Monday, January 13, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Hot Rock" (1972)

"Not me. I’ve got no choice. I’m not superstitious, and I don’t believe in jinxes, but that stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go. I’ve been damn near bitten, shot at, peed on, and robbed. And worse is gonna happen before it’s done so I’m taking my stand. I’m going all the way. Either I get it, or it gets me!"

That's a line of dialogue from "The Hot Rock" that I'm not sure if it came out of the typewriter of screenwriter William Goldman or author Donald E. Westlake, who wrote the book. I highly suspect the former, because Goldman -- one of the most celebrated script men of all time -- has a penchant for giving main characters long-ish speeches where they more or less tell you everything you need to know about them.

That line is from Dortmunder, a career thief played by Robert Redford, talking about a massive diamond he and his team are after at the behest of an African diplomat named Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn). Dortmunder has had a run of bad luck during his life in crime; indeed, as the story opens he's just getting out of a long prison stint.

He takes the job, even though he has every intention of taking up the plumbing trade he learned behind bars, because his brother-in-law Kelp (George Segal) convinces him to. It's fun to see Redford play a character who is inherently pessimistic and downbeat -- he even chews a special medicinal gum to soothe his pre-ulcerous stomach.

They case the museum where the diamond is held, leading to another great exchange of dialogue as he explains their likelihood of success:

Dortmunder: "It's good, and it's bad. There's a guaranteed return, and that's good. But the guarantor is Amusa, and Amusa's a rookie, and that's bad. But it's an easily transportable object, and that's good. Only it's in a rotten position in the museum, 30 steps to the quickest exit, and that's bad. And the glass over the stone, that's bad too, because that's glass with metal mixed in it, bulletproof, shatterproof. But the locks don't look impossible, three, maybe five tumblers. But there's no alarm system, and that's the worst, because that means no one's going to get lazy watching, knowing the alarm will pick up their mistakes. Which means the whole thing has got to be a diversion job, and that's good and that's bad, because if the diversion's too big, it'll draw pedestrians, and if the diversion's not big enough, it won't draw that watchman."
Kelp: "Dortmunder, I don't know where the hell you are, or what the hell you're saying. Just tell me, will you plan the job?!?"
Dortmunder: "It's what I do."

The basic joke of this comedy-caper is that the crack team of criminals are very good at what they do, but something always seems to go wrong and they keep having to steal the same diamond over and over again.

They successfully distract the guards by having their wheel man, Murch (Ron Leibman), crash a car in front of the museum and pretend to be injured, while their explosives guy, Greenberg (Paul Sand), portrays a doctor helping out. But things go awry and Greenberg is arrested after swallowing the diamond.

Then it becomes a prison break movie, with Dortmunder and the team forced to get Greenberg out. Then they learn he stashed the diamond in the holding cell at the 9th Street police station, so they have to break in there with the help of a helicopter and more diversions.

Finally, after learning Greenberg's father, a slimy attorney played by Zero Mostel, has double-crossed them all and hidden the diamond in his bank safe deposit box, they have to break into there, strong-arming the bank clerk with the help of a hypnotist.

The movie's not terribly funny, but the caper bits are really inspired and nerve-wracking. Director Peter Yates, know for "Breaking Away" and "Bullitt," has a tight feel for action scenes, while simultaneously knowing how to make each character vivid and distinct.

The film contains several notable aspects. While they're flying the helicopter to the police station, Murch -- a novice at piloting a chopper, but insisting "I can drive anything!" -- nearly crashes into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, which was then still under construction. Christopher Guest makes his film debut with a bit part as a cop at the police station.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Redford in a non-golden boy role, playing a man who's a ball of nervous energy and low expectations for himself. The part at the end where Dortmunder, having successfully retrieved the diamond from inside the bank, walks away is just a treat.

He finally has a bounce in his step, and Redford practically floats above the sidewalks of New York City, almost seeming to dance his way into the arms of long-elusive success.

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