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.

Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock

You know, it’s getting on for forty years since I first read this book: to still be laughing at the jokes this much later should give you some idea how good this story is.
It’s also the first time I’ve read the book with an analytical eye, assessing how it’s put together, and how it fares as the opening book of a series, which has led me to some intriguing discoveries.
The first thing anyone who goes on to read the entire Dortmunder series will realise is that the tone of The Hot Rock is very different from its successors. This is very often the case with series – compare Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic to any of the more recent Discworld novels – and is even more so here because this book was planned as a stand-alone.
And let’s not forget that this was originally a Parker plot. The Hot Rock was conceived as a hard-boiled crime novel, and more so than any other of its successors, its story strays not too far from that model.
Let me illustrate that by looking closely at Phase One (the novel is broken into Six Phases, each dealing with a stage of the continuing heist). We meet Dortmunder on the last day of his second prison term, escorted to the gate by the Warden, who talks about redemption but, underneath it all, has no belief that Dortmunder will change.
He’s met outside by Kelp, a colleague (these kind of people do not have friends), in a stolen car. Kelp has a job lined up. They are hired to steal the Balabomo Emerald by Major Iko, Cultural Attache at the Talabwo Embassy. Until recently, Talabwo was part of a British colony with what is now Akinzi. On Independence, the two tribes warred before splitting into separate countries. Both tribes worship the Emerald. Akinzi has it, Talabwo wants it back. It’s currently in New York, on Exhibition.
Dortmunder brings in three more men: Stan Murch, driver, Roger Chefwick, locksmith and Alan Greenwood, utility man. The gang study the museum, draw up and execute a scheme to get hold of the diamond. The plan works perfectly, up to a point: the gang get the Emerald but an alarm is set off and they have to flee. Everyone but Greenwood gets away: Greenwood is carrying the Emerald.
So far, this is a straight crime novel plot. But this isn’t that kind of book. Whilst keeping strictly to a realistic plot, Westlake makes certain that we know this is not for real by the character of the players.
It starts with the first line: “Dortmunder blew his nose.” He blows his nose into a kleenex, which he has to hold in his hand as he listens to the Warden lecturing him, all the way from the office to the gate, incidentally costing Dortmunder the $300 he was due for ‘selling’ his cell, which was going to be handed over just before he was let out. So Dortmunder shakes hands with the Warden. With the hand into which the kleenex has been soaking.
Then there’s Kelp. Kelp prefers luxury cars. Doctors have luxury cars with all the latest gadgets, like electric windows. So Kelp only steals cars with M.D. Plates. Unfortunately, he’s so busy trying to work out which switch is which, he ends up attracting Dortmunder’s attention by nearly running him down.
The rest of the gang are similarly not quite conventional when it comes to crooks: Murch is a car nut who lives with his cab-driver Mom, plays LPs of engines revving, roaring and screeching at Indianapolis and always explains what route he’s taken to get anywhere, Chefwick is a model railway nut, with an extensive home layout in his basement, and Greenwood has eyes for the ladies.
This section also includes our first visit to the O.J Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where we meet Rollo the barman, tall, meaty and balding, who knows his customers by their drinks, our first walk down the little passage with the payphone and the toilets, and our first meeting in the back room whose walls are invisible due to the cases stacked, leaving space for a table, a light with a reflector and a half dozen seats.
