Here’s the starting lineup: William Goldman, red-hot off his Oscar win for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is your screenwriter. He’s adapting a novel by Donald E. Westlake, whose protagonist John Dortmunder will soon become one of his most popular creations. Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, with George Segal cast as his right-hand man. And you’ve got Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) in the director’s chair, seeking to marry his sensibilities for comedy and crime in the same film. Top it off with Quincy Jones for the score, and The Hot Rock should be shaping up to be a hell of a film.
One can understand and appreciate the drive to make a lighthearted caper in early ’70s New York, when the crime genre was growing in popularity but also in self-seriousness. Dirty Harry did much to cement a gritty remorselessness in the genre in 1971, asserting an edgy protagonist with no reservations about killing his enemies. In March 1972, The Godfather would in turn spawn a million imitators looking to recapture the Very Serious Drama of American crime. So the conceit of The Hot Rock, at the time, was explicit: bring back the fun.
If anything, though, the team mentioned above strove exhaustively for fun, then obliterated that goal and set their sights on just plain silly instead. Dortmunder and Co. set out to steal a priceless diamond, but then are faced with a series of increasingly ridiculous obstacles. The humorous angle works at first, and on paper — as evidenced by the murderer’s row of cast and crew — it’s a bright and peppy adventure afoot, a comedy of errors that gleefully rebukes the stiff upper lips of Dirty Harry and his peers. Westlake is the most interesting name here in that regard, because he’s typically credited as a writer of hard-boiled noir; his most famous character is Parker, who we’ve seen onscreen in films like Point Blank, The Split, The Outfit, Payback, and more. The Hot Rock started as another Parker novel, but Dortmunder arose when Westlake found the plot too comic for such a hardnosed criminal like Parker. Thus was a lighthearted, luckless thief created out of a far more mean-spirited guy, tying in nicely with the film adaptation’s goal of rising above the dark and brooding direction the genre had taken.
Fast-forward fifty or so years, though, and The Hot Rock just doesn’t land with the same impact. Insofar as “reinventions” of specific film genres are often more like recollections of earlier installments that have simply been forgotten, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) is probably the next most important landmark here. The Hot Rock‘s heart is in exactly the same place, following hapless, memorable characters as they chase a huge diamond around the underbelly of a major city. The diamond gets stolen, but now it’s lost, and now it’s retrieved, but now someone’s swallowed it, etc. etc. etc. Neither is a straight comedy, necessarily — there are dramatic stakes and less-than-clean-cut resolutions throughout — so each seems intent on shaking up well-established traditions of the gangster flick.
…but Snatch itself — the film — is a character. It’s memorable in the filmmaking and the editing, not just in its intent. The Hot Rock exudes no such personality, and Peter Yates never really nails down a consistent tone in which to tell this story. A straightforward heist goes wrong in humorous ways, but that feels at odds with the hair-raising, woozy helicopter sequence partway through the movie. Then, when a literal hypnotist arrives to offer advice in the third act, The Hot Rock‘s tone slips into the absurd and never really recovers. And yet a film with this many twists and turns should be kinetic, should maybe be as hyperactive as Segal’s character. Snatch‘s twists and turns overlap each other, backtrack on themselves, and constantly move the energy of the tale onward. Hot Rock, by sharp contrast, mills its way from one happenstance to the next.
Redford is somewhat the straight man here, much the man-with-the-plan he was as the Sundance Kid, and that makes room for Segal to fill Butch Cassidy’s shoes as the mile-a-minute talker. Dortmunder and Kelp have an interesting rapport at the outset, but at the end of the day only Segal’s character really sticks in the mind. In comparing Hot Rock to Snatch, you could interchange Segal’s Kelp and Dennis Farina’s Cousin Avi without upsetting either film: both are motormouth go-getters out entirely for themselves, willing to back their “friends” if only as a pathway to personal gain. More importantly, both performances have specificity, memorable quirks that make for a real character. As he’s done from time to time, Robert Redford just sort of ends up playing Robert Redford. The memorable quirks of his Dortmunder are few and far between, if they’re present at all.
Which is not Redford’s fault, of course. The Hot Rock‘s shortcomings aren’t likely the fault of any one of the artists comprising this pedigree. And sure, comparing an early-’70s American heist flick to the likes of Snatch isn’t quite fair. Cinema grows and changes all the time, but the onset of the MTV Generation — which demanded more, faster, all the time — certainly gave birth to a much more fast-paced style of filmmaking. Then again, one of the primary criticisms when the film came out in 1972 was its repetitiveness, its retreading of the many ways in which a band of thieves and lose and steal a diamond over and over again. They get it in the end, sure, but somehow it doesn’t feel like any movement has occurred. This singularly silly caper is supremely fascinating for occupying this moment in time, when the American crime genre was still figuring itself out — but much like Dortmunder and Co., The Hot Rock‘s reach simply exceeds its grasp.