Film 2019: All The President’s Men

I’m surprised, and in a way a little ashamed, that I haven’t had this film in my collection long before now. After all, it marked a turning point in my life, perhaps not as extensively as did JusticeLeague of America 37, but certainly as much as starting to read The Lord of the Rings from Didsbury Library.

From 1980 to 1983 I worked in my first job as a fully-qualified Solicitor, at a small, two-man branch office in Romiley, a village-like part of Stockport, to the south east of the centre. Early in 1981, and at my expense, we started renting an old, top-loading VHS video recorder from Granada, from whom our TV was also rented. Towards the back end of that year, a video rental shop opened up in Romiley, and I became a member, in order to hire a film for each weekend. My first choice was All The President’s Men.

I was not, then, the political enthusiast I became. I had lived through Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, but they had been background noise rather than anything I was interested in. My first, nascent sense of American politics came indirectly through comics: I kept reading references to something incredibly hip called Doonesbury, which intrigued me. In the summer of 1981, I saw a Doonesbury omnibus volume in Wilshaws (a much-missed City Centre bookshop), at only £2.95, enough of a snip in an era when expenses were few and salary decent, to take a flyer on. I loved it, but it was full of references to things I knew nothing about.

All three of us sat down to watch All The President’s Men, and all three of us were impressed. This might have been October/November.

In theJanuary of 1982, I found a good condition paperback of the book in a long-vanished second-hand bookshop on Shudehill, just down from the bookstalls. I read it, surprised firstly to learn that the book went on some distance beyond the period of the film, but not as far as Nixon’s resignation. For that, I needed thesequel, ‘The Final Days’ and for that I went back to Wilshaws. I have those copies still.

And they contained references to things I was still ignorant of, not least to the famous ‘Joe Welch moment’. So I started hunting in the American History section of the Library, most often at Central Ref, where the selection was more widespread. My first choice, a book about the McCarthy era, was dull and dry, but I struck gold with my second choice, David Halberstam’s classic ‘The Best and the Brightest’, a long but absorbing account of the generation of men who took America into the Vietnam War. In time, I would suck that section dry.

All because I rented this film on VHS.

I know a tremendous amount about the making of All The President’s Men. The screenplay was by William Goldman, and I had heard of but not yet read his legendaey ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’, which I urge on anyone with the least interest in the film industry. There’s a very lengthy section in that book about this film, so I know a lot of the twists and turns.

What I know most of all is that Goldman was passionate, almost obsessive, about not ‘Hollywooding-up’ the material. The Watergate Affair, and what it revealed about the conduct of Government in those years (which is of direct relevance to the antics of the current incumbent, even if only to demonstrate how much smarter Tricky Dickie was in comparison) was of massive importance to the history of any country and not least of America, the self-proclaimed (and sometimes actual) bastion of democracy. With all the power a scriptwriter can have, i.e., bugger all, he was insistent that the film be true to the material, that it be accurate, that none of it should be sensationalised, that it stand as close to the historical record as the reduction of nearly six months’ patient, detailed and often frustrating investigation could be.

For the benefit of anyone under forty, let me summarise Watergate. In thesummer of 1972, with President Richard Nixon certain to be nominated by the Republican Party as their candidate for re-election in November, five men were arrested trying to break-in to the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. Junior Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, was assigned to cover  routine arraignment, but became interested in some unusual details. Working in collaboration with fellow junior reporter, Carl Bernstein, Woodstein (asthe two were bracketed at the paper) doggedly pursued a non-story until it revealed a massive story of corruption, manipulation, and undermining of the Constitution that eventually led all the way to the top. All the way.

Woodstein’s investigations ultimately led to the revelation that President Richard Nixon had knowingly ordered the cover-up of criminal acts (of which he probably did not know in advance) in direct violation of his Oath of Office. Despite resistance and denial stretching across two years, Nixon eventually became th first and only President to resign his office.

Thanks to two nobodies, regarded by their paper as no-hopers.

The film was directed by Alan J Pakula, and starred two of the biggest film stars of the time, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Jason Robards performs a show-stealing supporting role as Post Editor Ben Bradlee.

The film is, indeed, what Goldman wanted of it. Though you’re always conscious that these are *Robert Redford* and *Dustin Hoffman*, they do inhabit their roles comfortably, without histrionics or emoting. The entire film is naturalistic, and the intercutting of television scenes showing the real-life politicians is markedly grainy in contrast, but not excessively so.

It’s a mark of the film’s intentions that, when the Post refused permission to film in their newsroom, the film’s designers measured everything to the last inch and constructed an exact replica in Burbank, complete with the identical brand of desks, repainted, and reconstructions of out-of-date telephone directories from the time period in question.

