The Anderson Tapes (1971) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Sanders_Anderson-Tapes_dellGiven how surveillance culture has jumped to the very top of the political agenda, I thought it might be intriguing, and possibly even salutary, to look at a novel and film that got there very early, even before the Watergate scandal made bugging the stuff of everyday meetings. Lawrence Sanders made his Edgar-winning debut with this satirical caper story, told entirely through transcripts of one kind or another with just the occasional contextual intro from the author.

I offer this review for Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge over at her Doing Dewey blog (for links, click here); Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Todd’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

Simons: “You want to hit one of the apartments?”
Anderson: “No, Mr Simons. I want to hit the whole building. I want to take over the entire f****ng building and clean it out.”

The eponymous recordings refer to John “Duke” Anderson, a hard man from Kentucky who enjoys some decidedly ‘unorthodox’ sexual practices and who is dedicated to his life of crime. For him, in life as in sex, there is no difference between straight and crooked – everything for him is completely ‘bent’ as he explains in his own imperfect hand:

Anderson: “We are all criminels. It is all just a  question of degree, like first, second or third degree.”

A book very much of its time, it posits an amoral, anti-authoritarian world view, where distinctions of right and wrong are completely irrelevant in the pursuit of personal liberation from the shackles of conformity and financial servitude through the acquisition of power though filthy lucre. After a stint in Sing Sing, Anderson starts seeing the recently divorced Helga Everleigh. She got her apartment, a luxurious Sanders_Anderson-Tapes_pbpad at 535 East Seventy-Third Street, as part of the settlement after the end of her marriage to a man who belatedly realised he was gay. But she is now making up for lost time with Anderson, who is into domination and S&M practices, the details of which we can only guess at since we only hear what they do through various wiretaps, with nothing ever actually described. Anderson on the other hand is mainly interested in the building, planning to knock it off from top to bottom in a plan worthy of Donald Westlake, though the tone here is much more abrasive, albeit laced with much black humour. The story is broken down into 94 chapters as we beaver away through the transcripts of all kind of surveillance – as Sanders laconically interjects at one point:

“At the time, these premises were under electronic surveillance from at least, and possibly more, law investigation agencies. Apparently there was no cooperation between these agencies.”

Anderson needs funds to get his crew together and ends up getting finance from the mob, not realising that they are probably more interested in seeing him fail than succeed – unfortunately for him they are all under some sort of surveillance, either by the FBI, the NSA, the police, even the IRS and the SEC are monitoring somebody who is connected with the job (in one delirious throwaway joke, it turns out that Anderson’s butcher is also under survelillance, from the FDA). However, because the agencies don’t talk to each other, nothing happens until the day of the hit, in which all the carefully laid out plans start to unravel when one of the residents, confined to a wheelchair and left in his own apartment, is able to send out a distress signal via ham radio. It is one of the strengths of the book that it manages to sustain the momentum of the story despite its unusual structure, which shifts with the arrival of the police – in the shape of Edward X. “Iron Balls” Delaney – realigning the point of view to the reports and communications from the ‘other side.’ Even so we are still curious to know what will happen next and see if Anderson and his crew of misfits will be able to get away. The odds are not in their favour though, so it is left to Anderson’s cynical old friend Ingrid, whose extreme sexual practices are the only way that he can truly ‘get out,’ to sum up what the book is really about:

Ingrid: “… I learned where the money was and where the power was. Then there was nothing I would not do. It was war – total war. I hit back. Then I hit first. That is very important. The only crime in this world is to be poor. That is the only crime. If you are not poor you can do anything.

This is an intelligent and funny novel that will probably still seem relevant to a lot of new readers. It was a huge hit in its day, setting up Sanders as the purveyor of increasingly long and sex-obsessed bestsellers, the best of them featuring Delaney, promoted from subsidiary character to central protagonist – here is the list of the series in which he appeared, in one of which (The Third Deadly Sin) the female serial killer is driven by a very extreme form of PMT (surely a literary first):

The Edward X. “Iron Balls” Delaney series:

The Anderson Tapes (1970)
The First Deadly Sin (1973)
The Second Deadly Sin (1977)
The Third Deadly Sin (1981)
The Fourth Deadly Sin (1985)

A film version was seemingly inevitable, though clearly the filmmakers would have to work very hard to handle this most unusual of texts …

Anderson-Tapes-poster

In re-watching the film adaptation, what struck especially forcefully was how much this felt like a dry run for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the later and much more celebrated collaboration between director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson. Both are New York stories with a strong satirical edge in which a gang of armed men attempt to execute a robbery and end up taking several hostages. This leads to an extended stand-off with the police and an unhappy ending that emphasises the anti-authoritarian stance and a sympathy at the despair of those driven to the margins of society, expressed in part in terms of sexual difference. In most respects this is a faithful adaptation, albeit one that has to jettison the basic narrative conceit along with some purely cosmetic changes. To deal with the easy stuff first, Ingrid and Helga get amalgamated into a single composite character (‘Ingrid Everleigh’) with Dyan Cannon cast as the seemingly happy hooker who ultimately bails on Anderson when her other (better paying) boyfriend put the squeeze on. She thus exits the story at the halfway mark, never to be seen again, which is a real shame and completely alters the balance of the movie at the end. All the references to S&M and Anderson’s unorthodox sexual preferences have also been excised.

Anderson-Tapes_Connery-Cannon

On the other hand the character of Tommy Haskins has been more or less been grafted onto the book’s Mann character and, as played by Martin Balsam, is turned into a flaming queen with a bouffant wig, which does grate a bit even making allowances for the vintage (speaking of wigs, it is said that this was the first film in which Connery played the leading role sans toupée – I think his earlier Lumet film, The Hill, got there first myself …). Dick Anthony Williams plays ‘Spencer’ more or less as he appears in the book (minus all the hipster rhyming slag though, maybe a good thing); Val Avery is perfect as the thuggish Parelli, as is Ralph Meeker as Delaney, very close to the book and very far away from how Frank Sinatra played the role in the 1980 film adaptation of The First Deadly Sin.

Anderson-Tapes_lobby

The rest of the crew has been changed completely, with Christopher Walken (in his debut) playing ‘The Kid’ and Stan Gottlieb as ‘Pop’, who were both released at the same time as Duke (now a ‘limey’ to explain Connery’s accent and whose prison term incidentally has been increased considerably to over 10 years). Now the hard bit – to try and keep a vestige of the original premise of the novel, Pierson and Lumet still have Duke and the others under surveillance, albeit mainly video rather than just audio, and the shifts in chronology in which the victims of the robbery recount in the past tense what happened to them as the rest of the narrative progresses in more linear fashion is also retained. The only thing is, it doesn’t work as well when divorced from the context of Sanders’ original storytelling device, coming across more obviously as a bit of a gimmick. Having all the tapes wiped at the end is a nice touch, but for those who haven’t read the book, it may seem a bit perplexing. Full marks for trying and for keeping so much of the dialogue and story, half marks for not finding a more complex cinematic form to match the narrative strategy of the novel (today of course you would just make all the film in popular ‘found footage’ style of The Truman Show, Chronicle, Cloverfield, Blair Witch, et al).

DVD Availability: Available on both DVD and Blu-ray in the US on a double-bill with the Michael Crichton thriller Physical Evidence starring Burt Reynolds (review coming to Fedora soon-ish), it is also easy to get as a standalone edition. All boast the same very good widescreen transfer with no extras whatsoever.

The Anderson Tapes (1971)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Producer: Robert Weitman
Screenplay: Frank Pierson
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Art Direction: Philip Rosenberg
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Christopher Walken, Alan King, Ralph Meeker, Margaret Hamilton, Val Avery, Garrett Morris

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘amateur detective’ category as this role is in fact taken by Lawrence Sanders, who writes himself into the story, interviewing many of the (fictional) characters:

vintage-silver-marked-card-xx

 

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Sanders, New York, Sidney Lumet and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to The Anderson Tapes (1971) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    I saw this first-run and it’s stuck with me ever since. Love this film. Has there ever been a more underappreciated actor-director collaboration than Sean Connery and Sidney Lumet? They worked so well together. Wonderful write-up, Sergio.

    • Thanks Mike – I agree, their five films together span a quarter of a century of great filmmamking and are certainly very varied – and it’s worth remembering that Connery only rarely worked with a director more than once after he established himself.

