(0041X) The Hot Rock

The Hot RockJanuary 30, 1972 | 3 weeks at #1

Seen by Martin before? Yes

What did I expect? A comical heist movie.

What did I get? The Hot Rock is sort of the Ocean’s 11 of 1972. A heist movie whose comic elements tend to sap the movie of its tension, it has an uneasy relationship to the “gritty 1970s New York” school of movies of which it must be counted a part. It’s “gritty” only because New York is gritty; the movie could have been moved to Tampa or Denver intact. The Hot Rock traffics in most of the countercultural tropes of the time without seeming to understand any of them — or care, much. The four guys who perpetrate the crimes dress down, have shaggy hair, and never sweat the details of the jobs we see them undertake. They qualify as antiheroes only insofar as there’s nothing heroic about any of them.

The idea of The Hot Rock is that, having successfully executed the diamond heist for which an African diplomat has hired them, our felonious foursome is obliged to commit further break-ins in different locales, as the diamond finds its way around the city. It’s a setup that seems to play into the counterculture’s supposed affection for “losers” — we root for them as they fail and fail again. The book was written by Donald Westlake, whose Dortmunder novels are heavy on shaggy wit; compare Gregory McDonald’s Fletch series or the works of Carl Hiassen. This kind of story mostly works better on the printed page, as anyone who’s seen Fletch Lives or Striptease will surely attest. (Admittedly, Michael Ritchie made it work quite marvelously in Fletch.)

To some degree, the movie’s flabby sense of rhythm might be the fault of Robert Redford, as Dortmunder; I’d wager he regarded this as a breezy little project that wouldn’t do his image any harm. (He was right.) Redford, an actor I find compulsively watchable, uses his trick of flaring his nostrils for “intensity,” but here he’s a cipher. The Hot Rock opens with his release from prison (he is a serial planner of heists), but you never believe for a nanosecond that he’s ever spent any time in prison; he looks like he’s ready to be photographed in an advertising spread.

As an actor, Redford’s greatest asset is that he’s endlessly legible. He was a “movie star” for urbane people who read good novels (or at least good spy novels, close enough); it’s no coincidence that his reign as box-office gold happened during American cinema’s most intellectual and ambitious period. His three co-conspirators can be described without much distortion as “three Jews” (George Segal, Ron Liebman, and Paul Sand), which I note only because such casting would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and the trio’s juxtaposition with the WASPy Redford eventually comes to seem an unconscious leitmotif, or comment, or something. The movie’s big star turn belongs to Zero Mostel, whose name in the credits is appended with “as Abe Greenberg”; other than that, the movie never comments on the distinctly Jewish feel to the cast. Segal is fluent in his own way, but, much as in The Owl and the Pussycat, to ambiguous effect. Liebman and Sand are a good deal more entertaining.

What here smacks of 1972? The sprightly saxophone score.

IMDB score: 6.7

My score: 6

Director: Peter Yates

Writer: William Goldman

Starring: Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Moses Gunn, Zero Mostel, Paul Sand, William Redfield, Topo Swope, Charlotte Rae, Robert Weil, Christopher Guest

IMDB synopsis: Dr. Amusa approaches Dortmunder about a valuable gem in a museum that is of great signifigance to his people in Africa, stolen during colonial times. Dortmunder assembles a crack team of cat burglars and hatches an elaborate plan for stealing the gem. Despite their care and experience, circumstances and plain bad luck keep the gem just out of their reach.

Get it at Amazon!


2 thoughts on “(0041X) The Hot Rock

  1. Kommissar :) says:

    I have softspot for this movie as I’m a big fan of Donald Westlake and I agree, Dortmunder isn’t well played by Redford who is usually good at playing Redford. My favorite book of his is “What’s the Worst that Can Happen?” which was made into a terrible, terrible Martin Lawrence movie (as opposed to all the good Martin Lawrence movies). Westlake also did screenplays, most notably, The Grifters.

    • I like it too! Or I should say, I want to like it more. It’s a great idea for a movie, and everything about it looks fine, but it’s just too lazy. Redford is miscast, but the problem is really the tone — and that’s the director’s job.

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