Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: William Goldman
Book: Donald E. Westlake
Cinematography: Edward R. Brown
Editors: Fred W. Berger, Frank P. Keller
Music: Quincy Jones
Panavision, Color by DeLuxe
CAST: Robert Redford (John Dortmunder), George Segal (Andy Kelp), Ron Liebman (Stan Murch), Paul Sand (Allan Greenberg), Moses Gunn (Dr. Amusa), William Redfield (Lt. Hoover), Topo Swope (Sis), Charlotte Rae (Ma Murch), Zero Mostel (Abe Greenberg).
Peter Yates’ The Hot Rock (1972) was an early entry in the Magnetic Video catalog back in 1977 (“By special arrangement with Twentieth Century-Fox…”). I was 13 and we were a Betamax family. Maybe it was the novelty of pre-recorded videotapes or maybe it was the film itself, but I watched The Hot Rock about a thousand times. I loved it, and revisiting it on DVD, I still do.
Donald E. Westlake wrote a series of wonderful semi-comic heist novels about John Dortmunder, a career criminal with a very wide streak of bad luck. The Hot Rock was the first. Several Dortmunder books have been made into films, usually changing the character’s name. Again, The Hot Rock was the first. The Bank Shot (1974), the second, stars George C. Scott—it’s a funny movie sent up the river by a dreadful pan-and-scan DVD.
In The Hot Rock, Dortmunder (Robert Redford) and his associates are hired by Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn) to steal a diamond for his African nation. Things don’t go exactly as planned, and by the film’s end, they’ve stolen the diamond several times, using everything from a helicopter to a hypnotist (“Afghanistan banana stand”). To go into into real detail would rob you of much of the fun.
“I’m not superstitious. And I don’t believe in jinxes, but that stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go. I’ve been damned near bitten, shot at, peed on and robbed. And worse is gonna happen before it’s done.”
— Dortmunder (Robert Redford)
Like a lot of New York films of the Seventies, The Hot Rock features some great character actors, and they’re a real treat here. Ron Liebman is hilarious as Murch, the gang’s driver. Paul Sand is Allan Greenberg, the explosives expert, and his father is played to perfection by the great Zero Mostel. Christopher Guest can be spotted as a policeman, and Charlotte Rae is terrific in a short bit as Liebman’s mom.
The Hot Rock—despite the big-time talents of director Peter Yates (Bullitt), screenwriter William Goldman (Harper, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid) and star Redford, was not a hit. Redford felt that Yates, an Englishman, didn’t understand the film’s American humor.Yates treats the picture as a really comedy/action hybrid, and it works. The diamond heist is tense, and the character-based humor is often very, very funny.
After seeing this as a kid, I devoured Westlake’s Dortmunder books, which then sent me to his Parker novels, written as Richard Stark. And that, of course, led me to Point Blank (1967).
The DVD looks terrific, presenting a cool Seventies film in all its glory. Highly recommended.