If you thought public concern about ubiquitous surveillance was a recent phenomenon, The Anderson Tapes (1971) — a crime caper with a distinctly 1970s political angle — will probably disabuse you of that notion. This was one of the few Sidney Lumet films from that time period I hadn’t seen yet, but now I’ve caught up via Netflix.
The story revolves around an elaborate burglary, orchestrated by Duke Anderson (Sean Connery), a safe-cracker who’s just served a ten-year prison sentence and is anxious to get back to work upon his release. Shortly after a booty call to his old flame Ingrid (Dyan Cannon), Anderson decides — somewhat arbitrarily — to knock off the entire ritzy apartment building she lives in. To that end he rounds up a crew, which includes such notables as Martin Balsam and a young Christopher Walken, and he secures funding from an old mafia connection (Alan King). Then he leads his team into action, planning to loot every last valuable from the highly secure building.
It all sounds like classic heist material, but think again — if you’re expecting precision timing, narrow escapes, and pure visual story-telling, you’re not going to get it. The film isn’t so much about the crime as it is about the muddled and incompetent response of the authorities, who are surveilling many of the criminals from the outset (and the film makes no bones about this) but are so uncoordinated they fail head it off adequately. Sadly, something of a timeless message, there…but unfortunately it’s embedded in rather dated packaging. The Anderson Tapes is very much a product of its era, from its “futuristic” title fonts to its esoteric, if jazzy, Quincy Jones score. It also pulls off that dubious 1970s trick of incorporating ostensibly liberal/progressive elements, without really doing so all that flatteringly. (See Balsam’s flamboyantly homosexual antiques dealer and Cannon’s sexually liberated golddigger — characters that probably would have been controversial a few years earlier, and therefore welcome in a sense, but not all that sympathetically treated by the script.) Still, one of the things I like most about movies from this time period is that they can be so casually ambitious thematically; this could easily have been a mindlessly enjoyable entertainment, but its inherently political message makes it a much more interesting film than it otherwise would have been. I wish it had made that message a bit less sloppily, but even so I found it worth a look.