The Hot Rock
The first of Donald E. Westlake's engagingly silly "Dortmunder" novels to reach the screen, The Hot Rock brought together three appropriately "hot" Hollywood figures in the early 1970's director Peter Yates, fresh off of reinventing the high speed car chase in Bullitt, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, and Robert Redford, who was just beginning to be "Robert Redford" for an entertaining entry into the caper comedy genre. In casting Redford as John Archibald Dortmunder, the supposed master thief who's mastered everything save for staying out of the clink, Goldman has re-configured the character as slightly more articulate, enabling him to pitch clever one-liners to the actor's wheelhouse that get knocked out of the park with pleasing regularity. The plot, as most Dortmunder novels go, is agreeably far-fetched: Fresh out of jail, Andrew Kelp (George Segal), Dortmunder's neurotic best friend, tries to enlist the brilliant thief into stealing the "Sahara Stone" from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Their sponsor is Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), the United Nations delegate from Central Vatawi, who explains that the diamond has been at the center of a tribal dispute within the African country, and has been stolen back-and-forth over several generations. The job is far from foolproof, but Dortmunder accepts it anyway, snaking out a hefty per diem from Amusa. Kelp, who functions as the locksmith, rounds up the rest of the team, which includes rich-kid explosives expert Alan Greenberg (Paul Sand) and gearhead getaway driver Stan Murch (Ron Leibman). Though they plan the heist down to the last inch, things predictably go wrong but in, perhaps, a very unpredictable manner. Before getting apprehended, Greenberg swallows the diamond, and suddenly complicated heist becomes an even more precarious jailbreak, bringing Greenberg's shady lawyer father Abe (the perfectly cast Zero Mostel) into the already cluttered picture. Westlake's crackerjack plot has Dortmunder attempting to steal the diamond four different times, with each twist more absurdly inspired than the last. (How does one top breaking into a jail? Why, breaking into a police station, of course. With a helicopter. Flown by an inexperienced pilot.) Goldman is more than up to the task, managing the impossibly high suspension of disbelief by keeping the tone light as helium and avoiding even the merest hint of seriousness. Why the film isn't a classic of the genre rests squarely on the shoulders of Yates, who fumbles too many surefire comedic set-ups with botched staging and editing (the park bench scene near the beginning is a veritable lesson on how not to direct comedy). Primarily an action director at that point in his career, Yates attempts to make up for these deficiencies with some thrilling sequences that either work (Murch driving a car at high speed into a semi-truck trailer) or land with a thud (the protracted helicopter ride over lower Manhattan, which is only notable nowadays for offering a view of the still under-construction World Trade Center). Yates would eventually find his comedic rhythm to great effect in the quirky Breaking Away, but his heavy hand on this film too often stifles the buoyant sensibilities of Westlake and Goldman. The charming cast, particularly Redford, carry the day but just barely. Fox presents The Hot Rock in an anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) struck from a so-so print, with murky Dolby Digital 2.0 audio that only exacerbates the film's often poor sound design. Theatrical trailers, keep-case.