It’s safe to say that the 1970s was a pretty good decade for Robert Redford with stone cold classics like The Sting (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976). Sandwiched in-between these films is a wildly entertaining caper film called The Hot Rock (1972), an adaptation of the Donald E. Westlake novel of the same name by none other than legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt). With this powerhouse line-up behind the camera you’d expect the film to have been a box office success, but aside from decent critical notices, it did not connect with mainstream moviegoers. Perhaps it was a matter of timing? Were people not ready to see the usually ultra-serious Redford do light comedy in 1972? And yet, a year later he scored big with The Sting, a comedic con man movie. Go figure. Of course, his co-star in that film was none other than Paul Newman, which I’m sure helped considerably at the box office. Regardless, The Hot Rock has aged quite well with its solid cast of character actors that ably support Redford and Yates’ experienced direction as he contrasts these colorful people against the gritty backdrop of New York City.
Career criminal John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) has just been released from prison. Dortmunder is met at the gates by Andy Kelp (George Segal), his locksmith brother-in-law who almost accidentally runs him over. As a result, Dortmunder responds to this greeting by socking Kelp in the jaw. Despite his half-hearted refusal to work with Kelp again, Dortmunder agrees to at least hear his latest scheme. Kelp plans to steal The Sahara Stone, a rather large diamond from the Brooklyn Museum for a Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn) who claims that it was stolen from his country in Africa only to be re-stolen by various other nations in the continent over several generations. The fact that this gem exchanged hands so many times should have raised a red flag for Dortmunder.
However, he can’t change his criminal tendencies and love of planning jobs or resist Kelp’s persuasive nature. So, they begin assembling the team they’ll need to do the job. There’s Stan Murch (Ron Leibman), a getaway driver cum mechanic who enjoys listening to records of cars racing. He’s followed by Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand), an explosives expert who studied extensively (including the Sorbonne). Despite meticulous planning, Greenberg is caught with the diamond and so begins a cat and mouse game as Dortmunder and his crew keep on trying to steal the gem. This includes such crazy schemes like breaking Greenberg out of prison and then breaking into a police precinct jail!
Right from the get-go, Yates plays the opening prison sequence straight and no-nonsense so that it could almost be an outtake from a similar scene that begins Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972). His use of the widescreen frame is a thing of beauty, here. For example, there is a shot of Dortmunder leaving the prison and Yates captures it in a long shot so that the criminal is a tiny figure dwarfed by the massive prison, its long, horizontal slabs of white brick wall stretching the length of the frame. As he demonstrated with Bullitt (1968), Yates certainly knows how to choreograph an action sequence. With The Hot Rock, he orchestrates several exciting and tense heist sequences accompanied by a groovy jazzy score by Quincy Jones. Even though these sequences have a tense, will-they-pull-it-off vibe, Yates applies the slightest of light touches with an assist from William Goldman’s snappy dialogue. There’s also some impressive aerial photography in the last third of the film as our heroes buzz around the city in a helicopter with some lingering shots on the World Trade Center, including the south tower, which was still under construction when the film was made.
Robert Redford and George Segal play well off each other with the former playing the straight man who gets increasing exasperated over the latter’s neurotic motormouth, whom he seems, at times, to barely tolerate. They compliment each other with Dortmunder the pessimist while Kelp is the eternal optimist. Thanks to the inherent likability of Redford and Segal, we are rooting for these guys to succeed. After so many missed opportunities it becomes a point of pride for them to see this through to the end and one has to admire that kind of tenacity. Interestingly, at the time he made The Hot Rock, Redford needed money and did the film for the paycheck. He was also drawn to the cast, which originally saw Segal cast as Dortmunder and George C. Scott set to play Kelp! However, when Redford came on board he was considered more of a box office draw then Segal and took the role of Dortmunder, Segal was bumped over to Kelp, and Scott was out entirely. Other members of the crew included Ron Leibman who plays his gum-chewing wheelman to a T and brings a cocky intensity that plays well off the others. The scene where Murch assures Dortmunder he knows how to pilot a helicopter is an amusing moment as he lets his bravado slip just a bit he figures out how to start the machine. Paul Sand’s Greenberg is definitely the weak link of the group and is responsible for the many attempts to steal the diamond, but he gets a moment to shine when his character confronts his father played by none other than Zero Mostel.
Perhaps audiences were expecting more of a wacky comedy a la The In-Laws (1979), but instead much of the humor in The Hot Rock is understated and only flirts with outrageousness during the heist sequences as somehow the fates seem to conspire against our anti-heroes, denying them the prize that they pursue with dogged determination There are little snafus in each heist, like Greenberg being unable to scale the prison wall without help or Kelp getting trapped inside the large glass case with the diamond. It’s not that these guys are incompetent per se. It’s just that they are susceptible to the same problems as everyone else: nervousness, lack of confidence and plain ol’ bad luck. Each heist increases with difficulty and the risk of getting caught, which makes the final one that much more agonizing because we don’t know if the clever plan Dortmunder has devised will succeed.
After The Hot Rock came out and was a commercial failure, Redford laid the blame on Yates’ doorstep, claiming that the Brit failed to grasp American humor: “His specialty was action and this was more of a comedy. The trouble was he didn’t understand our humor.” Personally, I think Redford was a little harsh on Yates who did a fine job with this film. It’s funny and entertaining with a fantastic cast and solid writing. Sometimes it boils down to a matter of timing and for whatever reason the film did not connect with mainstream audiences at the time, but The Hot Rock deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated.
Quirk, Lawrence. J. The Sundance Kid: An Unauthorized Biography of Robert Redford. Taylor Trade Publishing. 2006.
For further reading, check out a great review of the film over at the It Rains... You Get Wet blog.