This, ahead, is my impassioned plea for you to watch a 1972 movie starring Robert Redford and George Segal called The Hot Rock. It probably won’t teach you any life lessons (unless you want to rob a museum, I guess, and even then the advice here is pretty sketchy) but I do truly think you’ll enjoy it. You deserve a treat. The Hot Rock is a treat. And it’s kind of remarkable people don’t even know this movie exists. Imagine someone saying this to you: “Hey, would you be interested in seeing a heist movie starring Robert Redford? And George Segal plays his sort of dimwitted buddy? And it’s directed by Peter Yates, who brought you Bullitt? And it’s written by William Goldman, you know, Butch Cassidy and All the President’s Men? And the score was composed by Quincy Jones?” Anyway, yes, this movie exists and it’s called The Hot Rock and I really think you should watch it. (Which, sadly, isn’t altogether that easy, I’ll get to that.)
This love letter to The Hot Rock exists because of the passing of George Segal. The day he died there was an outpouring of love on social media though, I noticed, The Hot Rock went unmentioned and I just think he’s terrific in this movie. Based on Donald E. Westlake’s book series about a thief named John Dortmunder (I was surprised to see just how many times these books have been adapted into films, but only The Hot Rock keeps the character’s name as John Dortmunder), I was pretty shocked at how many people hadn’t even heard of this movie when I tweeted about it. I was also pretty shocked at the number of people who said they’d check this movie out, then actually did. (That rarely happens.) To the point that it showed up on my Letterboxd account under “popular with your friends” tab. So, I figured, if I had at least some success getting people to watch this movie with a tweet, maybe a whole piece could get even more?
Honestly, I guess I shouldn’t talk. It was only a few years ago when I discovered this movie existed. In the “before times” there was a bar in my New York City neighborhood that played pre-1985 movies on its television screens, with subtitles instead of sound. One day, while having a pint (my god I miss draft beer), I glanced up and saw this absolutely gorgeous shot of a helicopter, with Robert Redford inside of it, flying low over New York City. At one point the helicopter passes a still under construction World Trade Center and the shot is filmed through the construction beams. (I’m hesitant to link to the YouTube video of this because it’s such low quality, but here it is anyway.)
I immediately asked what this movie was. “It’s The Hot Rock!” I had honestly never heard of it. When I got home I looked for it on streaming … nope. Well, alright, I will buy the Blu-ray. Well, the good news is there is a Blu-ray and it’s a terrific transfer. The bad news is it’s a limited edition by Twilight Time Movies, which was a great company and got a lot of titles like this onto Blu-ray, but recently went out of business. So, I bought the DVD, which is very reasonably priced. (After watching the movie with sound I realized I loved it and then sprung for the pricy Blu-ray. And then I bought the movie poster, which now hangs in our living room.)
For me, it’s the perfect heist movie. It’s got that cool “Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11” vibe to it that, like Oceans, also manages to be funny. (I just now looked this up, after I wrote that last sentence and I discovered Soderbergh is a noted fan of this movie; hold that thought.) Redford is maybe at the height of his handsome powers here and it’s kind of crazy there aren’t five of these movies with him starring as Dortmunder. George Segal plays Kelp, Dortmunder’s kind of a dunce brother-in-law who really wants to pull off a heist. The two recruit a driver, Murch (Ron Leibman), and a bomb expert, Greenberg (Paul Sand), and the plan is to steal a diamond from a museum and then turn around and sell it to a United Nations representative who wants it back for his home country.
Okay, sounds fun enough, right? Well, the best part of all of this is the crew assembled aren’t all particularly good at their jobs. To the point they keep screwing up and the movie takes us on three more adventures to steal this same diamond because the crew keeps losing it.
I mentioned Soderbergh earlier. I had no idea if he’d ever mentioned The Hot Rock before, but I had a feeling he probably had. His Oceans movies tread too close to the tone of The Hot Rock without it being at least some sort of influence. In a 2017 interview with Daily Blender, he said, “There’s no rational reason why, as a kid, what I would call caper movies would have such an appeal to me. But they always did. There’s a great film called The Hot Rock. It’s really good. Robert Redford, 1972. It’s hilarious. You’ll see how much of an influence it was on the Ocean’s films. That sense of humor. I just like them. That kind of humor and a sort of puzzle. It’s something that movies are good for.”
For the life of me I don’t understand why this movie isn’t more popular. It was even a box office disappointment at the time. The thing is, this movie has a pace more like a modern movie than a movie from 1972. But it hasn’t had a real reassessment from current audiences because it’s not the easiest movie to find. (Other than the Blu-ray, it has played on FX Movie Channel in recent weeks and some people have reported that it’s on their cable package’s “on-demand” service, of all things.) Oh, I almost forgot: do you like New York City movies? That show off almost every corner of the city in glorious fashion? Well, this has that, too. (There’s a scene set at Carl Schurz Park that I just love, which is probably most famous for being the park where Edward Norton gets beat up at the end of 25th Hour. Oh, also, that’s where the mayor’s house is located.)
So, I implore you to seek it out. It’s been a long year, give yourself the treat of The Hot Rock. The best I can do is I promise it will put you in a good mood.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.