Hot Rock, The (1972): Peter Yates’ Caper Movie, Starring Redford and George Segal

From Our Vaults:

Peter Yates directed The Hot Rock, a crime serio-comedy from a screenplay by William Goldman, based on Donald E. Westlake’s novel, which introduced his long-running John Dortmunder character.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The film stars Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand, Moses Gunn and Zero Mostel.

It was released in the UK with the alternative title How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons.

In 1971, after John Dortmunder (Redford) is released from prison, he is sought by brother-in-law Andy Kelp (Segal) about another job.

Dr. Amusa (Gunn) seeks a valuable gem in the Brooklyn Museum that is of great significance in his country in Africa, stolen during colonial times and then re-stolen by various African nations.

Dortmunder and Kelp are joined by driver Stan Murch (Leibman) and explosives expert Allan Greenberg (Sand) in elaborate plan to steal the gem.

Although the scheme is carefully planned, it goes awry, and the quartet has to steal the diamond again and again.

First off, the diamond is swallowed by Greenberg when he gets caught by museum guards during the initial heist. Dortmunder, Kelp, and Murch, at the urging of Greenberg’s rotund father Abe (Zero Mostel), a lawyer, help Greenberg escape from state prison, but they then find he does not have the diamond. After Greenberg tells his partners he hid the rock in the police station (after bodily evacuating it), the quartet break into the precinct jail by helicopter, but the rock is not where Greenberg hid it. Greenberg discloses that his father was the only other person who knew where it was.

It isn’t until Murch, disguised as grunting muscle man Chicken, threatens Abe with being thrown down an elevator shaft, that Abe gives up the location of the diamond—his safe deposit box, and he also gives up the key to it. However, Dortmunder cannot access the box because of bank vault security, and the gang leaves Abe in Dr. Amusa’s office while they come up with a plan.

With the help of the hypnotist Miasmo, Dortmunder sets up his own safe deposit box to get access to the vault and then plans to invoke the predetermined hypnotic trigger phrase “Afghanistan banana stand” to the vault guard. He then would be able to gain access to Abe’s safe deposit box and retrieve the gem after the bank opens in the morning.

While Dortmunder is waiting for the bank to open, Dr. Amusa fires them for incompetence, and reveals that Abe Greenberg has made a deal to sell him the gem, which will leave the gang with nothing.

Dortmunder finally retrieves the gem while Dr. Amusa and Abe are driving to the bank. He exits the bank and walks away just before they arrive. Dortmunder climbs into Kelp’s car where the others are waiting, and a rousing cheer erupts as they drive off.

Yates claimed that “all around me, 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.” Thus, Yates tried to mix comedy with suspense, a combination that doesn’t always work.

As Dortmunder’s gang flies through Manhattan to break into the police station, their helicopter flies by the World Trade Center. The south tower is seen under construction in several shots.

The Jail scenes were filmed at the Nassau County Jail Carmen Avenue in East Meadow on Long Island. The scenes of “the practice run” in which Ron Leibman drives his car into the back of a waiting tractor trailer was also filmed in East Meadow on Hempstead Turnpike.

The movie was a commercial flop. “I thought I had a hit with The Hot Rock,” Yates said. “It was an interesting story, and we had Robert Redford and George Segal for the leads. Nobody went to see it.”

Though offbeat, Hot Rock lacks suspense as a caper movie, and it is also ineffective in its effort to be lightly amusing. The script is underwritten, and the pacing too deliberate.  Additionally, Redford renders a rather listless and impassive performance, instead of the ironically funny one it’s supposed to be.

Oscar Nomination:
Frank P. Keller and Fred W. Berger were nominated for the Best Film Editing Academy Award.

Reel/Real Impact
Punk rock band Sleater-Kinney named their 1998 album “The Hot Rock” after the movie. The cover of the album features the band imitating the film’s poster in downtown Portland, Oregon.

Robert Redford as John Dortmunder
George Segal as Andy Kelp
Ron Leibman as Stan Murch
Paul Sand as Allan Greenberg
Moses Gunn as Dr. Amusa
Zero Mostel as Abe Greenberg
William Redfield as Lt. Hoover
Topo Swope as Carey “Sis” Dortmunder Kelp
Christopher Guest as Policeman
Graham Jarvis as Warden
Lynne Gordon as Miasmo
Charlotte Rae as Ma Murch
Harry Bellaver as Rollo the Bartender