But throughout Phase One, to borrow Clive James’s words in discussing Alan Bennett, the jokes are decoration, not architecture. The plot is completely realistic, whereas the characters are just that bit off-centre. That is, until the last page of this Phase, with Greenwood trapped on a mezzanine floor, with guards approaching ahead and behind, no concealment, no cover, no escape.
So he eats the Emerald.
At that moment, the book lifts out of the realistic story and starts to follow its own, slightly skew-whiff logic. It’s not just the characters who display their idiosyncrasies, but now the plot starts to wobble off-centre. It may stay pretty close to the hard-boiled milieu throughout Phase Two, in which the gang have to break Greenwood out of prison to find out where he’s stashed the Emerald, but as soon as we learn that this is not the end of the caper, the plot breaks free of its realistic tramlines and starts to head towards improbability.
Westlake judges carefully how to up the ante at each stage. Having started with a pretty straight crime story, he takes care to make each step an extension of the earlier path until the part with the life-sized model train and the mental sanatorium becomes perfectly plausible because the ground has been so expert;y prepared.
He even puts into words the gag that sums up the whole, ridiculous story, when the crooked lawyer Andy Prosker comments that he has heard of the habitual criminal, of course, but that this is the first instance in the world of the habitual crime.
By the time the job is done, and the gang have in their hands the Balabomo Emerald, the audience is just waiting for something to go wrong. And it does. Westlake’s hinted at it in advance, so it comes as no surprise, in fact with a roar of recognition, when Iko plots a double-cross, intending to return to Talabwo with the Emerald – and Talabwo’s new Government Legal Advisor, E. Andrew Prosker – without paying the gang. Having finally got the diamond after so many efforts, Dortmunder and Co. have to steal it again. This time, from their own client.
All that trouble, and they don’t get paid after all.
Dortmunder, however, is not a planner for nothing. Iko has promised to find the money and pay them, given time, and Dortmunder knows he can rely on that. In the meantime, he turns the Emerald in at the Akinzi Embassy, not for money but in return for two things: one of Akinzi’s perfect replicas of the Balabomo Emerald, and a promise that they won’t announce they’ve got the real jewel until Dortmunder says so.
Which is going to be right after Major Iko has paid him $200,000 for a piece of glass…
The Hot Rock was an immediate success and it has stayed in print since first appearing in 1970. It was optioned and filmed, with a screenplay by William Goldman. It was the first of five films (so far) to have been made from Dortmunder novels, and is distinctive in being the only one to use Dortmunder’s name. It starred Robert Redford as Dortmunder, which is casting against type to say the least and, this being a Hollywood film, the ending was changed to allow the gang to get away with the Emerald themselves.
Coming out ahead, except in being still out of jail, is not going to be a common characteristic of this series.
It’s a fine start. Of course, it lacks the multitude of mannerisms, schticks and tics that the characters accumulate in future books – interestingly, there are no physical descriptions of any of the gang, with the exception of Chefwick, who is in late middle-age, skinny and short: it’s not giving away too much to say here that Chefwick doesn’t make the cut into the second book of the series, Bank Shot.
But overall, The Hot Rock does everything to establish the laconic, pared down, low-life world of Dortmunder and Co. If it’s more serious and hard-boiled here than the series as a whole, if the gang are more prone to wield guns and threaten (though not actually perform) harm than they are later, if the plot is more serious than the story, it’s still a superb, and very funny book for all those contradictions.

