Diamonds Aren't Forever: Close-Up on Sidney Lumet's "The Anderson Tapes"

Sidney Lumet's adaptation of a best-selling crime novel, evoking a culture overrun with spying, is nothing if not ambitious.
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes (1971) is showing December 23, 2017 - January 22, 2018 in the United Kingdom.

“Say Cheese!”

             —Bank clerk, The Anderson Tapes

“Say Cheese!”

              —Frank Sobotka, The Wire

The first thing we see in The Anderson Tapes (1971) is a television monitor, on which jailbird John ‘Duke’ Anderson (Sean Connery), speaking to camera, reveals how he became infatuated with safecracking. He likens it to rape—then revises that analogy, saying it was more like seduction. “Often, I was sexually aroused at the time.” As he’s talking, the ‘invisible’ recording apparatus through which we’re watching the monitor pans away, and we see Duke sitting, alongside other inmates, fed up of hearing his own braggadocio. It’s his last day in the can; at the end of the film, the NYPD cops in pursuit of this recently-freed career criminal will discover his whereabouts thanks to another recording device—an illegal wiretap being used to surveil the Upper East Side apartment he and a motley crew of robbers have just burgled.

The thieves include antiques expert Haskins (Martin Balsam) and a younger con, to whom Duke refers only as ‘the kid’ (Christopher Walken, in his first credited screen role). Their plan is funded by mafioso Pat Angelo (Alan King). They tread quietly—but the movie doesn’t. Though understated in many other ways, Sidney Lumet’s 16th feature makes no bones about signposting its central theme. Evoking a culture overrun with spying, it foregrounds and emphasizes the technology of voyeurism: bugs, tracking devices, shotgun microphones, security cameras, closed circuit television sets, illegal wiretaps, private detectives and, in a scene resembling something from the James Bond universe that Connery was about to leave behind, a microphone disguised as a pen. A brave new world: even when establishing something as banal as a bank account, an ex-con must pose for a picture—the photographer’s otherwise innocuous gesture accompanied by a sound design straight from a science fiction film.

Duke is conditioned for crime. Asked in the opening scene about his imminent release from prison after ten years in the slammer, he wastes no time in delivering the kind of mouthpiece rant that clues us in on a film’s character as well as what the work itself might be about. "What’s advertising but a legalized con game?" he asks. "What the hell’s marriage? Extortion. Prostitution. Soliciting with a government stamp on it. What the hell’s your stock market? A fixed horserace. Some business guy steals a bank, he’s a big success story, face on all the magazines. Some other guy steals the magazine, and he’s busted."

In the bus terminal where they’re first dropped off, Duke and the kid help ‘Pop’ (Stanley Gottlieb), an inmate since "Nineteen and Thirty-One," to search his pockets for some evidence of a fixed abode. Security staff, spotting the good deed on their CCTV system, misinterpret it as a shakedown. "Jesus," Duke remarks when accosted. "Almost didn’t make it out of the bus station!" They are, in the fuzzy, steely blue palette of a security monitor, guilty till proven otherwise. In the ‘unmediated’ images of the film—that is, those in which we see the characters directly, as in not on or via another screen—colors reign: pinks, greens, yellows. It’s as if the future, a world of bedazzling saturation, is slowly becoming controlled, imposed upon, displaced—by a grimmer avatar of itself. (Ironically, whereas one typeface used in the film’s trailers evoked old media, in the opening credits of the film itself we’re in pure space-adventure territory.)

All of this front-loading suggests, in both scale and style, a satire. But while The Anderson Tapes is often funny—at times unexpectedly so—its social commentary seldom bites. Adapted from Lawrence Sanders’ 1970 bestselling debut novel, Frank Pierson’s script preserved the literary device of the source material—framing the story through a patchwork of testimonies and government documents—while transforming it into a more forward-moving picture. Wrote Roger Greenspun, in his review for the New York Times: "About the gimmick I am of several minds, mostly negative because it has very little to do with the development of action, and at the end functions as an irrelevantly topical sour joke."

If Lumet and Pierson had institutional mechanisms in their sights, we might also say that they pull their punches. This was, of course, very Lumet: direct in manner yet loose in feel. Why make a film about one thing when you could make a film about several? The Anderson Tapes is nothing if not ambitious. Ambiguous, too, in its way—not so much in theme or meaning as in narrative focus and, perhaps most profitably, moral ambivalence. There’s something casual about it; as if the makers (almost) weren’t aware that their material had historical urgency. I love the unusual touches of humor, too. When Duke introduces the other thieves to ‘Socks’ Parelli (Val Avery), a mafia button hired for the job—but who Duke has also been tasked with snuffing—they laugh at his name: "He don’t need no socks. He’s got hair all over his feet."

If The Anderson Tapes contains elements that are now immediately evocative of post-Watergate America, it doesn’t quite thematize them—at least not in the same way that a film like, say, Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) seemed to. The narrative set-up—all that cross-cutting, between thieves planning to burgle an entire tenement building on East 91st Street and the various agencies following their movements unbeknownst to one another—places Lumet’s film in line more with the heist movie than the paranoid thriller. This isn’t some moody character study. Indeed, in what is perhaps the most satirically absurd sequence in the film, just as the robbery itself grows increasingly violent, we cut to a phone operator mediating between long-distance callers—who are trying to report the crime—and the New York Police Department. In changing times, who will foot the bill?

Timing is all. The Anderson Tapes was released just months after the burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, which uncovered documents proving its illegal monitoring of civil rights and leftist groups (as recounted in Johanna Hamilton’s 2014 documentary, 1971). On the other hand, Lumet and Pierson’s film could only anticipate the fixations that came to dominate 1970s American discourse: unable to articulate changes in political mood that were still to happen—much less milk or dwell on the extent to which such shifts would accommodate more hysterical (and more celebrated) artistic treatments—the film feels like the outcome of solid but unsensational storytelling. But everything is there: among the organizations prying on Duke and co. we can count the Feds, the NYPD, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the IRS, the HUAC and POM—Peace of Mind, which specializes in spying on adulterous wives. In the office of one such agency, we spot a portrait of Richard Nixon; the film was released a year prior to the scandal that led to the 37th POTUS resigning from office.

Spoiler alert: the thieves don’t get away. Keen to return to prison, Pop—the clan’s oldest recruit, whose contribution to the burglary was to impersonate the building’s concierge—turns himself in. "Book him!" says Captain Delaney (Ralph Meeker). Pop, who spent forty years in jail for killing a cop, has no family and no job. In every scene he epitomizes confusion, panic, sadness. Having had enough of a life without bars, he greets the cops like a man being rescued: "Thank you, Captain!"

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