Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guaranteed Return

None of us are going to the movies right now. That sentence has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. Maybe all we can do as far as that goes is take care of ourselves and the ones we love, looking forward to the day we get to go back. Maybe talking about how much I miss it is a little overly dramatic but that’s the sort of time this is and it really is truthful so even watching a movie a night, or two or three, on DVD or Amazon Prime or wherever, doesn’t fill the hole. Sure, I’m discovering lots of films I’ve never seen before, some good and some bad as well as a few I never thought I’d give a second look. But it’s no substitute for seeing a film the first time in a theater, for that feeling of walking in with your popcorn and hopefully discovering something with the crowd all around you, the joy of that giant image flickering and no matter what else there is to say, it’s missing. Considering everything else that’s going on this is secondary, of course. But it still matters and everything feels incomplete.

Now, whether people care about any of this is a debate for another point in the future. And we don’t know what’s going to happen or how long this is going to go on for. But the desire to return is there. And to bring up an example, one of the several times I went to the New Beverly Cinema over the final weeks before the world changed was to see THE HOT ROCK, my first theatrical viewing of this film directed by Peter Yates with a screenplay by William Goldman from the Donald Westlake novel. Released in early 1972, it’s one of a number of well-regarded Robert Redford films from the period, never one of his most popular but definitely with its devoted fans. I've even met a few of them. As an honest admission, I’ve always been somewhat lukewarm on it over my handful of viewings through the years, at least until now. Because it was at this screening that I suddenly found myself getting caught up in the casual rhythm and charm felt in every scene so as a result the film totally clicked for me. Oddly, this was exactly the same response when I saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID at the theater in late 2018 so maybe it’s a Redford-Goldman thing, but for whatever reason this was a film that really came alive in a theater with a crowd around me. Funny thing, the print of BUTCH was absolutely gorgeous and the one for THE HOT ROCK wasn’t in that sort of shape at all, a little scratchy and faded and, since it came all the way from the UK, even featured the alternate title HOW TO STEAL A DIAMOND IN FOUR UNEASY LESSONS (as a comparison the print of the second feature, Aram Avakian’s COPS AND ROBBERS, was flawless). But none of this mattered. The film just put a huge smile on my face in every scene. As 70s heist movies go it’s pretty mild, no sense of fatalism you’d expect from the genre and no heavy body count. In the end, it’s basically a comedy so the way it takes a cockeyed view of the crime and how the scattered precision becomes such a crapshoot makes it totally endearing. And now it’s a movie that helps puts me in a better mood. Sometimes that’s ok. Right now that’s even better than ok.

It takes no time for career thief John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) to be released from his latest stint in prison than for his friend Andy Kelp (George Segal) to instantly show up with a new scheme, having been hired by one Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), United Nations representative for the African nation of Central Vatawi, to rob the Sahara Stone from the Brooklyn Museum in order to return it to the rightful place of his homeland. With getaway driver Stan Murch (Ron Leibman) and explosives expert Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand) brought onto the job, the heist goes off but not without a hitch, leading to multiple attempts to steal the diamond again only with something else unexpected going just a little wrong each time. And when Greenberg’s lawyer Abe (Zero Mostel), who also happens to be his father, gets involved with his own agenda Dortmunder and his crew have to resort to more extreme scenarios to finally retrieve the rock from where it is.

The depths of cynicism found in 70s films not only becomes more apparent for me as time goes on, what those films are saying means more as well, a feeling that goes perfectly with the decade and certainly means something now which makes a movie like THE HOT ROCK, which contains none of that, play as even more of a surprise each time out. Characters in heist films never seem to spend much time going over the possible ways things could go wrong, not because of double crosses, although there always seems to be some of that, but because of the plain fact that, well, shit happens, no matter how well the plan might be executed, no matter how ultra-cool the crooks are. This is a film where those unexpected developments happen and instead of staring into the pits of what crime has led these people to it’s a breezy, enjoyable caper film that deals with the expected twists of the genre but always in a surprising way as the layers of the plotting are peeled off to of course reveal that what’s done isn’t really done. None of this makes these guys want to stop, of course. Dortmunder couldn’t do anything else if he tried and is always confident on the surface even with some nasty stomach issues, but he at least takes solace in how his inevitable ulcer is still years away. Kelp, with a nasty habit of freezing up in the middle of a job, doesn’t mind failure and seems to be as much about putting on the act of doing the job no matter what happens even as things go wrong, never knowing for sure who they can trust.

