Star Connery Leads Daring Heist On Luxury NYC Condo Building, Unknowingly Recorded Every Step Of The Way



“Tapes” went out with squarish analogue TVs, but the then novel surveillance state adapted from Lawrence Sanders’ 1970 bestseller by writer Frank Pierson and director Sidney Lumet, starring Sean Connery opposite Dyan Cannon and seemingly every contemporary character actor working near its New York City location-shooting, is still very much with us, even if it now takes forms undreamt of in the days of hidden cameras, concealed microphones, secret wire-tapping, closed-circuit monitors, and spinning reel-to-reel recording-devices. While the technology may have changed, the machinery of global communication and instant replication and retrieval has only intensified, the questions and moral quandaries arising from them offering no easy answers alongside their often disturbing ease of use.

Is there such a thing as a private life in the twenty-first century? Smartphones, social media, and streaming for all their convenience may suggest not, but stubborn physical media-types might possibly take refuge of a sort by giving the latest Kino Lorber Studio Classics home video-offering a living room-spin. For those naturally predisposed towards circa-1970 NYC street-views, an ingeniously twisty-turny and intriguingly gimmick-laden plot, and a gallery, nay a virtual smorgasbord of familiar character acting faces and talents, the new Blu-ray of Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes similarly offers keen enjoyment with the (relative?) privacy of one’s home-viewing equipment.

Master thief Duke Anderson (Connery) leaves Riker’s Island following a ten-year sentence and, after staying over at the extravagantly furnished rooms of his old girlfriend Ingrid Everleigh (Dyan Cannon), is immediately inspired to resume his former profession with the particularly ambitious plan of robbing an entire six-unit downtown New York City luxury building. Assembling a team of one-time associates and old cell mates, including a fey antiques dealer (Martin Balsam), a young safecracker (Christopher Walken), a wily if wary getaway driver (Dick Anthony Williams), and an old guy called “Pops” (Stan Gottlieb), Anderson bankrolls his plan past sympathetic yet reluctant mob boss Pat Angelo (Alan King). OK-ed with certain reservations, which includes tasking Duke as a goodwill gesture to the Mafia higher-ups with the unpleasant duty of knocking off a sadistic mob henchman nicknamed “Socks” (Val Avery), the plan proceeds apace with the Mayflower delivery truck rolling in to the building’s loading-dock on a sleepy Labor Day morning. What could go wrong?

Plenty. As it turns out, Duke has been listened to, followed, recorded, filmed, monitored, and bugged every step of the way, and even if all that multi-surveillance hasn’t as yet caught up directly to his criminal activity, it perhaps only remains to be seen which communication device will ultimately prove his undoing. And by extension, perhaps, in a world of twenty-four-hours-a-day, omnipresent and omnidirectional cameras, screens, monitors, and tapes, the ones with merely Anderson on them are but the thin reel-end of the thickly spinning-wedge.

Despite its novelty, perhaps the biggest weakness of the film lies in the very gimmickry described above. It is called “The Anderson Tapes” after all, and director Lumet does commit himself to the notion throughout the twists and turns of its plot that someone, somewhere, for a veritable variety of reasons/purposes, is listening and/or watching, but it remains unclear how the paranoia-induced atmosphere exactly serves the more familiar planning and execution functions of the heist plot. While the mentioned microphones, cameras, and such do seem somewhat grafted on in viewing, it is nevertheless kinda fun figuring out where each scene is being “monitored” from, and by whom, and how Anderson himself is almost completely incidental to each tape-recording, despite his name being ultimately given to them all. Is the point finally that we are all subjected to such invasive levels of device-surveillance? Again, perhaps, but if so the point is only glancingly made, remaining more a background element than a more literal device intrinsic to the plot or characters.

Rather, the real strength of The Anderson Tapes lies in what director Lumet was early in the process of becoming more widely recognized for; namely, his documentary-like eye for real New York City street-locations and settings, as populated by faces and talents best able to bring these settings and locations to vivid life. Pockmarked character actor Val Avery sauntering into a Roman bath-like sauna in a towel and socks, and so earning a hilarious nickname; later TV mainstay Conrad Bain opening the door to his apartment on that fateful Labor Day morning and almost immediately being biffed on the nose; the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, sharing another apartment in the building with another even more ancient screen veteran, Judith Lowry; film noir-era tough guy Ralph Meeker, newspaper in hand, casually strolling in front of the stately building on that same lovely Labor Day, and turning straight into a silent cordon of police blocking the area from both ends; in viewing, these accumulated vignettes, asides, and set-pieces are what really make the movie live and breathe, and in effect give/gift the film as a whole its lasting value.

Later on, The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (ibid.), and especially All the President’s Men (1976) would more incisively show the effects and consequences of living in an increasing surveillance state throughout the 1970s, but The Anderson Tapes perhaps most effectively conveys the day-to-day reality of life in a changing city, as invaluably captured for present-day viewing, with the perspective of some fifty-some years having since passed. A camera, microphone, receiver, etc. can only record what’s in front of it, but fortunately the harried activities, frequent missteps, and generally entertaining disasters of Duke Anderson and his ragtag team’s misbegotten schemes, “incidentally” recorded for a posterity that will soon be embarrassed by their “accidental” existence, still proves a generally entertaining and clever mid-afternoon’s worth of viewing.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray appears to be a re-issue of Imprint’s 2017 release of this film, with a beautifully crisp and clear transfer and especially, and appropriately, incredible background detail. Illuminating the many levels of that pictorial detail both in front of and behind the camera is critic Glenn Kenny’s 2017-recorded commentary that accompanied Imprint’s original release, itself invaluable for the variety of sources he organizes and draws upon, including his own past interviews with director Sidney Lumet and debuting co-star Christopher Walken. Kenny delivers a well-organized and insightful analysis of the film that never lags and whose confidence and breadth of knowledge will convince any listener that this is a commentator who knows of what he speaks, speaking on subjects of clear expertise. It’s a track well worth listening to. Finally, it only remains to say that The Anderson Tapes might not exist as such when the film arrives at its own self-erasing conclusion, but hopefully this Blu-ray recording of its inherently self-negating form will persist past any further lapses in pressings/printings. 

Images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are used only as a visual reference to the film.