Discovering Dortmunder – Introduction

One of Westlake's many crime novels
One of Westlake’s many crime novels

I’ve just gone hang-the-expense crazy on Amazon (1p plus P&P) and bought the crime fiction collection Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain.
I’m not generally a crime fiction fan. I’ve read and enjoyed many crime books and series – McBain’s 87th Precinct stories for one, and the late Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books, but overall it’s a take-or-leave field for me. Indeed, I’ve only bought Transgressions for one of the dozen stories collected, “Walking Around Money”, by the late Donald E Westlake.
Westlake was a very prolific writer, with over 100 novels to his name, including those published under a variety of pseudonyms. He died on New Year’s Eve 2008, still far less well known in the UK than he deserved to be. In his native America, he was tremendously successful, Grand Master of the National Crime Writers Association, and one of only three writers to win the prestigious Edgar Award three times, and the only one to do so in three different categories (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Screenplay).
Like many writers of his generation, Westlake made his first sales in the 1950s dirty book industry, writing soft porn novels at a rate of one a month, under the bland pseudonym of Alan Marshall. He later used this experience to great effect in the painfully funny novel Adios Scherezade, which was the first of his books that I read, and which is still my favourite of all his work.
Then, in the early Sixties, he gained attention and success with his series of hard-boiled, stripped down books about the professional thief, Parker, under the pen-name Richard Stark. The Parker books are still selling today, and the recent Jason Statham film Parker is adapted from this series.
When Westlake began to establish himself under his own name, in the mid-Sixties, his work took on a quirky, comic aspect. He was still an expert at depicting the criminal world, its mindset and its characters, but his books would focus upon losers and oddballs, nebbishes and innocents, dragged into situations beyond their control. He would frequently experiment with form, in order to enhance the laughter he could quickly induce.
Adios Scherezade is an unusual, but superb example of what Westlake could achieve. The story is told, literally, by Ed Topliss, in an increasingly obsessive series of fifteen page Chapters, most of which are headed and numbered Chapter One.
Ed, a (very) average New Yorker, writes dirty books for a living. One a month, each to the formula of 150 pages, divided into ten 15 page chapters, with one sex scene per chapter. He writes a chapter a day for ten days every month, and does nothing the rest of the time.
Unfortunately, when Ed’s friend Paul – a real writer – offered him the chance to ghost write Paul’s series whilst Paul went on to write real books, he gave Ed a warning: nobody can write this shit forever. Ed wasn’t listening: he was too busy staring at Paul’s girlfriend’s mini-skirted thighs. But, thirty months later, Ed is realising that Paul was right. His last three books have been increasingly late. If he blows a fourth deadline, he’s out, and that means no income, nothing he can do, and a wife and daughter to support.
But the deadline is in twelve days, Ed’s only just finished the one before, and he’s dry. Not an idea in his head, facing disaster, and desperately writing something, anything, in fifteen page chapters in the hope it will trigger something he can use, as the immensity of his disaster builds up around him.
It’s a painfully funny book in both meanings of the phrase: it can be so funny that it hurts to laugh, but it’s also a book that finds laughter in an improbable but all-too-real situation of real pain. And Westlake’s knowledge of the dirty book industry is put to use in establishing the authenticity of this book.
The same year, Westlake published another crime novel, The Hot Rock. The story was started in 1967 as another Richard Stark/Parker book, one in which Parker would be hired to steal a diamond with religious significance on behalf of an African nation. Unfortunately, due to a series of unforeseen events, the jewel would stay out of reach, requiring Parker and his team to go through a series of plans to get hold of it.
The book got only so far before Westlake realised that it was just not possible: Parker was a strict professional, and he would have soon given up, refusing to throw good time after bad. Besides, whatever he tried to do, Westlake couldn’t keep the story from developing a funny streak.
So he put it in a drawer and forgot about it for two years, until he found it again, re-read it and liked the premise. All it needed was a suitable protagonist, a kind of anti-Parker who, like the original, would be a professional criminal, a planner, very successful, but dogged by misfortune, and by the company he keeps.
And when Westlake saw a billboard advertising the popular DAB beer by using it’s full name, Dortmunder Action Bier, he had a name for his character.
The Hot Rock was a big success, and was optioned and filmed within eighteen months, starring (incongruously) Robert Redford and George Segal in the leading parts, although in Britain it was billed as How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
The book was intended as a one-off, but Westlake liked his little band of hapless and somewhat quirky crooks, and he was delighted to resurrect them in 1972, for a sequel titled Bank Shot, which was equally popular.
For the rest of his career, every few years he would produce a new novel featuring Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch and a slowly growing cast of professionals who, each time, would find themselves in another, frequently improbable, but always entirely believable caper, that usually ended with the gang staying ahead of the law but not ahead of the game.
And when Westlake died, there was one completed but unpublished novel to appear posthumously, and, most fittingly, it was the fourteenth and last to feature Dortmunder. And it had a glorious idea behind it: way to leave on a high.
I’ve by no means read all Westlake’s output (though if you read the unjustly overlooked Adios Scheherezade, you’ve read all the ‘Alan Marshall’ books you could ever want.
But I’ve been collecting the Dortmunder novels for many years, and I have these and Thieves’ Dozen, a short story collection compiling all ten short stories featuring the hangdog John. It’s only lately that I’ve properly realised that there was one more story I hadn’t read, namely, “Walking Around Money”.
Transgressions has arrived, but I’m going to keep it back for a while. In the meantime, I’m going to re-read the entire collection, and only then sit down to enjoy the last Dortmunder story I’ll ever read for the first time.
And I’m going to blog the series as well, in the hope of alerting a few more people to the sheer delight of Dortmunder & Co. Keep your eyes open: I’ll be re-reading The Hot Rock very soon.