Monday, June 01, 2009

Monday Movie Review: The Anderson Tapes

The Anderson Tapes (1971) 7/10
Duke Anderson (Sean Connery), released from prison after serving ten years for safecracking, plans the intricate heist of the entire luxury apartment building he lives in with his girlfriend, Ingrid (Dyan Cannon). Directed by Sidney Lumet.

Anderson is angry at the world, but he loves robbery. He describes it in sexual terms, admitting frankly he's aroused by it. Immediately upon being released from prison he is ready to put together the next job. On his crew are Haskins (Martin Balsam), a flamboyantly gay interior designer, "The Kid" (Christopher Walken, in an "and Introducing" role), who is an electronics expert, and Spencer (Dick Anthony Williams), the coolest driver in Harlem.

Anderson is also being taped. To be specific, everyone Anderson encounters is being taped; Ingrid's apartment is bugged by a private detective who is bribing the building doorman, Spencer is being watched because he lives above Black Panther headquarters, and the mobster (Alan King) to whom Anderson goes for financing is being investigated by multiple sources.

There's a lot going on here. The paranoia about a society that watches and tapes everyone and everything, all of us filming and spying on each other, was very new and fresh in 1971, and it's filmed with that sense of newness. Anderson has been in jail for ten years, so it's all an unknown to him; it didn't exist in 1961. Quincy Jones's score highlights moments of surveillance with electronic sound effects that are like warnings and alarms. As dated as it is, it still succeeds in conveying a sense of overwhelm at the amount of electronic data being gathered.

At the same time, there's an amusing and quirky cast who behave in a naturalistic way. There's a late scene where someone has to use a rope to scale a ledge; it's done awkwardly and without heroic grace. There's a guttural quality to the sexuality, and a pleasant sloppiness in the way people talk and move.

Let's pause for politics: We fail the Bechdel test badly in terms of major characters: Only one woman, and she's a whore. We pass on a technicality; two elderly women live together in the building (this was Margaret Hamilton's last film appearance). The attitude towards women is pretty negative. There's also the gay thing. There are two gay designers in this movie, both constantly and casually referred to as "fag" by several characters (but not by their friends). And these men are both insanely stereotyped in their queeny clothes and gestures and, well, everything. I know people can easily say this is homophobic. But there's something delightful to me about it; so few movies of that era showed gays at all, or identified them directly as gay, or liked them as characters (and we definitely like Balsam). It strikes me as real; that yes, there are gay people, and yes, they will be called fags, and yes, they might be campy. It's also homophobic in that, of course, they are only campy and only stereotypes, but for 1971 I'm giving it a hurrah. (It's pretty much consistent Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a brilliant movie with a frank but problematic portrayal of gay characters).

On the whole, the heist and small character stuff works better than the efforts at meaning and deeper stuff, but the movie is richly entertaining and wonderfully gritty. I love New York City locations in the 1970s, I love heists, and Chris Walken, by the way, at the age of 28, looked like a god.

(Covertly cross-posted from an undisclosed location.)