Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Anderson Tapes: "America, man! You know, it's so beautiful I wanna eat it!"

'America, man! You know, it's so beautiful I wanna eat it!'
I can't think of a more fitting quote to put at the top of this Fourth of July Weekend blog post. It's a standout line uttered early on by Christopher Walken in his big-studio debut, the 1971 Columbia Pictures heist flick The Anderson Tapes.

I finally got around to watching The Anderson Tapes the other day. Before Sidney Lumet's nifty little caper made its debut on DVD in September as part of Sony's "Martini Movies" imprint (uh, Sony, I think you missed the lounge movement by about 10 years), it was on my list of films I--a fan of '70s heist flicks like the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Hot Rock--wanted to watch but wasn't able to because they weren't available on disc.

I always dug the Smackwater Jack version of Quincy Jones' Anderson Tapes theme, which features the late Freddie Hubbard on flugelhorn and a nice harmonica solo by Toots Thielemans. That version of the theme actually never turns up during Jones' unreleased, love-it-or-hate-it score, which is filled with early synthesizer bloops and squeals due to the paranoid film's subject of pre-Watergate (and pre-Conversation) surveillance.

The Randomatic sits in storage somewhere with other hilariously now-outdated '70s and '80s gadgets like that Etch-a-Sketch-ish police sketch machine from For Your Eyes Only and the Daggit from the old Battlestar Galactica.
Some viewers find the bloops and squeals to be grating and distracting, while I don't mind them at all. Jones' bloops and squeals--along with the now-goofy-looking Randomatic computer that's used by the film's NYPD officer characters to pull up criminal records--lend The Anderson Tapes a certain analog charm. The groovetastic sound effects remind me of the electronic noises during Roman Coppola's amusing 2001 film about the making of a low-budget French sci-fi flick, CQ, which takes place in the same era.

'Isch that a Lakers jersey under your skirt? Take the bloody thing off! You know I'm all aboat the Knicks.'
Sean Connery ditched the 007 hairpiece--or rather, chose a more revealing hairpiece--to star as Duke Anderson, a newly freed, unrepentant ex-con who plots an elaborate Labor Day heist at the ritzy Fifth Avenue apartment building of his high-priced hooker girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon). In other Connery/Lumet collabos, particularly The Hill and The Offence (when's that film going to hit DVD?), Lumet clearly loved giving Connery speeches that were long and fiery (yet not overwrought). Eager to move past his rather limited 007 persona, Connery excelled at those speeches, and he pulled off another juicy one here, an anti-authority screed that's more Cool Hand Luke than 007, courtesy of Cool Hand Luke screenwriter Frank Pierson ("What's advertising but a legalized con game? And what the hell's marriage? Extortion, prostitution, soliciting with a government stamp on it.").

Duke Anderson failed to deprive people of their money on Labor Day Weekend without getting caught. He should have just started his own Labor Day telethon for broke ex-cons who can't hack it outside prison.
Anderson's crew includes a younger safecracker known simply as "the Kid" (Walken, whose eccentric line delivery is made even weirder by the fact that he really does look like a kid here), unflappable getaway driver Spencer (Dick Anthony Williams) and gay antiques dealer Tommy (if acting styles were KFC recipes, Martin Balsam's would be Extra Swishy). They'd be the tightest crew in the history of caper movies, if they weren't so oblivious to then-recent advances in surveillance technology, which have allowed government agents or cops to illegally monitor the activities of everyone Anderson comes into contact with, from his associates to his girlfriend. Those lawmen aren't even interested in Anderson's next score. They've been spying on everyone in Anderson's circle because of unrelated improprieties, whether past or alleged. Black Panther-hating Feds are profiling Spencer, who lives near a Panther Party chapter, the IRS is keeping tabs on Anderson's Mafioso benefactor (Alan King), and Ingrid's jealous sugar daddy (Richard B. Schull) has hired a private detective to listen in on her trysts with her clients.

'We're gonna rob every single copy of 'Zardoz,' 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' 'The Country Bears' and 'Gigli' we can find and then lock them away in a vault, never to be found again. Are you in, kid?'In The Anderson Tapes (which the creatively bankrupt Sony has been attempting to remake, and I hope the box-office failure of their Pelham remake discourages them), it's interesting to see narrative devices and character types Lumet would revisit in later, better-known works. Lumet jumbled the Labor Day heist's time frame--a gimmick the director would re-use in The Offence and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The flashbacks to the heist are less distracting here than in Before the Devil. The crooked cops of Serpico, Prince of the City and Night Falls on Manhattan are cut from the same cloth as the lawmen who illegally bug or wiretap Anderson's cohorts (the only likable cop in The Anderson Tapes is a resourceful SWAT team leader played by a pre-SNL Garrett Morris). The victims of Anderson's heist get some standout lines and are as fleshed out as Al Pacino's hostages from my favorite Lumet film, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon. The heist sequence's tension is offset by some welcome comic relief from Judith Lowry as an elderly resident who doesn't seem to mind being robbed (Lowry was the same ornery old lady who stole scenes in Norman Lear's not-yet-on-DVD satire Cold Turkey, also released in 1971).

If you can find Walken's obscure 2000 indie movie The Opportunists, in which he plays a world-weary safecracker whose mentorship of a younger crook carries echoes of the Connery character's mentorship of Walken's upstart safecracker, it would make for an intriguing double feature with The Anderson Tapes. Walken's performance in The Opportunists--it's Walken in not-so-weird Catch Me If You Can mode--is one of his most underrated. Too bad The Opportunists is rather listless for a caper flick. Compared to the fun and nail-biting Anderson Tapes, The Opportunists is--to borrow a line from one of Walken's many quotable SNL sketches--a Stiffly Stifferson.


  1. So does an actual "The Anderson Tapes OST" lp exist, or is "Smackwater Jack" the only release featuring some of the movie's music?

  2. Unfortunately, an Anderson Tapes OST has never been released. There's only that re-recording of the movie's main theme that's found on the Smackwater Jack album and several Quincy Jones comps.

  3. "The Offence" has been out on DVD in the UK for years!!!

    soundtracks electronic realisation by Peter Zinovieff (EMS, London)!!!

  4. It don't get any grittier or 1970's-Archetypal-New-York-Bad/Good-Cops-And-Robbers-With-The-Man-Breathing-Down-Their-Neck-Flick-ish than this (ok, maybe "The Seven Ups" and "The French Connection" get close). Urban social decay rarely has looked so well. The line Alan King's Mafiaso delivers about crabgrass steals the movie completely.