How many tries does it take to steal the same diamond?
As we watched this film, my sister noted how many of the styles from the 1970s have come back into fashion recently. The clothing, hairstyles, even the watches worn in this movie could be straight from Marshall Field's in 2003. Heist movies also seem to have come back into fashion, with the success of George Clooney's Ocean's Eleven remake, and the upcoming remake of The Italian Job. Still, it's hard to imagine any of the new crop capturing the sort of freewheeling charm and humor of The Hot Rock
Facts of the Case
When John Dortmunder (Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) is released from prison, his debt to society paid in full, we somehow get the feeling that he might not be completely rehabilitated. He is soon greeted by his brother-in-law, Andrew Kelp (George Segal, Just Shoot Me). Kelp has word of a new job that will test the skills of even the most experienced thief.
It seems that the Sahara Stone, currently on display at a local museum, is considered sacred to the peoples of two small central African nations. The peoples of Central Fatawi and Outer Fatawi have been stealing it back and forth from each other for generations. Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn, Heartbreak Ridge, The NeverEnding Story), permanent representative of Central Fatawi to the United Nations, is willing to pay a handsome fee if Kelp can put together a group of thieves to steal the diamond and deliver it to him.
Dortmunder is skeptical at first, but soon assembles a team to pull off the job. After all, that's what he does. He and Kelp are joined by Stan Murch (Ron Liebman, best known at present as Jennifer Aniston's father on Friends), their wild and crazy wheelman. The fourth member of the team is one Alan Greenberg (Paul Sand, Chuck & Buck), who seems to have little to offer, apart from general kvetching and screwing up. (They are limited to a team of four, since Amusa will only pay for four men.)
After extensive research and experimentation, the men set out to steal the diamond. Things work out just fine—until they don't, that is. What follows is an ever more daring and complex series of heists and hijinks as the men struggle to correct one botched attempt after another.
The Hot Rock is simply a delightful film from start to finish. It shifts gears easily between heart-pounding tension and genuine hilarity, thanks in large part to a witty script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dreamcatcher). The characters are put into situations both exhilarating and absurd, often at the same time.
The talented cast is also a big key to the success of this film. Liebman is a scream as the gleefully maniacal Murch, who seems to be as bent on scaring his comrades to death at least as much as getting them out alive. He also has one of the funniest bits in the movie as part of the elaborate diversion the gang plans as part of the initial heist. Segal is very good as Kelp, the slick, conniving brother-in-law who finds time to bicker with Dortmunder even in the tensest of situations. Sand is good as the hapless Greenberg, although he is overshadowed much of the time by Zero Mostel's wild performance as Alan's father and lawyer. Redford is his usual self, providing an island of calm in the midst of all the nuttiness. He is affable and charming as always, even when perturbed or driving a hard bargain with Amusa. (My sister, who watched the movie with me, insists that I note here how "hot" Mr. Redford was in his younger years. I am completely unable to verify this assertion.)
As wacky as the story and characters are, the plot is not all fun and games. Make no mistake, director Peter Yates (Krull, Bullitt, Mother, Jugs, and Speed) knows how to build tension in a scene. The initial heist sequence, with Redford, Sand, and Segal attempting to open the locked display case and steal the diamond, is one of the most nerve-wracking scenes I've seen in a long time.
The Hot Rock is also refreshing for what it lacks. There is very little violence in this film; in the big robbery, none of the characters even carries a gun, and no one, either robber or security guard, winds up shot or otherwise injured. This would be unthinkable in a movie of today, where gratuitous gunplay has become almost mandatory. There is also no nudity and almost no profanity. I'm not one to be prudish about violence, sex, or swearing in the movies, but The Hot Rock, with its focus on plot, characters, and witty dialogue, is certainly a welcome break. It's nice to find a film every once in a while that one can watch with anyone, regardless of age or delicate sensibilities.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As enjoyable as The Hot Rock is, the DVD leaves a lot to be desired. Picture quality, as with so many great 1970s films on DVD, is rather poor. The image is quite soft and gauzy throughout, paradoxically supplemented with a healthy dose of edge enhancement. Fine textures or details, such as the pinstripes in Dr. Amusa's suit, tend to come and go seemingly at will. Colors tend to look washed out, except for the red end of the spectrum, which tends to look just a bit oversaturated, leading to pinkish facial tones and some signs of bleeding, such as in the orange handrails of the steps leading down into a subway station.
The sound is not much better. Two English options are provided: what I assume to be the original mono track and a stereo track. There is not much discernible difference between the two. The funky musical soundtrack conceived by Quincy Jones comes through nicely. Dialogue is another matter, often coming through badly muffled and at times hard to understand. No one expects modern Matrix-style ear-blowing sound from a 1972 release, but the sound quality here is noticeably poorer than one would expect based on comparable films.
One of the more striking images in this movie comes during the hair-raising helicopter ride over downtown Manhattan. There are some amazing shots of the still-under-construction World Trade Center towers, including a stunning shot where the camera helicopter actually films our heroes through the open uncompleted upper floors of the second tower. It's a minor element in the film, and has no actual bearing on the plot, but certainly makes for a shocking image from today's perspective. This disc is almost worth checking out just for that footage alone; in any case, it lends an interesting historical footnote to an immensely enjoyable picture.
Not guilty! It's not perfect, but The Hot Rock is an under appreciated gem of a heist-caper-comedy flick. Good performances, good writing, and good direction make this flick a solid pick all the way around. It's a blast, and good clean fun to boot.
The DVD is a little less stellar; one suspects that Fox was probably just doing the best with what they had available in terms of source material. It's far from unwatchable, but also far from what DVD should be.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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