  2. Sergio – Thanks as ever for your review. I vaguely remember the film, ‘though I don’t remember it well. It sounds like the book is quite different, though, with more and deeper characters. Or perhaps that’s just my wrong-headed sense of it. It’s interesting to me how Sanders had a sense of the role that recordings would play in our lives even then. Forward-thinking indeed…

    • Thansk Margot – well, i suppose his journalistic background may have dictated (pun intended) form and content but I think it does offer a fascinating worldview along with its stuctural innovations.

  3. justjack says:

    I read the book many years ago, not knowing who Lawrence Sanders was–basically, I liked Sean Connery and I knew he was in a movie made from this book, so I wanted to read the book (my parents wouldn’t let me see the movie because it was rated R. It was one of the first totally grown-up books I read, and while I didn’t totally get it, I did like the surveillance tapes transcript gimmick. I only finally ever got around to seeing the movie last year, and I found I liked it a LOT. It’s got that gritty, everything’s effed-up early 70’s New York vibe. A movie worth re-discovering, i think.

    • Thanks Jack – yes, it really couldn’t be any other city at any other time, could it? I really liked the book and is one fo the case where beogn already familiar with the story through the movie didn’t hurt it at all as the differences are substantial and yet the changs were probably inevitable.

  4. richmcd says:

    Interesting. So is the book only transcripts of the tapes? Or is there regular third person narration as well?

    • Sanders provides short intros to each of the transcripts to provide context on provenance and what agency undertook the recording. He also appears as a character, interviewing some of those involved after the fact. But there is otherwise no third person narration of any kind, no scene description etc etc. It works very well – sure, it’s an update of Wilkie Collins, but a very good one and its sexual politics are fascinating (Sanders seems to have got carried away very quickly by this angle in later books)

  5. Colin says:

    I’ve only ever seen the film, which I like a lot. I would have been in my teens when I first saw it and it stuck with me. Maybe it doesn’t work quite as well once you’re familiar with the book (which I think is the point you’re making at the end) yet I found it absorbing in its own right.
    Lumet was a great filmmaker, probably at his best in the 70s though still producing quality work right up to the end.

    • I recently re-watched 12 ANGRY MEN and was impressed by just how assured a movie debut it is – I think the book is superior, but in a complimentary way and the adaptation is pretty close – it just can;t quite find a proper movie equivalent for the bugging. Perhaops wisely they made it a lot less about surveillance, but they also took away quite a lot fo the anti-establishment elements, so ultimately ou are left with less than you might. But I agree, the film works well on its own terms, but looks forward to Lumet’s best work from that decade without quite belonging to it.

      • Colin says:

        I wouldn’t say it’s the best of Lumet’s 70s work either – it’s still a strong movie though.
        Interesting that you feel the anti-establishment elements are watered down (removed?) in the movie. I still got that vibe myself, though it’s never far from the surface in so many films of the period.

        • You’re right, ‘waterred down’ would be a better way of putting it – but by removing the character of Ingrid you lose a lot of that in the translation. Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon was just round the corner and there are definitely links to this film – they are certainly all coming from the same place.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I think all of Lumet’s work had a strain of anti-establishment sentiment running through it, from 12 Angry Men right up to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead fifty years later.

          • I haven’t seen his last film actually – I do really like his work, though admittedly there are some (like The Wiz) that I can live without – surprisingly, his fairly trashy courtroom thriller Guilty as Sin, scripted by the great B-movie auteur Larry Cohen, works a treat in my view.

          • Colin says:

            Well, everybody has a few clunkers among their credits.
            I’ve never seen Guilty as Sin and thought about picking it up a few times before – good to know you rate it.

          • I actually saw it at the cinema – now that’s dedication for you! And yeah, I agree – he was famously restless and agreed to several projects that he probably shouldn’t have (never been able to bring myself to watch his Melanie Griffith vehicle, Stranger Among Us)

          • Colin says:

            Generally, I try to avoid any film with Melanie Griffith…

          • Apart from Married to the Mob and Body Double, I would have to agree though I thought she was also good, albeit in a supporting role, in Nobody’s Fool. OK, starting to soubnd like Life of Brian now …

  6. I saw the film years ago, but don’t think I was fully aware there was a book. The books sounds very interesting. According to my records, I have read one book by Lawrence Sanders: The Loves of Harry S. Only vague memories.

