Thursday, March 10, 2011
Business Before Pleasure
As far as I’m concerned, every serious director needs to lighten up every now and then so they can make something like a breezy heist movie, even Sidney Lumet. And even when he did make one with 1971’s THE ANDERSON TAPES he still managed to bring a certain amount of arch gravity to it. Considering how different our typical impressions of their careers are, it seems somewhat surprising now that Lumet and star Sean Connery actually made five films together with one of them, FAMILY BUSINESS, even being another heist picture. THE ANDERSON TAPES is never talked about much these days so it was that much more of a treat to see it play as part of the month programmed by Quentin Tarantino at the New Beverly Cinema, shown on a double bill with Richard Franklin’s excellent ROAD GAMES. The two films really have nothing in common beyond being thrillers that deserve to be better known and even if Tarantino didn’t introduce the films on this particular night to explain the pairing getting to see them was more than good enough anyway. Seeing THE ANDERSON TAPES projected in particular was a nice surprise—viewing it on an old, faded Columbia Home Video VHS copy years ago the film seemed kind of dry and ineffective, but returning to it now it becomes clear just how much is really going on within its twisty narrative. Combining the expected enjoyment that comes from the genre with certain weightier issues of how technology at the time was transforming how things worked between people there’s a still certain touch of cynical playfulness in how it’s all put together. I’m not sure if in the end it feels like it’s all being done for any reason other than to present the story in a somewhat different way, but since it works as well as it does there’s very little to complain about. Like a few other films in this genre I could imagine it being said that its biggest flaw is that it is somewhat cold in the end, which it sort of is, but even if THE ANDERSON TAPES is kind of a shell game where we never get to move the pieces the way we’d want to it’s still a pretty good one with enough unexpected elements to help set it apart from the rest of the genre.
After spending ten years in prison for robbery, professional crook Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) is released to the streets of New York and looks up old flame Ingrid Everleigh (Dyan Cannon), who lives in a luxury apartment building with surveillance cameras always watching as a kept woman. After getting a look at her pad Duke quickly comes up with a plan to rob the entire building, gathering together several fellow crooks including fellow former prisoner The Kid (“introducing” Christopher Walken) and prissy antiques dealer Tommy Haskins (Martin Balsam) as well as others while receiving financing from old mob acquaintance Pat Angelo (Alan King). But even as preparations continue what Duke isn't aware of are the amount of people in multiple law enforcement agencies who become aware of what's going on through their own covert surveillance techniques. And as the day of the big job draws close Duke seems to have everything figured out but certain things he hasn’t planned on are waiting to surprise everyone involved.
With a screenplay by Frank Pierson (also responsible for Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON) from the novel by Lawrence Sanders, THE ANDERSON TAPES proceeds forward right from the start with a jagged rhythm. The incessant beeps of that Quincy Jones score meant to simulate a computer always keeping an eye on the characters sometimes turning into a bouncy motif as Connery assembles his team of motley characters, with one addition tossed in by the mob to add extra tension, in timeworn heist movie fashion as we become increasingly aware of just how many agencies out there know what’s going on. Even if they don’t care it’s clear that this is all going to come to a head somehow. Always being observed by someone, even as shown in the very first shot, Duke Anderson is in over his head in ways he doesn’t even realize and wouldn’t understand even if he was told. Pre-Watergate, pre-THE CONVERSATION, THE ANDERSON TAPES shows a changing world with its characters approaching middle age becoming gradually aware how much things are changing but they’re all so resigned to how they behave anyway that they can’t think of anything else. Duke talks a good game, coming up with something to say that he’ll admit is a total lie if asked but he really just does what he does because that’s the kind of crook he is. “Nobody tells nobody nothin’” somebody says at one point and it’s become a world where people never say what they’re really thinking, where certain things have been placed over any sort of actual connection between people until all you can do is walk away from them and act for yourself.
The somewhat dry style is consistent with the typical Sidney Lumet approach but the effect it provides is so unusual in this context that it could play considerably different, whether more lighthearted or more serious, on different viewings. Regardless, it still seems bouncier than you usually get with the director and is even surprisingly adventurous at times in its structure—when the big heist begins there are even multiple flash-forwards of the hostages afterwards describing what happened lending its end a sense of inevitability even while the actual outcome is being withheld at this point. It’s actually not all that different from what was eventually done in Spike Lee’s INSIDE MAN but for 1971 the gimmick comes off as surprisingly experimental and going back to look at these sections again I was surprised how a key piece of information is laid out in those shots, only somewhat obscured and we wouldn’t know yet to look for it anyway. Considering how some of the onscreen characters choose to ignore what they learn this kind of makes sense anyway--THE ANDERSON TAPES is set in a world where everyone seems to know everything but nobody really cares and all these technological advancements really do is make the actions of anyone allegedly in charge that much more futile, with everyone that much more distrustful of each other. As shown early on, this amount of surveillance doesn’t necessarily ever reveal the actual truth of what’s going on anyway. It’s extremely analytical in its approach with very little emotion and after an opening speech in which Anderson decries the hypocrisies of the world (much of which still plays pretty timely now) it’s almost as if the cold world of surveillance that doesn’t really care very much about the big picture becomes more the lead character of this film than the one referred to in the title played by Sean Connery. To everyone supposedly in charge he’s completely irrelevant to the greater story being told.
