Donald Westlake’s lovably luckless crook John Dortmunder is brought to life by Robert Redford, in a lightweight crime caper engineered by top talent: screenwriter William Goldman and director Peter Yates. Redford’s partner is a worrisome, talkative George Segal; Moses Gunn is the unhappy client, Ron Liebman a jolly master of all things technical and Zero Mostel a major obstacle in the obtaining of a priceless diamond.
The Hot Rock
1972 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 100 min. / How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons / Street Date August 21, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand, Moses Gunn, Zero Mostel, William Redfield, Lynne Gordon, Robert Weil, Christopher Guest.
Cinematography: Ed Brown
Film Editors: Fred W. Berger, Frank P. Keller
Original Music: Quincy Jones
Written by William Goldman from a novel by Donald E. Westlake
Produced by Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts
Directed by Peter Yates
Ace screenwriter William Goldman scored big with his cutesy radical-chic date-safe buddy western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the show that made Robert Redford a top star. His follow-up for Redford is a heist caper called The Hot Rock, from a comic crime novel by Donald E. Westlake. With a couple of exceptions, by 1972 Redford was moving from strength to strength, a run that wouldn’t taper off until The Great Gatsby.
I remember L.A. Times Calendar articles from 1972 that asked why The Hot Rock wasn’t a big hit. The critics loved the picture. Redford’s show has two adorable stars and clever premise that takes in four exciting crime capers. Directed by the capable Peter Yates, it’s a visual pleasure as well.
Fresh from prison, John Archibald Dortmunder (Robert Redford) has barely felt the sunlight before he’s embroiled in more criminal schemes, thanks to his brother-in-law Andrew Kelp (George Segal), a classic criminal mastermind wanna-be. To steal a huge jewel for the African diplomat Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), Kelp assembles some likely suspects including driver-mechanic Stan Murch (Ron Liebman) and buddy Alan Greenberg (Paul Sand). The museum heist goes off without a hitch … almost … leading to the necessity for a second wild caper … and then a third…
There really is no reason why The Hot Rock wasn’t a smash hit; perhaps the public was psychologically convinced they’d seen enough Robert Redford in the month it happened to come out. The comedy caper film sticks a quirky cast of characters into a story that’s almost all plot twists, buffered by various amusing drolleries. William Goldman adroitly juggles what the characters know, and what we know, so that story developments always hit us as a pleasant surprise. The crooks move heaven and Earth to spring a man from jail, only to find that the all-important jewel is hidden in an even more difficult-to-reach spot. A man pushed to his death is really a player in a pre-arranged skit. And that’s not counting the double-crosses by Paul Sand’s wily father, Zero Mostel.
The basic crime story is weak. How clueless George Segal initially connected with Moses Gunn’s crooked diplomat is never satisfactorily explained, but we happily go along with the merry crooks for the fun of the caper. The band of thieves comes off as enthusiastic but foolhardy amateurs, and Redford’s Dortmunder carries the mark of a recidivist looking at a life term if he’s caught again. Over-emotional Segal and poker-faced Redford never quite click as buddies, as had Sundance and Butch Cassidy, but they’re sufficiently pro to make the basic thread work. Surely this could have been spun-off as Kelp and Dortmunder, a weekly TV show about klutzy kriminals.
Hangdog Paul Sand is a capable team member who makes a wee mistake in their first heist attempt: he gets himself caught. The charmer of the story is toothy Ron Liebman, a jack-of-all-trades with the mechanical know-how to re-rig burglar alarms and fly helicopters. His ‘acting’ while pretending to be an auto wreck victim for the benefit of some museum guards, is hilarious. The fun is in watching the gang of fools thrash about in frustration after every failed caper, and then put their all into the next, even more unlikely heist attempt. The Hot Rock becomes a Chinese box of capers, each executed flawlessly, but each failing in some crucial way. Its message would seem to be that crime does pay, but only with so much work that it’s not worth one’s while.
There are charming moments, such as the ‘copter’s landing on the wrong rooftop during one of the heists, or Ron Liebman’s clever car-in-the-truck trick after springing one of their own from the pen. Zero Mostel contributes a terrific guest turn. Explaining his presence would be a spoiler, but it goes without saying that he’s the icing on the cake, as far as eccentric characters go. And there’s an hilarious bit at the end with Lynne Gordon as a pro hypnotist named Miasmo, that should have been applauded in theaters. Miasmo’s patsy is none other than the inimitable Robert Weil, as a safety deposit clerk. You’ll know Weil immediately from his polished turns in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Broadway Danny Rose, Moonstruck and The Hudsucker Proxy: “And they’ll Dock Ya!”
If William Goldman and director Peter Yates failed at all, it must be a question of tone. Peter Yates is a king of filmic crime (Robbery, Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) but is not known for comedy, unless one cares for For Pete’s Sake or Mother, Jugs and Speed. The film does have a serious case of ‘the cutes,’ a frequent Goldman malady since Butch Cassidy rode a bicycle with a Burt Bacharach ditty on the soundtrack. Robert Redford plays dour most of the time; his big smile at the finale backed by upbeat Quincy Jones music isn’t quite the lift it wants to be. George Segal’s nebbishy chatterbox isn’t all that much fun either, probably because we want the crimes to succeed and his Kelp is a real liability. If Redford and Segal clicked better as a team, chances are that their cutesy squabbles and character schtick would have been a better fit. Their character interaction dips towards the level of Neil Simon comedy, without the payoff laughs. Yet The Hot Rock still amuses as a quality caper film packed with droll surprises, and overcomes its basic ridiculousness by keeping things light and cheerful.
Among the cheerful stumbles and criminal failures is a totally unexpected emotional pull. Ron Leibman gets the hang of flying his rented helicopter while hovering over Lower Manhattan. The camera view makes a point of circling the half-built World Trade Center. We get a long, clear look at the twin towers that seem to reach up into the stratosphere. It’s pretty spooky.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Hot Rock is a substantial improvement over Fox’s 2003 DVD. The film is a pleasure to see, just as a vintage travelogue of New York City. It comes with a choice of mono or two channel stereo audio.
The disc features an informative, conversational commentary with Twilight Time’s Nick and Nora of film talk, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, abetted once again by their screenwriter associate Lem Dobbs. Quincy Jones’ bouncy jazz score is given a TT isolated music track. Also included is the curiously flat, oddly mis-timed original trailer. Perhaps it had a hand in the film’s weak performance when new? Ms. Kirgo’s insert liner note essay goes over the film’s obvious assets, noting the sterling careers of William Goldman and Peter Yates.
The one reason I can think of to retain the old Fox DVD is its language options — it carries alternate French and Spanish soundtracks and subtitles.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Hot Rock
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, trailer, Commentary with Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs; Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case with pamphlet insert.
Reviewed: August 26, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson