The Hot Rock (1972) is a real artifact genre-wise, feeling more akin to mid-60s capers like How to Steal A Million or Blake Edward’s Pink Panther films than the hardboiled thrillers of its own decade. Never fully committing to a genre, it picks and chooses at random from thriller and caper tropes. Adapted from the first of what would become Donald Westlake’s beloved Dortmunder series of heist paperbacks, the story’s unusual, decentralized structure eliminates any opportunity for a truly suspenseful central scene. The film’s British title, How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons, further explains this hokey gimmick. A repressed WASP and career criminal, John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) is released from prison only to be roped into a diamond heist by his neurotic brother-in-law (George Segal). Together they assemble a team of misfits and proceed to steal the diamond. But the first attempt hits a speedbump necessitating a second try, and so on. Taking into consideration the rule of threes, by the time the fourth uneasy lesson rolls around, we are not so much waiting for a tense denouement as we are desperate for a good joke to keep things interesting. Luckily, William Goldman’s screenplay and both Segal and Ron Leibman (as Murch, a deranged getaway driver) bring the goods.
Never heavy, racking up zero casualties, and blessedly peppered with absurd humor, it is a lazy river of a heist. Instead of focusing efforts on developing tension, the meandering pace allows the jokes to take center stage. It’s hilarious when Segal gets himself trapped inside of the very heavy, barely man-sized glass display case in the midst of what should be a high tension museum heist. And when an oblivious bird lady unknowingly interrupts a illicit tete-a-tete between the thieves and their employer “The Professor”, it’s delightfully clever. The gang even calls upon the services of a self-serious hypnotist, Miasmo, dressed in a hypnotically graphic blouse and employing the perfectly absurd trance-breaking phrase “Afghanistan Banana Stand” to help get their hands on the diamond! But all these charmingly off-kilter moments cut the cream of the heist at hand. It’s pretty much impossible to inject any suspense between Segal and the supporting cast’s antics. One gets the feeling Redford was supposed to help out on that front, but he’s effectively relegated to being a token handsome straight man in a room full of overly competitive comedians.
Initially, the stylistic elements don’t help with the odd balance. Cinematographer Ed Brown packs the film with blatantly formal, geometrically obsessed shots. Add to that the very liberal use of zoom lenses and a pastel-y sunwashed color palette, and the overall impression is of being trapped in an ingenious jewel box. The mechanisms are impressively conceived and executed, but it’s impossible to get past the smoke and mirrors to any reality. Once we know not to look for anything more, it’s a relief and the film can become no more than giddy fun. This cubic New York City and its surroundings are an ideal playground for a follow-up from director Peter Yates to Bullitt’s revolutionary car chase. Murch can drive anything, and he does- cars, 18-wheelers, helicopters, you name it.
Forget Redford’s usual charms or the satisfying narrative arc of a traditional heist picture; The Hot Rock’s success derives from its diversions from the expected ‘70s tropes. Admittedly, it’s not “essential” viewing in any respect, but it’s a human and humorous detour between Marathon and Bullitt. It’s the kind of film that we search for – unpretentiously trying something off the beaten path and succeeding. A smaller gem than the multi-carat prize our band of misfits seek, but a little treasure nonetheless.