Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1972, there were LA Times Calendar articles asking why The Hot Rock wasn't a big hit. The critics
loved the picture. And what's not to like? The picture has two adorable stars and a writing pedigree reaching
back to thriller favorite Donald Westlake through top writer William Goldman. As Variety would
put it, all tech credits are tops.
Fresh from prison, John Archibald Dortmunder (Robert Redford) barely feels the
sunlight before he's embroiled in more criminal schemes, thanks to his brother-in-law Andrew Kelp
(George Segal) a criminal mastermind wanna-be. Kelp assembles some likely suspects, including
driver-mechanic Stan Murch (Ron Liebman) and buddy Alan Greenberg (Paul Sand) to steal a huge
jewel for an African diplomat, Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn). The museum heist goes off without a hitch ...
almost .. leading to the necessity for a second wild caper ...
There really is no reason why The Hot Rock wasn't a smash hit; perhaps the public was psychologically
convinced they'd seen enough Robert Redford in the month it happened to come out. The Hot Rock is a comedy caper
film that sticks a quirky cast of characters into a story that's almost all plot twists. William Goldman adroitly
juggles what the characters know, and what we know, so that events in the film always hit us as a pleasant
surprise. A man pushed to his death is really a player in a pre-arranged skit; the crooks move heaven and
Earth to spring a man from jail, only to find that the all-important jewel is hidden in an even more difficult-to-reach
spot. And that's not counting the double-crosses by Paul Sand's wily father, Zero Mostel.
The basic crime story is weak. How clueless George Segal initially connected with crooked diplomat Moses Gunn
is never satisfactorily explained, but we happily go along with the merry crooks for the fun of the caper.
Segal and poker-faced Redford never quite click as buddies, as had Sundance and Butch Cassidy, but they're
sufficiently pro to make the basic thread work. Surely this could have been spun-off as Kelp and Dortmunder,
a weekly TV show about klutzy kriminals.
The charmer of the story is toothy Ron Liebman, the jack-of-all-trades with the mechanical know-how to re-rig burglar
alarms and fly helicopters. His 'acting' while pretending to be an auto wreck victim for the benefit of some museum
guards, is hilarious. The fun is in watching the gang of fools thrash about in frustration after every failed
caper, and then put their all into the next, even more unlikely heist attempt. The Hot Rock becomes a Chinese
box of capers, each executed flawlessly, but each failing in some crucial way. Its message would seem to be that
crime pays, but only with so much work that it's not worth one's while.
There are charming moments, such as the 'copter's landing on the wrong rooftop during one of the capers, or Ron
Liebman's clever car-in-the-truck trick after springing one of their own from the pen. Explaining Zero Mostel's
presence would be a spoiler, but it goes without saying that he's the icing on the cake, as far as eccentric
characters go. And there's an hilarious bit at the end with Lynne Gordon as a pro hypnotist named Miasmo, that
should have been applauded in theaters.
If William Goldman and director Peter Yates failed at all, it must be a question of tone. The film does
have a serious case of 'the cutes', a common Goldman malady since Butch Cassidy that translates as a toadying
pitch for audience chuckles and approval. If Redford and Segal clicked better as a team, chances are that their
cutesy squabbles and character schtick would have been a better fit. With Redford the quiet one, and Segal fussing
about like a nervous nellie, the character interaction dips towards the level of Neil Simon comedy. As it is,
The Hot Rock is a quality caper film that has a lot of surprises, and overcomes its basic ridiculousness
by keeping things light and cheerful.
Modern audiences will be struck by a totally unexpected emotional pull, when the helicopter full of crooks
circles and examines the half-built World Trade Center, allowing us a long, clear look at the twin towers.
It's pretty spooky.
Fox's DVD of The Hot Rock looks fine, much better than pan'n scan tv prints. The Panavision lensing is
well represented by the enhanced transfer, and Quincy Jones' bouncy score comes across well. There is only a
trailer for an extra, but the disc is favored with alternate French and Spanish soundtracks and subs. The main
English track is 2 channel stereo.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hot Rock rates:
Movie: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson