fartsy earnestness.
In a world of dog eat dog, Anderson confesses to wanting the first bite, but he’s so out of step with civilization that he doesn’t say “Cheese” until after the picture is snapped. Back on the streets, his goal is to spend an afternoon knocking off every unit in a small but elite New York apartment building. Why this block of flats? Not unlike the writers, Anderson doesn’t want to exert himself. The first place he lands outside of jail — the dwelling of his high-priced callgirl girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon) — is the first place he’s fixing to rob. Nary a shot goes by without some form of surveillance equipment in the frame: microphones strapped to a waiter’s garter belt or hidden in the fountain pen clipped to a nurse’s breast pocket. Reel-to-reel recording tape is constantly rolling while the doorman’s station of the plush complex comes equipped with more television monitors than a post-production facility. (Why would anyone choose to rob a building with this much built-in policing?) In that sense, the film is years ahead of its time. But rather than incorporating a barrage of peeping tom technology to underscore a thread of constant dread that comes with the ubiquitous, privacy-robbing remote cameras, Lumet uses the stealth equipment as decoration.
The collapse of the studio system in the late ’60s ushered in the most flagrant decade of political incorrectness since Al Jolson died and went to heaven on a mule. Women and minorities were still being depicted as whores and second-class citizens, but not their swarthy male counterparts. Our first sighting of Anderson comes, not surprisingly, via a closed-circuit black-and-white Motorola. He’s the burglar comparing safe cracking to rape. In both cases he fell in love with his jobs and the sexual fulfillment that accompanied them. (His earliest gigs as a home-invader found him entering the cracked safes fully aroused.) Back in the day, material like this was played for laughs. But nothing was more flagrantly (or tastelessly) foisted on the audience than Martin Balsam’s stereotypical limp-wristed interior decorator, Haskins. One chuckles when Haskins’ female secretary feigns disappointment upon learning that swarthy Anderson’s inquiring about her boss leaves her out of the running. Haskins’ character development consisted of a string of “faggot” jokes that would choke Paul Lynde. It’s one thing for racist dialog to be a mitigating factor in a character’s shading. No one laughs when Socks (Val Avery) copped to not wanting to “work with spooks.” But listen to the audience howl when the doorman answers the phone and describes Haskins as a “fag” to his face.
The heist takes up the final third of the film, with Lumet kneecapping suspense at every turn with flash-forward, post-heist interviews with the victims. (The kid in the wheelchair with the ham radio as a plot device is the toughest roadblock to get past.) The location work is well worth the effort, as is a veritable Who’s Who of New York character actors in ’70s cinema. Comedian Alan King shows a serious side as the sentimental mafioso who underwrites Anderson’s endeavor. Garrett Morris is a cop assigned a makeshift SWAT team made up of beat cops. It was Christopher Walken’s first feature — he’s a jailbird who did time for drugs, not the “bang bang stuff” as Anderson put it — and Margaret Hamilton’s last. Octogenarian Judith Lowry (Husbands, Cold Turkey) was finally making a name for herself as a cantankerous character actress. Anthony Holland and Conrad Bain appeared as doctors while Sam Coppola (Tony Manero’s boss in Saturday Night Fever) pops up as a private dick. Richard B. Schull (Klute, Cockfighter) stops the show as Ingrid’s “owner,” Werner Gottlieb, a wealthy cuckolder who sets her up in a lifestyle she’s grown accustomed to and refuses to share her with another man. The title tapes aren’t a government issue, but the work of a P.I. hired by Gottlieb to spy on the couple. It’s the film’s acting centerpiece with cold-blooded Cannon as the spider woman looking to sell out any man who stands in her way of tax-exempt status.
Bonus features include an audio commentary by respected film historian Glenn Kenny, and a couple of trailers.