Neither Hoffman nor Redford, and definitely not the script, goes deep into Woodstein as people. Both actors play then ccorsing to the details they giveof themselves in the book, but the investigation is the thing. That is the story, that is the film, and nobody is going off-reservation to blur the essentials.

At Goldman’s decision, the film cuts out the entire, incomplete second half of the book. The film needs a structue and the structure needs an ending, not a tailing off. The story ends on the pair’s biggest mistake, a revelation that is actually true in fact but predicated on a mistake of attribution. It might seem a strange place to stop, but Goldman argued that the audience knew it wasn’t the end, just a set back, and it’s the nearest thing to a conclusion this side of Nixon’s resignation.

But what the film does end on is Woodstein and the Post’s decision to carry on. A shot of the pair, typing at separate desks, alone at night in the newsroom, merges into the same newsroom by day, full of people. It’s Nixon’s re-inauguration, playing live on the newsroom TVs, and everyone stops work and gathers to watch, except Woodstein, at their desks, the camera edging in so that we see Nixon swear on a bible in the left of the screen and thereporters type in the right.

Then that telex shot of guilty pleas and verdicts, of names we’ve heard throughout the film. Pakula and Goldman kept all the watergate conspirators off-screen, voices at the ends of telephones, a superb decision not to distract the audience with actors playing faces they know.

Is it true? The film is faithful to the book, which most people regard as being faithful to the facts, a position emphasised by that list of convictions. One scene isn’t, imported from an alternate script by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, where Bernstein fakes his way into a secretary’shouse to worm answers out of her. Nor is the famous phrase, now  trope, ‘Follow the Money’.

But it feels true. As true as a film can ever be. It feels solid, grounded, rooted. It feels like what it must have been like, and without having lived that history as a fly on the wall, you can’t say more than that. These were the people, these were the times, these were the events. Watch them, learn from them, be thankful that a time existed when something like this could be done, because there won’t be anything of this quality or verisimilitude about the current President of the United States of America.

William Goldman R.I.P.

The names are starting to blink out far too quickly again. William Goldman, writer of The Princess Bride in book and film form, and writer of films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men has gone into the sunset aged 87.

I will remember him for All The President’s Men, which led me to a fascination with American political history that endures almost forty years later, for his magnificent and enduring study of Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade (and it’s almost as wonderful, twenty years after sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?) but most of all for the sheer joyousness of The Princess Bride, one of those ten films that would go with me to a desert island, and a film that would survive a very long time if you started reducing that category one by one.

Goldman was one of my favourite writers ever. There are ever fewer of them left.

Film 2018: The Princess Bride

Originally, this was going to be another sub-titled film session. Possibly, I was going to choose Delicatessen, or maybe Swimming Pool. But it’s been a stressful week, and I was seeking out simple things to read, books I didn’t have to think about whilst reading, books I had no intention of writing about. I turned to my dog-eared, second hand copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and from that naturally to its twenty-years later sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which Goldman details experiences with a new set of films, made and unmade. One such is The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel. The moment I turned to that page, I realised that it had been ages since I’d watched it, and that I needed to watch it again as soon as possible.

Good morning.

Back in 1987, I was a regular, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Crown & Anchor, on Port Street, just back of Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, meeting a group of friends who had originally got together as comics and SF fans. This had been going on for several years. By this time, I usually gave John and Brian lifts home, even though this was miles out of my way, and John would often invite us in for a cup of tea with his elderly Mam and Dad (his Mam would cut the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons out of the Daily Express for me: lovely lady) and a chat. One Tuesday night, Film 87 was showing and Barry Norman showed a clip from a forthcoming film, The Princess Bride.

It was the clifftop scene. Two men – Inigo Montoya, a Spaniard seeking revenge for his father, slaughtered by a six-fingered man, played by Mandy Patinkin, and the Man in Black, a mysterious pursuing figure, played by Cary Elwes – are about to fight a duel withe swords.

And, oh my word, but this is brilliant! It’s an honest-to-goodness, stunningly athletic, Errol Flynn/Tyrone Powers swordfight, all flashing blades, athletic charges up and down rocks, superb poise, and running through it is this wonderfully ironic but completely deadpan commentary from the characters. In short, it’s a spoof, but it’s the only kind of spoof that really is funny, because it’s being made by people who know, and love, and understand, and respect the source, and it’s brilliantly balanced. No winks to the audience. No knowing looks that say, ‘hey, we all know this is crap, and only suckers watch stuff like this’. No mockery. It was stunning.

We all decided that we had to see this film. Blimey, if all of it was as good as this? And it is.

We didn’t go as mates, no. Instead, I took my girlfriend/love and her ten year old son, because we both knew it was the kind of film he’d love. What we didn’t reckon on was the manner of the opening, although his reactions which almost a perfect reflection of the way the film started.

