The Hot Rock

Heist movies typically come in two subgenre types: the slick thriller where lives are put in danger (whether those at
risk are thieves or cops), and the often farcical caper (which usually has bungling crooks who fail to get anything
right). This star vehicle for Robert Redford (found on his CV timeline just before he co-starred again opposite Paul
Newman – reunited five years after Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid – in classic con-game movie The Sting),
manages the nifty trick of being a comedy thriller where failure is always an option, but giving up is not. And so,
very soon into the job, hilarious mistakes are made, but the action goes on regardless, continuing to reach a point
of obsession.
The Hot Rock (aka: How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons) is written by the great William
Goldman, although this movie is based on the crime novel by the prolific Donald E. Westlake. The Hot Rock was
the first of a series of 14 books about robbery expert John Dortmunder, a character who concocts meticulous plans.
The very existence of so many novels suggests that Dortmunder is a crooked character of considerable depth,
unlike the shallow geezers and empty-headed masterminds of so many heist movies, and Redford plays
Dortmunder as a career villain determined to find non-violent solutions for even the most problematic heist. It is
his defining trait; and it makes The Hot Rock a fascinating example of an unscrupulous thief pushed to the limits of
his morality and ethical judgement. He is faced with a bewildering dilemma: under what circumstances would
Dortmunder kill to get what he wants?
Dortmunder’s partner is Andy Kelp (George Segal), a habitual failure who convinces ex-convict Dortmunder to
attempt another robbery as soon as he’s out of prison. The speech that starts with: “It’s good, and it’s bad…”
signalling Dortmunder’s calculated commitment to tackle a heist leaves Kelp baffled, but it outlines the problems
of the heist, just as it effortlessly draws viewers into the daring but doomed criminal scheme. While stealing a rare
diamond from a museum in Brooklyn, not much goes according to plan, and one of the hapless gang is arrested.
The new plan involves breaking their captured team-mate out of police custody in New York, by using a helicopter
as their getaway vehicle. It is this sequence that includes some quite rare cinematic footage of the World Trade
Centre towers still under construction.
However, this action does not solve the problem, as the stolen diamond remains out of easy reach, and two further
plot twists reveal just how determined Dortmunder is to succeed. There are bluffs and betrayals, in a mix of serious
drama and jokey action scenes. The Hot Rock is rich in characters with peculiar faults, and packed with appealing
quirks. This is a movie that ensures its antiheroes are as sympathetic as any crooks seen in cinema or TV. Unlike
most heist movies where things go wrong, The Hot Rock puts our likeable rogues into an increasingly complex
situation where they cannot, it seems, win against the odds without compromising Dortmunder’s own long-held
principles of pursuing only ‘victimless’ crimes. This apparent fall from grace for the clever planner actually tests
the crook’s deviousness to a point where he risks not just blackening his conscience, but also losing the fragile
sympathy of viewers, by apparently being willing to become a vicious killer. The scene is quite savvy enough to play
the kind of con-game that anticipates The Sting, and so Dortmunder gets to have his cake and eat it, too. As the
heist movie that breaks the rules of heist movies, this is a winner; despite its main cast all playing losers.