The first shot of the film after the Twentieth Century Fox logo is wiped away says it all, showing the serenity of an empty green lawn at the prison separated from the concrete yard where everyone congregates, the peace of nature always close but just as unreachable. Dortmunder and the crew scrambling after this diamond are in the same position so no matter how close they seem to get it’s still a long way off and considering how these guys are all sort of dopes, each plan turns out better than anyone could have imagined but it never seems to be enough. THE HOT ROCK is the rare crime movie where the guy gets out of jail at the start and never thinks for a minute about going straight because even he knows there’s no way it could happen. He just needs to be talked into this particular heist but it’s really never a question for Dortmunder anyway since, as he puts it, it’s what he does, even if he’d rather not do the job with Kelp. The real conflict doesn’t come from those double crosses and fellow crooks just waiting to fuck you over but from how unexpectedly difficult it all turns out to be, how even when things go almost perfectly there’s still something you didn’t see coming. Within the very casual quality of Yates’ direction is just watching these guys figure out what the next step is going to be so in fairness there’s not that much suspense and as a director he never seems as assured with the broader comedy aspects as he is with the hang out nature of letting certain moments play, naturally letting the humor emerge out of that laid back feel. When Moses Gunn pauses in amazement to exclaim, “I’m a criminal,” as he realizes the plan really is taking shape it’s one of the best moments in the film as if he never quite believed this would happen just as later on he can’t believe the eternal annoyance it’s led to.

Even the big museum robbery which you’d think would be the centerpiece of the whole movie happens sooner than you’d expect and is done with a surprisingly tossed-off feel, as much about the silence of that huge, empty space cutting back to the carefully planned diversion outside as the specifics of the actual robbery even when the focus is the ticking clock of the moment when Kelp unexpectedly gets trapped in the very place the diamond is. The various steps to each scheme are all about the characters in one way or another, whether the way Leibman plays an accident victim for that diversion, Redford silently freaking out in the helicopter or the teamwork involving a certain elevator shaft when even we’re not sure what surprise it’s building to.

Along with the camaraderie of the four guys are the incidental sights of the location shooting, all a reminder of the panic business in New York that Kelp is so fond of and it probably only feels like half the film is set around those expressways circling the outer boroughs with one briefly used location up in the Bronx that maybe I recognize which gives a sudden rush of nostalgia. The plot also basically stops for the quick helicopter trip around lower Manhattan as Leibman’s Stan Murch tries to figure out exactly where he’s supposed to fly to with footage looking directly down on the city and at one point lingering on the incomplete World Trade Center which 10-15 years ago was unnerving, now it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. The main cop at the precinct being raided is played by William Redfield of A NEW LEAF and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, seeming more annoyed than anything by what’s happening, just another cog in this New York who views it all as just one more pain in the ass, wondering why every problem can’t be solved by just monkeying with it.

Maybe THE HOT ROCK is one of those products of the 70s that now feels like the visual equivalent of easy listening music and the 100 minute film goes by in a flash but if I’m being honest, I can still see what maybe wasn’t clicking for me on past viewings in the way the movie cruises along instead of ever exploding. The tightly plotted story beats are so carefully laid out all through Goldman’s screenplay that I wish it could breathe a little more, maybe with a few better transitions at times to orient us better or just a little bit more bickering between the two main guys to really make those characters pop since it worked so well for Butch and Sundance, after all. Kelp, who picks Dortmunder up from prison in a stolen car, is married to his sister played by the briefly seen Topo Swope in one of those elements it feels like the film could have done more with, but none of the women in the film are around for very long, even the one who becomes integral to the final step of the plan. Looking up the extensive writings and interviews from William Goldman on his work there is surprisingly little about this film beyond a vague quote that it was “not cast well” but who knows what he’s referring to—did he think Segal was a more suitable Dortmunder than the bigger star Redford?

