The Hot Rock
Ahh, Peter Yates. Whatever happened to him? After a pretty impeccable TV career he graduated to Hollywood and had a damn good run in the late 60s through to the early 70s that included Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, then sort of faded into mediocrity. He still worked until last decade but can anyone remember his later work? Happily his golden age output included The Hot Rock, one of those lighthearted caper films that seemed to adorn every marquee in the mid seventies, a time when criminals were free from their Hays Code constraints to play loveable and weren’t obliged to prove crime did not pay just before the credits rolled.
Robert Redford is the cat burglar just released after a four year stretch who makes his mind up to rob again before he’s even made it home. In fairness to him he does come in for some hard sell from his brother-in-law, a master locksmith played by 70s stalwart George Segal and the job itself has a certain degree of nobility to it: stealing a huge diamond – the rock of the title – from a museum and returning it to its rightful African owner. So after negotiating a generous per diem from his new employer, along with promises of any materiel he may need for the job, he signs up and starts to put a team together.
What sets this film apart from many of its contemporaries – and I’m thinking here about the likes of California Suite; A Man, a Woman and a Bank & Cops and Robbers (curiously also adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) – is the structure of the film itself. The British title of this picture is How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons, which gives an indication of the screwball nature of the heist, or more properly heists. The break in at the museum involves a complex bit of teamwork that is pulled off admirably but the escape doesn’t quite go to plan. In fact the guy in possession of the diamond is caught, forced to swallow the rock and is put on remand. But hell, the big house ain’t enough to stand in the way of these guys so they start planning a jail break that matches and probably surpasses the museum job for chutzpah.
Of course the jail isn’t even the start of it and before they know it they are breaking into police stations and high security banks, all the while playing cat & mouse with the increasingly disillusioned African ambassador and a double dealing lawyer played with lip-licking delight by Zero Mostel.
To their immense credit Yates, and scriptwriter William Goldman manage to ply a fine balance between comedy and drama; this may stray close to farce but it never gets ridiculous. All of the set pieces are innovative and satisfying and in the final five minutes we truly enter heart-in-mouth territory.
This is a lot of fun and well worth a watch.
The Hot Rock – directed by Peter Yates (1972)
Break in, grab the priceless diamond and get out. Should be simple right? Things don’t quite work out that way for a recently released cat burglar on what he promises will be his last job.