Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock (film)


Don’t fret. All will be explained.

This is a pretty belated addition to last year’s series of blogs on the Dortmunder series of comic crime novels by the late Donald E Westlake. I mentioned at the time that the first book, The Hot Rock, was filmed in 1972, though it was several years later before I saw it, on reissue, under its unwieldy British title How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
I’ve never seen it since, until making the effort to watch it again, with the intention of recording my thoughts.
The film comes with an impressive pedigree: it stars Robert Redford and George Segal, plus the inimitable Zero Mostel in a supporting role, it is directed by Peter Yates, the director of Bullitt and the screenplay is written by William Goldman, who was already noted for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Hell, it even has a soundtrack by Quincy Jones!
Unfortunately, none of that makes this into a good film. It’s not a good Dortmunder film, for all that Goldman is faithful to the spine of the story, though in making that assessment, I’m hampered by my knowledge of fourteen books featuring our favourite hangdog planner and his fox-faced friend when this film is an adaptation only of the very first book – which was originally planned to be a hard-boiled crime story starring the ultra-serious Parker.
As a novel, The Hot Rock is very different from the series as a whole, much more serious in every respect, and the film reflects that position, as it had to: Bank Shot was only published in the year the film appeared.
But even despite this, the film doesn’t really cut it. In fact, I don’t think it really works all that well as a film, if you try divorcing it from who you personally think the characters should be.
Goldman’s script is fine in itself. Anyone who has read his two superb books about his life and work in Hollywood will see how his adaptation hews closely to the principles he sets out there (the books are Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: if you haven’t read them, do so).
For adaptations, Goldman works with the spine of the book, staying as close to that as film-making allows, but he is absolute about how film-making is compression, about the urgency of the story having to give as much information in as short a time as possible. Thus it’s no surprise to see that the gang, or string, is cut from five men to four, and the six phases of the crime also to four.
It’s Chefwick, the locksmith and model train nut, who goes, and with him the least plausible phase of the crime, involving breaking into a sanatorium with a life-sized model train. Kelp becomes the locksmith: he also becomes Dortmunder’s brother-in-law, setting up an instant connection between the characters that doesn’t requiring stopping the story to explain anything.
Similarly, the utility man, Alan Greenwood, becomes explosives expert Allan Greenburg, and the crooked lawyer, Andy Prosker, becomes Abe Greenburg (the Zero Mostel role), his father. This enables the lengthy and slow moving train sequence to be replaced by a much shorter and more direct scene where the gang force Abe Greenburg to hand over his Safe Deposit boxkeys by apparently killing his son.
Lastly, the final phase, where the gang have to steal the Balabamo Emerald (in the film, the Sahara Stone, a diamond) back from their double-crossing employer, is also by-passed. Instead, Dr Amusa sacks the gang, throwing in his lot with Greenburg Senior, before Dortmunder takes the diamond from the Bank. This sets up the statutory happy ending (Hollywood. 1972. Suck it up) as the gang get away with the Hot Rock.
Incidentally, there is an in-joke at the start of the film, when Goldman replaces the kleenex gag as Dortmunder leaves prison with a brief conversation between Dortmunder and the Governor about the former going straight, to which, after a short pause, Dortmunder openly says he can’t. Goldman was making use here of a real-life incident in Butch Cassidy’s career which he’d had to delete from that film.
Skilful though the adaptation is, and conscientiously as Goldman uses Westlake’s dialogue wherever possible, the problem is that, as Goldman himself admits, he can’t really do comedy. Strange as that may seem from the writer of Butch Cassidy, Goldman is aware of his limitations, and flat out comedy is not his metier. He can shape the story very creditably, but he’s not a atural for what is needed to make this film fly.
Nor, despite his track record does Yates – an English director who worked in Hollywood – do much to set this film up in the way it needed to be to work. His most famous work, Bullitt, a fast-paced, action-oriented Steve McQueen thriller, had demonstrated his ability with crime films, though Yates then went on to alternate action and comedy films for the next decade.
For someone so skilled at action, it seems strange that Yates allows the film to crawl along, when it’s clearly crying out for an injection of pace. But the action moves lazily at each stage, and the characters perform in a low-key, unhurried fashion throughout, never displaying any serious degree of liveliness, let alone urgency.
Indeed, when the helicopter comes into play, Yates lets the story virtually stop whilst we follow the copter on an aerial tour of New York City that lasts several minutes (thus directly contradicting Goldman’s principles). Considering that the gang are on their way to break into a Police Station via the roof, this in no way helps the tension.
How much of this is down to Yates seeking a specific approach for the film, and how much of it to the cast themselves, but with the proud exception of Ron Leibman as Murch, and a few bits of minor histrionics from Segal, everybody underplays their parts to the extent that the life is sucked out of Mostel’s bombasticism. You must have seen him as Max Bialystock in the original version of The Producers, and if you haven’t, what have you been doing with your life? Abe Greenburg is a slighter version of that, given less room to play, but Mostel is acting against a wet blanket here.
Paul Sand, as Allan Greenburg, is a nonentity. I know he’s supposed to be dry, but Sand could be the Sahara Desert (as opposed to Stone) on this evidence, whilst Redford is so reserved in his performance, underplaying when the film cries out for a more exaggerated, stylised approach, that  he kills any chance the story has of taking off.
Leibman at least is innocent of such charges. He’s a ball of energy, gum-chewing, always active, greeting every situation with gleeful absorption, as was the case in all his film appearances in that era. He’s what is needed, someone determined to get everything out of what he does, and as sucj he stands out like a sore thumb.
He’s probably the best thing about the film, but even that is skew-whiff, because he’s not Murch. That’s not Stan Murch there. You can hang the name of Leibman’s shoulders, but there’s no way he will ever be Murch.
Which leads us back to the one greatest problem with this adaptation. Ignore little things, like how Dortmunder and Kelp are too well-dressed, too expansively dressed in Kelp’s case, too expensively dressed in Dortmunder’s, and how in keeping with Seventies fashions Dortmunder is for a habitual criminal just released from his second prison term. Sure, these jar, they look wrong, but nothing s more wrong that when he gaze at Redford’s clean cut, handsome face, that well-styled fair hair, his perfectly proportioned body, and you try to call him John Archibald Dortmunder and you can’t. Fucking hell, that’s Robert Redford! Dortmunder’s no Redford, and Redford is not, could not ever be, a Dortmunder.
And this film can’t work.
For all that, I understand The Hot Rock to be the best of the five films made by adapting Donald Westlake’s book. Whether I have the nerve to try any of the others is debatable.

That’s more like it.

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