Review: The Hot Rock

The Hot Rock (1972)
Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand, Moses Gunn, Zero Mostel. Written by William Goldman (based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake). Directed by Peter Yates.

The Hot Rock opens with John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) going through the procedures for his release from prison. It’s clear he knows what he’s doing and that he’s done this before. The warden, with whom Dortmunder is on a first-name basis, says something to the effect of “See you again,” which the newly free man does not dispute, although he does claim to be rehabilitated. “You couldn’t really go straight?” asks the warden.

“My heart wouldn’t be in it, Frank,” Dortmunder responds coolly. It’s a good establishing scene for this character, who isn’t out a day before his brother-in-law Kelp (George Segal in an excellent supporting role) lets him in on a job. Dortmunder is a pro who seems to be careful about what he gets into, so he resists at first, but he takes the challenge of stealing a precious diamond on behalf of an African nation who claims it was taken from them generations ago.

What follows is a charming steal-the-diamond, lose-the-diamond, find-the-diamond caper flick about Dortmunder and his three handpicked cohorts. It would be ho-hum stuff if not for Redford’s and Segal’s charisma and a few touches that make it go down easier for a guy like me. Yes, there are explosions and hot pursuits and guys knocking out cops so they can take their uniforms (which fit perfectly, of course), but in one car chase, the passengers are clearly (but subtly) terrified, and in a helicopter scene, the same passengers look like they’re about to throw up. It’s guided with a light hand and a light sense of humor without tilting over into silliness.

At 100 minutes, it’s about the right length for a story like this, but it still feels a little draggy to me in several places. It could have been a really tight 90 minutes or a more interesting 100 minutes. There’s no real character development beyond Dartmunder’s seemingly unflappable demeanor, which is not everything he lets on, and there’s no emotional stuff at all.

Enjoyable enough if you happen to come across it, ‘though maybe not something worth pursuing. The source novel is the first of a popular long series, and I would have been down to see what these guys get into next, in a sequel. Christopher Guest (whom I could not locate) and Charlotte Rae have small roles.


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