Addressing the futility of law enforcement was certainly something that occurred in later Lumet films and particularly considering Pierson’s involvement some of this can be seen as sort of a dry run for DOG DAY AFTERNOON but not much more than sort of—the two films are really different animals. Even as things play somewhat light during the robbery like the reaction of one particular old lady to what’s going on and even the dark humor that comes from one person refusing to give up their safe combination the tension is totally genuine, with tempers that erupt between both crooks and hostages played mostly straight with a feel of gravity and seriousness that is always there. And while as the heist begins the moment feels more like the groove provided by the Quincy Jones score that any form of suspense as things proceed there’s an every-growing sense of tension rising like a metronome gradually speeding up and all through the film the tonal approach seems to be teetering on a tightrope as if Lumet is testing himself to see how far he can go with either approach at any one time. On some occasions I’m not sure it entirely works—Ralph Meeker turns up as the police captain in charge during the final stretch and the Sheldon Leonard-type speaking manner he uses may be a little too broad (and, much as I love Meeker, I wonder if the comedic nature of his blustery character isn’t a little too off-topic somehow) yet the way character is introduced, in just about the most truly striking shot of the entire film, lends him a degree of credibility instantly. What results from it all in the end is a lighthearted downbeat film of the sort that could probably only be made during this particular period with an ending that leaves the viewer pretty much at sea and yet under the circumstances seems absolutely fitting. At one point during the final stretch a medic in the back of an ambulance is seen covering up a blood-stained pillow with a fresh pillowcase, which seems to say it all. Whatever’s happened, just cover it up and it’s done with.
This is the film Connery made directly before returning to Bond in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER and he correctly plays Duke Anderson with a great deal of confidence, totally unaware how powerless he is in the grand scheme of things. With a gruff flatness to his accent and thinning hairline evident he comes off as completely imposing in every single shot he’s in—I think his eyebrows alone could beat the crap out of somebody. Freshly released from prison, he says early on that he hasn’t been laid for ten years—funny, when this was made that was almost how much time had spanned since he first began playing James Bond and one can look at his performance as a confident way to tweak the expectations of him in this kind of movie and to go against the stardom that resulted from that famous role. Looking about as beautiful as she ever did with a particularly stunning close-up when first introduced, Dyan Cannon brings a good deal of feisty attractiveness to her role as she gets more upset over whatever Duke’s planning although, truth be told, this is really one of those Angie Dickinson in OCEAN’S 11-type situations where the alleged female lead really doesn’t have that much screen time and is pretty much tossed aside by a certain point. Martin Balsam pushes the swishiness of his character up to 11 yet still manages to play certain moments as nicely understated so it never comes off as simple caricature (there’s a lot of dialogue referring to him as ‘fag’ and ‘deviant’, sometimes right to his face). Christopher Walken is the livewire you’d want to see him as at that young age, Dick Anthony Williams (many credits including DOG DAY AFTERNOON) plays well off Connery as one of the crooks recruited for the job, Stan Gottlieb is the old-timer Anderson brings in and Alan King, as the mobster who talks himself into funding this scheme, is so good in his few scenes that he could very easily have had a full movie focusing just on his character. The likes of Richard B. Shull and Conrad Bain appear, Margaret Hamilton is one of the old lady hostages in her final feature role and Garrett Morris has a surprising amount of screen time as a SWAT member during the climax—seeing him play scenes with Ralph Meeker, two actors you would never associate together, is one of those things I kind of love in discovering films like this.
I like heist movies. And, really, this is a heist movie directed by Sidney Lumet so there’s very little not to like. The dry absurdity of one scene involving a pair of telephone operators discussing a collect call may be the single funniest non-NETWORK scene of the director’s career and is only one of the surprises that can be found in the cynicism of THE ANDERSON TAPES. And while very much set in the gritty New York streets we associate with the director the kinetic feel is much more colorful, aided by the absolutely gorgeous print (apparently struck in 2008) screened at the New Beverly. Once or twice I even found myself sitting up in amazement at how the colors just popped off the screen, at just how great this film really looked. Bitter, funny, odd, exciting and definitely unique, THE ANDERSON TAPES may ultimately be a minor piece in the filmography of those involved but it still deserves to be better known than it is as what it presents has become all the more prescient, in a way turning each one of us into Duke Anderson—thinking we have some sort of idea of what we’re doing while at the same time never fully aware of who is keeping tabs and, in the end, never being sure of who winds up deciding we’re just not worth the bother.