There’s something about the heist that almost seems integral to moviemaking itself. Perhaps the reason an inveterate filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh keeps coming back to tales of misfit criminals coming together to pull off an elaborate crime is that such operations have so many parallels with the act of moviemaking itself — or maybe it’s just because heists and capers have a certain amount of baseline entertainment value that’s tough to beat. It’s hard not to have such thoughts when watching Peter Yates’s 1972 caper The Hot Rock, since it has to rank among the most purely entertaining films of all time.
If you love crime fiction, you should already know that in John Dortmunder, novelist Donald Westlake created one of the greatest series characters in the field. Dortmunder is a perpetually middle-aged sad sack with “lifeless thinning hair-colored hair” and a knack for coming up with brilliant, elaborate thefts, as well as an equally infallible knack for seeing those thefts go wrong in unexpected ways. In The Hot Rock, he manages not just one but four almost perfect heists of a priceless gem that never seems to be quite where it’s supposed to be, a plot structure that was retained for the film to glorious results.
Anyone familiar with the Dortmunder character knows that Robert Redford isn’t exactly the first guy to spring to mind when you read any of Westlake’s novels or short stories featuring the character. But in the film, Redford manages to capture not just Dortmunder’s lucklessness but his innate lovability as well — it’s a great example of counterintuitive movie-star casting being put to deceptively good use. Where someone like Walter Mathau would have been a more exact fit for the character, Redford’s Dortmunder is a guy who’s movie-star-handsome but too hapless to ever take advantage of it, a terrible plight that few of us can truly understand.
Redford is joined by George Segal as Dortmunder’s overeager brother-in-law Andy Kelp, an expert safecracker who also happens to be a professional lock salesman. New York traffic obsessive driver Stan Murch is played by a very funny Ron Leibman, while explosives expert Allan Greenberg is played by Paul Sand — together, the four are hired to steal the Sahara Stone on behalf of the small African nation that believes it to be its rightful property.
The turns of the plot that follow this simple setup in The Hot Rock are hilarious in a resigned, Murphy’s Law kind of way that seems like a perfect encapsulation of the depressed 70s zeitgeist. That’s true in retrospect, at least, since The Hot Rock was a somewhat inexplicable flop when it came out in 1972, despite the support of top-tier movie star Redford in the lead role.
The commercial success of a mainstream studio film ultimately doesn’t matter to you or I, but watching The Hot Rock now, it seems somewhat tragic that it didn’t find an audience on release and remains a somewhat obscure title, albeit one that’s appreciated by crime movie connoisseurs. But maybe audiences in the early 70s weren’t interested in the low-key optimism and easygoing charm of a movie like The Hot Rock. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune contemporary with the film’s release, Yates described his creative aims as somewhat contrary to the trends of the day: [A]ll around me I was finding that people were making nothing but films about violence, sex and drugs… Everything was a downer. I wanted to do an upper… The point of this film is not that the characters are criminals, but that they are likable, and that they, like many people, plan things all their lives and never have it work out.”
An “upper” is as good a word as any to describe The Hot Rock, which brings an unparalleled concentration of good vibes to the caper genre, perhaps not even matched by the Soderbergh Ocean’s movies, clearly influenced by Yates. But just because a movie is an upper doesn’t mean it can’t deliver some real nervous tension, and the heist sequences in The Hot Rock are some of the most suspenseful I’ve seen, the kind of straightforward cinematic craftsmanship that can make your palms sweat without any undue flash or show-offy touches. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite but if I were asked to do so while being dangled over an elevator shaft by a brute named “Chicken,” I would probably go with the initial Brooklyn Museum job, during which Segal’s lockpick man somehow ends up at one point encased in the heavy glass display case from which the team just swiped the diamond.
Breaking into the Brooklyn Museum is child’s play compared to the other lengths Dortmunder and his team have to go to in order to almost steal the Sahara Stone. They bust a man out of jail, they break into a police station, and in the film’s climax, open up a safety deposit box in a bank, aided by some implausible ambush hypnosis.
Every scene in The Hot Rock feels paradoxically relaxed and precision constructed for maximum ensemble humor. I was particularly struck by the scene inside a helicopter when Greenberg admits that there’s only one person who might know why the missing diamond wasn’t where it was supposed to be: his attorney, who also happens to be his father (who, incidentally, is played by Zero Mostel as someone out of a completely different movie, but in a good way). The dialogue is solely between Greenberg and Dortmunder, but we see Segal’s Kelp watching the exchange like a tennis match, and when the punchline arrives Kelp delivers the laugh with an incredibly subtle glance in Dortmunder’s direction, a perfect reaction shot with no cuts to close-up necessary.
Adding to The Hot Rock’s overwhelmingly buoyant and irreverent tone is the score by Quincy Jones, which has a way of making the viewer feel good even when Dortmunder is miserable — and when Dortmunder is happy, it becomes transcendent.
Dortmunder has been brought to the big screen a few more times since The Hot Rock, often under a different name (similarly to Westlake’s other famous character, Parker), none of which seem to have had much better luck finding a wide audience. It’s tempting to chalk that up to the character’s own bad luck, but in truth I find it hard to imagine why movie audiences aren’t as entranced with Dortmunder as Westlake’s readers are, particularly when he’s as funny and charming (but not too charming) as he is in Redford’s characterization. Maybe one day though a Dortmunder film will really hit with the public – if The Hot Rock teaches us anything, it’s that it pays to keep trying.