70s Rewind: THE HOT ROCK, Robert Redford, When He Was Still an Actor
Early reviews of David Lowery's The Old Man & the Gun have noted Robert Redford's confirmation that he'll be retiring from acting, something he's talked about since 2016. In the new film, Redford plays a gentleman thief. Years before, he played a career criminal who was less of a gentleman.
On the delightful and impassioned audio commentary for Peter Yates' comic crime caper film The Hot Rock, available in a must-own Blu-ray edition from Twilight Time, however, screenwriter Lem Dobbs says that Redford stopped being an actor much earlier, soon after the release of the film in January 1972. Dobbs' contention is that, essentially, Redford was swept up by his popularity and became more of an icon than an actor.
Accompanied by film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, Dobbs gives a great lesson on Redford, Segal, Westlake, Goldman, Yates, Sand, Liebman, early 70s cinema, NYC and much, much more. I've enjoyed the trio's audio commentaries in the past, including on Scorpio, and Redman and Dobbs together on Fat City; they're very knowledgeable about films from the 1970s (and other eras as well), so I usually aim to do my own research after watching a film before listening to the audio commentary.
On a whim, however, I cracked open the newly-released disc and decided to listen to the audio commentary before watching the film anew, which I've rarely if ever done, and it gave me an instant appreciation for the art of the audio commentary.
It starts off with the expected scene-setting for The Hot Rock, based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake -- the first in a series of comic crime novels featuring a thief named John Dortmunder -- and adapted by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Dobbs doesn't think much of Westlake's books published under his own name; he more highly values Westlake's series of hardcore, sparely-written crime novels about the thief Parker, which started with The Hunter and were published under the name Richard Stark.
As it happens, earlier this year I started reading (or re-reading) those Parker books, which are terrific, yet also more cold-blooded and brutal in tone than I remembered. That made me turn to re-reading The Hot Rock for relief, which I found refreshing in its wry humor. (And then I saw Bank Shot, which is filled with mystifying missteps.)
I was eager to reset my 'Westlake on the big screen' calibrations, so was very happy to hear that Twilight Time would be releasing The Hot Rock on Blu-ray. I've seen the film two or three times before, but always on television in an edited version, and in the wrong aspect ratio.
Dobbs' dismissal of most of Westlake's novels got my blood boiling a little, just because Westlake is one of my favorite writers. Yet he has good reason for his personal views, and explains it well, and it launched a spirited discussion on the audio commentary, which soon turned to the actors and director, and especially Robert Redford.
After spending some nine years (?!), on and off, writing a film for Redford -- I believe he's talking about The Company You Keep (2002), directed by and starring Redford, though the title is never mentioned -- Dobbs has strong positive feelings about his experience, overall, though it doesn't prevent him from speaking his mind frankly about Redford's career.
As to The Hot Rock, the film is enjoyable as low-key, light hearted crime caper, and a great time capsule of New York City in 1971. Quincy Jones composed original music, which is performed by an outstanding group of musicians, all named in the final credits. And Redford's final walk/dance of joy is priceless.
Peter Yates had established himself with the action flicks Robbery and, especially, Bullitt, but he had followed those with the quiet John and Mary, which suggested he was open to helming a range of films, and, indeed, his career veers all over the map. Murphy's War, released the previous year, was a wild and wooly flick, as I recall, and Yates followed up The Hot Rock with the superb The Friends of Eddie Coyle. His career then embraced the chaotic For Pete's Sake, the even more chaotic, though inspired Mother, Jugs & Speed, and the decent The Deep before striking pay dirt again with Breaking Away.
Was The Hot Rock hurt at the box office by the release of the James Bond entry Diamonds Are Forever at the tail end of December 1971? (What, more diamonds?) Perhaps. In any event, it didn't perform very well with audiences and in a year that also saw Redford's star rise in the Cannes-premiering Jeremiah Johnson -- which was actually filmed before The Hot Rock -- and the timely The Candidate, released that summer, the light comic film disappeared.
But it was not forgotten entirely.
70s Rewind is a column in which the writer reflects on his favorite film decade.