RETRO ACTIVE: The Hot Rock (1972)
by Nick Schager
[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Nicolas Cage thief thriller Stolen.]
Robbery is fun and games in The Hot Rock
, and dramatized with suave grace by Peter Yates
, who directs this adaptation of Donald E. Westlake
's novel with an assuredness that enhances its funny-ha-ha hijinks. Yates' use of widescreen alternates between workmanlike efficiency and subtle artistry, highlighting interpersonal dynamics, enhancing suspense and creating tension through his deft alternation between close-ups and expansive master shots that position his protagonists as clownish mice attempting to navigate an enormous maze. That last impression is furthered by Yates' understated interplay between foreground-background images and diagonal visual lines—an early shot of Robert Redford
walking away from George Segal
alongside a park bench; another of Redford and Segal on a grassy path that stretches first toward, and then away from, the screen—that enhance the sense of characters attempting to operate in an inherently cockeyed world. Certainly, it's a world that provides no clear paths to success, as is soon learned by Dortmunder (Redford), a master thief who, after being released from prison, hooks up with his lock-picking brother-in-law Kelp (Segal) to procure for African dignitary Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn
) the museum-displayed Sahara Stone.
As befitting genre dictates, that plan requires the assembly of a team, which comes to feature getaway car driver Murch (Ron Leibman
, introduced listening to recordings of roaring engines with future The Facts of Life
headmistress Charlotte Rae
) and explosives expert Greenberg (Paul Sand
). It's a typically motley crew led by Redford's Dortmunder, who operates with the unruffled composure of an untouchable hero. He's basically Redford being Redford, replete with a bleeding heart that manifests itself when Dortmunder reveals his enlightened liberal outlook by chastising Kelp for characterizing Africans as using "blowguns and prison arrows." The most laughable aspect of The Hot Rock
is its tossed-off asides about Dortmunder's gastritis (that may soon develop into an ulcer), which a doctor blames on Dortmunder being the "strong, silent type" who internalizes his stress, and which to Kelp calls into question Dortmunder's supposed "nerves of steel"—a weakness that feels like a feeble attempt to make the ultra-cool and poised Redford also seem vulnerable and damaged. Still operating in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
mode (aided by that film's screenwriter, William Goldman
), Redford is in complete control of both his emotions and circumstances throughout these proceedings, operating as the dependably sturdy axis around which the film's wackiness revolves.
Dortmunder and his gang's initial museum heist, in which they pose as guards and utilize explosive outside distractions, is shot by Yates with a methodical detail and silence that gives the sequence its edge, culminating with typical things-fall-apart chaos that lands Greenberg in jail. Since Greenberg swallowed the Sahara Stone before being nabbed, Dortmunder and company are compelled to take on a second break-in to extricate their imprisoned comrade. That follow-up crime proves the most glaring example of The Hot Rock
's datedness, as Dortmunder and Kelp sneak into a New York state prison by merely cutting through a chain-link fence, scaling a wall with a grappling hook, and then using more uniform disguises to make their way to Greenberg—a journey aided immeasurably by the fact that (as in the museum) there are no surveillance cameras to worry about, and alarms only sound once bumbling guards trigger them, usually after perps have completed fleeing the scene of their theft. It's an antiquated vision of breaking-and-entering whose simplicity negates a good deal of the material's excitement, but again, Yates' staging has a similar stripped-down quality that makes up for a lack of anxiety with inviting elegance.
Ultimately, The Hot Rock
proves to be a heist film times four, with its ne'er-do-wells compelled to break back into prison once a liberated Greenberg confesses that he stashed the diamond in his cell, and then finally into a bank's safety deposit box owned by Greenberg's lawyer-father Abe (Zero Mostel
), who, though pretending to be an ally, has his own greedy designs on the stone. These shenanigans eventually become more than a bit wearisome, in part because Yates' slow-and-steady approach, when paired with Quincy Jones
' jazzy horn score, is too relaxed to drum up serious comedic verve, and also because there's never a compelling motivation for Dortmunder to continue pursuing his target—when he fumes about refusing to give up because of everything he's already gone through, culminating with "Either I get it, or it gets me," the sentiment comes off as being dictated solely by plot demands. Redford and Segal's barbed banter is light enough to keep the material from ever sinking into silliness, though for all its precisely composed aesthetics, it ultimately gets a bit too disorderly for its own good, be it a last ruse that involves the preposterous use of a hypnotist, or a concluding note that simply ignores the fact that equally as difficult as pilfering a famous jewel is fencing one.
Posted by ahillis at September 16, 2012 9:42 AM