Even if it is maybe too laid back at times, there’s a confidence to the shots and Yates never lingers on them even when it’s a good one and the way moments are staged to place characters in relation to each other in the frame makes their dynamic even stronger. Sometimes it feels like the film is even more interested in that vibe than the plot and it’s sometimes more than willing to just let the Quincy Jones score play for a few extra beats as it goes to the next scene. That sense of seventies cool is a reminder it was likely more of an inspiration for Steven Soderbergh’s OCEANS’S ELEVEN than the film that was actually a remake of. So much of THE HOT ROCK is just going along for the ride with the star power of Redford, and Segal too, and directed by Yates a year before he made the truly great crime film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, this one has no bigger goals in mind with very little even to say about the racial politics of the colonial aspect but presumably all’s fair when thievery is involved, after all. For Dortmunder, being a thief is not about being tough but about being just smart enough to get the job done before the other guy does and win out over this diamond that’s jinxed him. It’s the suspense of the climax that works beautifully moving from shot to shot, each beat that leads him to the all-important safe deposit box comes off as effortless, with one particular reaction shot of Redford after he utters the infamous key phrase “Afghanistan banana stand”, not knowing for sure if what he says will work, that is basically what the movie is building to. And it earns the refreshingly offhand moment as Redford calmly walks down Park Avenue, finally getting a sense of the serenity he couldn’t have earlier. I think the movie knows this is only temporary for the guy but these days it’s a reminder that even a brief feeling is better than none.

The Robert Redford portrayal of Dortmunder is very much about the movie star quality of it all, the laid back charisma crossed with his casual nervousness and the sense that he can’t let go of something once he’s going for it. The film is light and Redford is maybe even too light for that insignificance but the way he lays out how the plan has to work and why he’s doing it along with just the sight of him thinking things over gives it much of its heft, knowing that even his smarts may not be enough to figure out everything. As Kelp, George Segal is secondary but that desperate glad-handing style keeps the energy going and it’s always just right to bounce off Dortmunder along with the sense that he knows just how to get under his partner’s skin. It’s those little character moments that make up the most idiosyncratic moments with the manic glee in the great Ron Leibman laying out the precise directions of how he got somewhere along with Paul Sand as Greenberg who always seems to be wondering what the hell he’s doing there. Moses Gunn lends the perfect amount of dry humor to his growing exasperation as Amusa while Zero Mostel always plays it as having one over on everyone which he almost always does. Charlotte Rae is Stan’s ma, Lee Wallace of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is Dortmunder’s doctor and Robert Weil, also from PELHAM ONE TWO THREE as well as MOONSTRUCK is the bank employee who unknowingly assists Dortmunder at the film’s most crucial moment.

But even after all this, my honest admission is that watching the film again on DVD at home, it’s still not the same. Seeing THE HOT ROCK in the theater makes it, like all films, bigger than life and allows us to focus on the sheer personality of these guys, on the charm of Robert Redford, the stalling tactics of George Segal, the toothy grins of Ron Leibman, the jittery nervousness of Paul Sand. And those New York surroundings, which right now provide a level of comfort. It’s still fun, just not the same. Moving past this film for a moment, there have been other Dortmunder vehicles taken from the Donald Westlake book series although you’d be forgiven for not knowing. Martin Lawrence played the character under a different name in WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? a major summer release in 2001 but now forgotten and so did George C. Scott in 1974’s BANK SHOT which I recall being strictly so-so but it’s been a few years. Paul Le Mat was actually named Dortmunder in the Gary Coleman vehicle JIMMY THE KID which I recall from early 80s cable and have never seen again since. The point here is THE HOT ROCK, which I’d always thought was a nice, pleasant movie, which it is, and how much a theatrical viewing caused it to rise in my estimation. It’s one of those things I think about right now, since we can’t go to the movies. And we don’t know when we’re going to be able to go back and what’s going to change when we do, but I dream of that return when it’s safe. There’s nothing like the rush of that feeling when you’re at the movies, especially when you’re making just the right discovery but sometimes just the experience of being there to see, well, anything is enough. Maybe it’s an addiction. But even now, when staying away is for the best and absolutely necessary, it’s something I never want to give up.

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