For someone cited as Hollywood’s golden boy for a grand portion of his acting career, Robert Redford sure enjoyed playing characters who liked stealing stuff. Drawn to the idea of the outlaw life from an early age, his cinematic crimes were often dashing and romantic, Robin Hood-esque in nature. Whatever he did, you’d root for him. You’d have to—he’s Robert Redford!
Sandwiched in his filmography between Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Sting—two thievery movies, both co-starring Paul Newman, that played a big part in making Redford a megastar—is the far less famous The Hot Rock, based on a novel by Donald Westlake and directed by Peter Yates. Though it was met with resounding shrugs upon its release 50 years ago, the film’s abundant charm makes it well worth a revisit.
We meet Redford’s character, Dortmunder, as he’s being released from the latest of his many stints in prison for robbery. Picking him up—and, in a typically clumsy move, almost running him down in a freshly stolen car—is his locksmith brother-in-law Kelp (George Segal). In addition to a lift, Kelp offers him an opportunity: A precious stone resides in the Brooklyn Museum, which belongs to the (fictional) country of Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), who would very much like the stone back and is willing to pay handsomely to make it happen.
Dortmunder is initially reluctant to leap straight into another risky job so soon after gaining his freedom, but the relentless enthusiasm of his brother-in-law and his conviction in his own abilities changes his mind. Dortmunder and Kelp recruit explosives expert Greenberg (Paul Sand) and getaway driver Murch (Ron Leibman), and after weeks of careful preparation, the four men carry out the job. It goes terribly, but never ones to accept defeat, they try again. And again. As their efforts are met with an increasingly absurd array of obstacles, the group’s determination only grows. Will they ever get their hands on that darn stone?
While The Hot Rock opens like a traditional heist movie (the idea, the assembling of the gang, the casing of the joint, the robbery) almost before we realize it, we’ve entered the realm of the ridiculous. There’s a real boiling-a-frog logic to the film’s snowballing lunacy; we need to get to a place where we’d accept a hypnotist and the phrase “Afghanistan Banana Stand” as the solution to our quartet’s woes, and somehow—via double-crossing dads, uncomfortable bowel movements and nauseating helicopter rides—we do.
One of the greatest of the movie’s pleasures is witnessing this cavalcade of craziness erode Dortmunder’s initial cool. He’s many years and many stints past being fazed by time in the big house. Rather than the prospect of prison, his ever more frayed edges stem from a specialist’s frustration at obstacles he’s failed to foresee, and the always-moving horizon line of his task’s completion. The constant, ridiculous setbacks are an insult to his professional integrity. He reaches his nadir—ironically enough—in a helicopter flying high over New York City, after the third attempt at clinching the stone has failed in spectacular style. Slumped and ashen-faced, but eyes aflame with crazed resolve, Dortmunder delivers an impassioned speech about his troubles thus far, ending with a prediction/promise: “Either I get it, or it gets me.” Redford’s delivery, straddling the line between utter defeat and unhinged determination, is sublime. Of all his thieving rogues, Dortmunder is the least dashing by far.
The Hot Rock finds a tremendously endearing comedy team in Redford and Segal. While they’re playing brothers-in-law, their dynamic suggests they could have grown up together; Kelp follows big bro Dortmunder around with childlike, puppyish ebullience. Dortmunder has to give a frozen Kelp a pep talk in the middle of the first robbery so they can finish the job before the distracted museum guards return, and the flailing locksmith is, hilariously, touched to the point of tears by his words (“You really think I have golden hands?!”). Their fraternal support runs both ways, too; as Dortmunder’s mental state unravels further with each ludicrous new obstacle, Kelp’s incessant optimism keeps him buoyed.
There are no real stakes in The Hot Rock. Dortmunder expresses his fear that the next time he’s arrested it’ll be “for life,” and there’s the question of what would happen to Kelp’s wife and new baby if he were to be jailed, but these aren’t perils upon which we linger. There’s no danger of serious injury or death; the biggest physical threat is that Dortmunder’s stress-induced gastritis becomes a full blown ulcer.
Without those stakes, The Hot Rock finds its groove as a heist hangout movie, albeit one with a wonderfully deranged heart. Quincy Jones’ lively score gives the proceedings a joyful bounce and Ed Brown’s photography makes the most of the summery NYC locations. However wrung-out our leading man may be, the film remains relaxed and jovial, sauntering through its various adventures with irresistible cheer. Along with all the hijinks, it’s just a delightfully fun world to inhabit for a couple of hours.
Twenty years after The Hot Rock, Redford starred in Sneakers, where he and Sidney Poitier captured a similar magic as the elder statesmen of another endearing gang of lawbreakers. In The Old Man and the Gun, his last lead turn before retiring from the big screen, Redford returned to the outlaw business once again. Both of these films, and the two he made with Newman, are hugely enjoyable; you really couldn’t go wrong with Redford heading up a heist movie.
The Hot Rock is in good company, and yet still regularly gets lost in conversations around Redford’s love of cinematic thievery. It shouldn’t. For the rare joy of seeing him play a man completely unraveled, for the film’s gleeful willingness to dive into absurdity, and for its all-round good vibes, it stands at the top of the Redford crime canon.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI Podcast Review and Paste.