Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Why exactly filmmakers came to shoot so much in New York in the 60s-70s golden age, when in decades prior a Hollywood backlot would suffice (as it did in years of Seinfeld), we may never figure for sure. Coolness, tax incentives, imperative cultural eminence, all of the above, who can say. Peter Yates’s The Hot Rock—an all-but-forgotten heist comedy from 1972—may be a case in point: although it is saturated in neighborhoods, landmarks and authentic juice, and although it’s largely set in and around Prospect Heights, it’s the kind of movie that could’ve been shot anywhere. In fact, it’s so blase about its New York-ness, so unobsessed with the rhythms and textures of the city, that it virtually adopts a rather New York attitude about itself—what, New York, so? What’s the big deal?
Based on a novel by crime legend Donald Westlake, a Brooklyn-born lifelong New Yorker whose hundred-odd books were almost always set in the boroughs, the film is centered on the Brooklyn Museum and a plot hatched by an African nation’s consulate to steal a native diamond (stealing it back, of course) from the museum’s main Court. That the African (Mose Gunn) would cynically hire goofball George Segal and frequently-incarcerated heist-master Robert Redford to do it, and then try to nickel-and-dime their per diems and material funding, feels very New York; that actually grabbing the stone (with the help of driver-nut Ron Liebman and explosives egghead Paul Sand) is the easiest part of their travails may be pure Westlake. In any case, Yates, a Brit, had shot only one film in New York before, entirely on sets (1969’s John and Mary), and never seemed, in a nearly-40-year career, to care very much where his films were shot. (His famous San Francisco cop movie Bullitt, from 1968, views that personality-rich city as merely a series of car chase hills. Though to be fair, he did respond to Boston’s cramped anomie in 1974’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle.) Still, The Hot Rock is a tour of central Brooklyn and Manhattan; there’s lots of love for the bucolic serenity of Prospect Park, and in the Museum you can see Segal and Redford scurry around Keystone Kops-style on the original glass-paneled floor that is now obscured by a lovely new renovation, but can still be seen downstairs, in the Great Hall, looking up. You even get the overhead plane noise from JFK.
For all of that, only Liebman, as a grease-monkey chatterbox who’s constantly regaling everyone about his feats of shortcutting around the Belt and the tunnels, is a recognizable Brooklyn animal. Whatever: Yates may not be very Lumetian in his ear and eye for the locale, but there’s little getting around the Lindsay-era city in full relaxing bloom, however oddly devoid of social tension (the only black man in the film is from Africa), not to mention the awe-strike that arises with a third-act copter ride around and up to the Twin Towers, which were being built at the time, so that in one shot Yates films the characters’ copter through the open girders of the unfinished South Tower. Sometimes, movies freeze history, and feed our love of place, whether the filmmaker is awake to it or not.