It was the first major film to focus on the pervasiveness of electronic surveillance, from security cameras in public places to hidden recording devices. Following the Watergate scandal a few years later, covert surveillance, and who is listening, became the themes of several 1970s films such as The Conversation and The Parallax View.
Burglar John "Duke" Anderson (Sean Connery) is released after ten years in prison. He renews his relationship with his old girlfriend, Ingrid (Dyan Cannon). She lives in a high-class apartment block (1 East 91st Street) in New York City and Anderson, almost instantly, decides to burgle the entire building in a single sweep – filling a furniture van with the proceeds. He gains financing from a nostalgic Mafia boss and gathers his four-man crew. Also included is an old ex-con drunk, "Pop" (Stan Gottlieb), whom Anderson met in jail, and who is to play concierge while the real one is bound and gagged in the cellar.
Less welcome is a man the Mafia foists onto Anderson – the thuggish "Socks" (Val Avery). Socks is a psychopath who has become a liability to the mob and, as part of the deal, Anderson must kill him in the course of the robbery. Anderson is not keen on this, since the operation is complicated enough, but is forced to go along.
Anderson has unwittingly entered a world of pervasive surveillance – the agents, cameras, bugs, and tracking devices of numerous public and private agencies see almost the entire operation from the earliest planning to the execution. As Anderson advances the scheme, he moves from the surveillance of one group to another as locations or individuals change. These include a private detective hired to eavesdrop on Anderson's girlfriend who is also the mistress of a wealthy man; the BNDD (a precursor to the DEA), who are checking over a released drug dealer; the FBI, investigating Black activists and the interstate smuggling of antiques; and the IRS, which is after the mob boss who is financing the operation. Yet, because the various federal, state and city agencies performing the surveillance are all after different goals, none of them is able to "connect the dots" and anticipate the robbery.
The operation proceeds over a Labor Day weekend. Disguised as a Mayflower moving and storage crew, the crooks cut telephone and alarm wires and move up through the building, gathering the residents as they go and robbing each apartment.
(The scenes of the residents being seized, and in some cases assaulted, are shown in contrast to them giving statements to the police after the robbery, which appears to indicate that it succeeded.)
However, the son of two of the residents is a paraplegic and asthmatic who is left behind in his air-conditioned room. Using his amateur radio equipment, he calls up other radio amateurs, based in other states, who contact the police. The alarm is thus raised, but only after resolving which side (callers or emergency services) should take the phone bill.
As the oblivious criminals work, the police array enormous forces outside to prevent their escape and send a team in via a neighboring rooftop.
In the shootout that follows, Anderson kills Socks, but is himself shot by the police. The other robbers are killed, injured or captured, but none gets away. Pop gives himself up after letting the police believe that he is the real concierge for a while. Having never adapted to life on the outside, he looks forward to going back to prison.
In the course of searching the building, the police discover some audio listening equipment left behind by the private detective who was hired to check up on Ingrid and track it to find Anderson in critical condition after having tried to escape. To avoid embarrassment over the failure to discover the robbery despite having Anderson on tape in several surveillance operations, and since many of the recordings were illegal, each of the agencies orders its tapes to be erased.
Cast notesThis was the first major motion picture for Christopher Walken, as well as the last on-screen film appearance by Margaret Hamilton.
Sean Connery, Martin Balsam, and director Sidney Lumet were to work together again on Murder on the Orient Express. Connery had previously worked with the director on The Hill, and they would reunite the following year on The Offence, and again many years later for Family Business. Balsam and Lumet had worked together previously on 12 Angry Men.
Two characters from the novel on which the film was based were merged for the film: "Ingrid Macht" and "Agnes Everleigh" became "Ingrid Everleigh".
Sean Connery's performance as the likeable criminal Duke Anderson was instrumental in his breakout from being typecast as James Bond. It also restored him to the ranks of top male actors in the United States.
The Anderson Tapes was filmed on location in New York City, on Fifth Avenue, at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Rikers Island Prison, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Luxor Health Club and on the Lower East Side. Interiors scenes were filmed at Hi Brown Studio and ABC-Pathé Studio, both in New York City. The production was on a tight budget, and filming was completed in the short period of six weeks, from mid-August to October 16, 1970. The film was the first for producer Robert M. Weitman as an independent producer.
Columbia Pictures was not happy with the planned ending of the film, in which Connery escaped to be pursued by police helicopters, fearing that it would hurt sales to television, which generally required that bad deeds do not go unpunished.