    • You keep records of your reading? Cool 🙂 I’ve not read that one actually, but I gave up on his stuff fairly early on as they seemed to be increasingly part of that doorstopper Harold Robbins / Arthur Hailey type of book that I just have no patience for – besides, they seemed to be insanely long!

      • Since 1987, I have been noting down every book I read. And in 1987…. I thought it was too late to start! How wrong can you be. In around 2008 a friend told me I should write a brief note about each one (by this time they were on a spreadsheet) – I thought it was too late to start that too, so glad I was wrong. Now that I’m blogging it’s less important, mind you.

        • Brilliant stuff – I wish I had had that foresight – and let’s face it, blogs are hardly guaranteed to be permanently available either, so I think if you still keep up the lists you are probably still doing it right 🙂

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    Read it and saw the film years ago and not since. I read quite a bit of Lawrence Sanders years ago.

  8. Sergio, thanks for an excellent review of a film based on Sanders’ book which I read in my youth, a period when I also read a lot of novels by writers of popular fiction that included Sidney Sheldon as well as Hailey and Robbins as you mentioned in comments above. I read some of the “Deadly Sin” series too. In fact, there’s always a couple of Sanders lying about the house. I don’t think I have seen this film, though, although the presence of Connery and the images are vaguely familiar. I saw DOG DAY AFTERNOON one afternoon, bunking office, and remember liking it, particularly since I’d just watched Pacino’s other cult movie SCARFACE. The former was remade into a rather successful Hindi film.

  9. Kelly says:

    I’m not very familiar with the film or the book, but they sound cool. I know you mentioned they predate Watergate, but the comparison still made me perk up, as it’s one of my mild obsessions (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is one of my fave films).

    • Absolutely Kelly – All the President’s Men is just such a terrific film (from any decade), beautifully acted, shot (by the late, great Gordon Willis) and written (by the eternal William Goldman) – how appalling to think that in the era on Karl Rove what a minor infraction the Watergate scandal now seems by comparison

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    I’ve never read any of Sanders’s books. I did give the film version of this a try (I lvoe Sean Connery), but I just couldn’t finish it. Definitely not my style at all. And I don’t think, from your review, that the book would suit me either. I do think the surveillance angle is an interesting one, but I don’t know that I’d appreciate the grittiness.

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  12. richmcd says:

    Literally just finished this ten minutes ago. Not completely sure yet what I think, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. I’d expected to find the heist side of things interesting, the sex stuff offputting and the gimmick of the tapes a little tiresome, but I was completely wrong: the gimmick works very successfully, the scenes with Ingrid and Cynthia are some of the best in the book, but the actual crime seems rather simplistic for a 300-page story, both in its conception and how it went wrong. I kept expecting there to be another layer to things, but nothing materialised. I wasn’t bored, but I don’t understand why all the reviews on the back say it’s “fast-moving”, except in the sense that the chapters were very short. The first two-thirds of the book is just logistics and planning!

    I think I was expecting a more complicated heist, with higher stakes, and either some sort of twist ending (Anderson having a contingency plan or ulterior motive, “Lawrence Sanders” as the fictional compiler within the story having a more active role to play) or for there to be a deeper point about surveillance (Sanders seems to have more incisive things to say about sex, death and the nature of crime than surveillance or law enforcement). The satire of having all these agencies recording these conversations without realising it is a funny idea, but I think a lot more could have been made of it.

    • Sounds to me as though we both liked it the same way Rich – what good about is that as a book of its time it explores counterculture and anti-establishment themes. I agree, as a crime / caper book it is not a big deal at all, it’s the other elements that elevate it – and in the case of the surveillance aspect, obviously its very important to the whole structure (one could argue that the heist itself, with its its top down, floor by floor aspects, is a kind of visualisation of the social commentary) does feel like it could have gone much further – but then Sanders was being very prescient, getting there pretty much before everybody else – forty plus years later and it can feel it should have done more, but I do think that hindsight hurts it a bit, which is unfair on Sanders.

  13. jackdeth72 says:

    I enjoyed ‘The Anderson Tapes’ the first time I saw it at the Langley Theater ages ago. For its then high tech snooping and spying subplot. And for a still wet behind the ears Christopher Walken. Who you know is going to die just before the last reel.

    It’s kind of stuck with me ever since!

    Very nice critique!

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