CRIMEWATCH: The Hot Rock
From the late 60s into the 70s Director Peter Yates made a handful of classics including Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Mother Jugs and Speed and Breaking Away. His 1972 comedy caper movie The Hot Rock was based on a novel of the same name by famous crime author Donald Westlake (The Outfit). The book was part of a series which followed the adventures of crook John Dortmunder. It was followed by several more film adaptations including The Bank Shot (1974), Jimmy The Kid (1982), Why Me? (1990) and Whats The Worst That Could Happen? (2001). Those were all modestly entertaining movies but The Hot Rock still remains the best of the Dortmunder adventures.
Career criminal John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) has just been released from prison after a few years. As he walks down the sidewalk outside the gates, a mysterious car begins following him. What he doesn’t know is that the man inside is actually is brother in law Andy Kelp (George Segal). Kelp frightens Dortmunder when he loses control of the car and almost hits him causing Dortmunder to slug him.
As the two drive back to New York City, Kelp can’t help but bring up a new job that he thinks Dortmunder will be interested in. It involves a precious African diamond that was stolen from a tribe and then re-stolen by others and put on display in the Brooklyn Museum. A United Nations diginitary Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn) wants Kelp to steal the stone back and give it to him in return for a large sum of cash. Kelp initially has a tough time getting Dortmunder’s help due to his reluctance because of the pitfalls of the situation. When he finally agrees, Kelp quickly brings in two of his other friends, Stan Murch (Ron Liebman) a car fanatic who will handle transportation and Allen Greenberg (Paul Sand) who builds homemade explosives. Right from their first meeting we can see these guys are a bit quirky which only makes you want to see what they’ll do next.
Dortmunder comes up with a plan to set up a diversion outside the museum with a car crash/explosion which will cause the security patrolmen to take their sights off the stone (which is locked inside a fortified glass box). The robbery goes alright at first but due to the extensive time taken, the security guards end up catching the three before they can leave undetected. A Keystone Cops style chase ensues then Allen takes the diamond and decides to injest it before he is cornered and arrested. This quick bit of thinking leaves the cops under the assumption that the rock is lost somewhere in the museum.
The troubling problem soon leads the gang on a variety of uneasy errands due to Greenberg secretly hiding the stone at a city police station where he was initially locked up. The hijinks are hilarious as the trio must keep going to extreme lengths to retrieve the diamond. Greenberg’s own father Abe (Zero Mostel), a shyster attorney also gets in their way which forces Dortmunder & Co. to go to drastic measures to convince him they aren’t playing around. The suspenseful finale has Dortmunder under pressure to figure out a unusual method to gain access to the secured bank box the diamond has been placed in by Abe. If you love traditional heist movies you’ll really get a kick out of just what he comes up with to do it!
The Hot Rock is one of those kinds of movies that is very easy to get into. This is largely due to the nicely scripted story by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men), the pacing and the talented actors. Redford plays Dortmunder with a serious, self-assured tone while Segal’s Kelp is the positive upbeat support. Liebman’s Stan is very energetic, wreckless and obsessed with anything that has an engine and Sand’s Allen is the most reserved and clumsy of the gang but every bit as comical. The mixture of their offbeat personalities creates a very funny effect. The humor just makes it so much more entertaining than if it was played straight as a lot of heist films often are. The late great Zero Mostel (The Producers) makes a perfect foil, playing Abe with his usual rascally comedic style. There’s several memorable scenes that stand out including: the car crash in front of the museum, the first diamond heist, Allen being locked up with a fellow inmate who obsessively picks his feet, his exciting prison breakout and Stan slowly flying a helicopter over New York City.
The music in the film composed by Quincy Jones is a main highlight with a rhythm line that moves from a military type march to a mellow, jazzy, carnival-esque cue. It’s really the coolest kind of 70’s score you could ask for. The Hot Rock is a 70s gem that has been a furious favorite of ours for years. If you’re a crime/caper/heist film fan and haven’t seen it we hope you’ll give it a watch sometime!