William Goldman had written the novel of The Princess Bride in 1973. Like so many great stories, it started from stories made up for his children, two young daughters, one of whom wanted a story about princesses, the other a story about brides. Then he started writing it down, but soon found himself starting to struggle, until he hit on the idea of the book being the really fun bits of a longer story. The fiction is that Goldman’s book is an abridgement of the original story by S. Morgenstern, that Goldman’s dad used to read to him whn he was a kid only now Goldman realises his dad was leaving out the boring bits, which in the Goldman version are replaced by a running commentary from Bill himself, explaining what and why he’s cut out.

To produce that effect on film, Goldman introduced the brilliant device of a young, nameless boy (Fred Savage) ill at home in bed, whose grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading him the story when the Grandson would rather be playing video game Baseball. These two are a great double act, with the Grandson interrupting the film at various times, at first to complain about a dull story, and increasingly to comment when things are going the way he expects.

This enables Goldman to set things up, all the boring but essential exposition, by having the unimpressed Grandson chipping in. All about Buttercup (Robin Wright on her debut), the most beautiful woman in the world, not just in Florin, and patient, put-upon farmboy Westley (Elwes), whose only response to her demands is “As you wish”, and how they fall in love, and kiss (“you didn’t tell me there was going to be kissing!”). And Westley goes away to seek his fortune but his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, and Buttercup’s heart was frozen, and then five years later, she’s selected to be the bride of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon, wonderfully straight-faced in the role of a cowardly, plotting, villain) except that she doesn’t love him at all.

The Grandson’s not liking this and neither is David, squirming in his seat, getting ever more furious at us for tricking him into watching such a rotten film as this…

And then Buttercup gets kidnapped by an gloriously implausible trio, consisting of a puffed-up, short, bald Sicilian plotter, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, constantly decrying every upset to his plan as “Inconceivable!”), the drunken Spaniard master swordsman, Inigo Montoya, and the slow-moving, rhyming Giant, Fezzick (wrestler and actual giant, Andre the Giant, real name A. R. Roussimoff).

This is where the film takes off. Just the look of the three, their extreme contrasts in size, their accents, Shawn’s near-shriek, was enough to take the film onto the elevated plane it would occupy from there on in. Vizzini’s trio are there to kidnap and kill Buttercup, to provoke a war between Florin and its ancient enemy, Gilder. Vizzini has planned everything to perfection. Exccept (“Inconceivable!”)…

Except the Man in Black is following them. Up the Cliffs of Insanity. Defeating Inigo in that magnificent fight. Defeating Fezzick’s strength (he’s out of practice with tackling one man, he usually fights groups, the moves are completely different). Outwitting Vizzini (“Inconceivable!!”) And confronting Princess Buttercup, with scorn for a woman who betrayed True Love, which raises Buttercup to a fury: losing Westley killed her, she will not have that mocked. She’s already realised that the Man in Black is the Dread Pirate Roberts, but only when she pushes him down a ravine and he calls “As… you… wish…” does she realise what the audience has already known for a long time, that he’s also Westley.

Oh, I forget to mention, there’s another complication. Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world. There’s nothing he loves more than hunting. Except possibly hiring Vizzini to  kidnap and kill Buttercup and frame Gilder as an excuse to conquer Gilder in war and rule the world. And he’s on the trail.

By the way, just as an aside, remember how Inigo’s father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man? Humperdinck’s confidant, right hand man, and curious investigator into pain and torture is Count Rugen (lovely underplaying by Christopher Guest, dry, quiet, almost monotonous). Who has six-fingers on his right hand.

Reunited, Westley and Buttercup try to make their escape through the Fire Swamp. This is a studio set-up, with random gouts of fire, Lightning Sands (think quicksand, only instant) and R.O.U.S (Rodents Of Unusual Size), though much of what has gone so far has been filmed in gorgeous English countryside, mostly Derbyshire/Sheffield. I’ll come back to this scene later, but for now our True Love pair get all the way through, only to find Humperdinck and Rugan and their men waiting for them.

Westley’s prepared to die with defiance, but Buttercup can’t take his dying again. She surrenders to Humperdinck on condition he spares Westley’s life. And she’s sweet and naive and innocent enough to believe him when he says he will. Westley’s well aware that he’s going to be killed, but first Rugen intends to torture him in the Pit of Despair.

Change of plan. Whilst pretending to send messages to the Dread Pirate Roberts (it’s a title, practically a franchise: Westley inherited from Ryan when he retired, who inherited it from Cummerbund, etc.,) that he can collect Buttercup if he wishes, Humperdinck moves ahead with a complex plan to set-up the murder of Queen Buttercup, on her wedding night, by Gilder agents: actually, he’s going to strangle her himself, so much more satisfying.

Except that Buttercup may be naive but she’s not stupid. She sees through his plan on the Wedding Day, and bitterly and passionately accuses Humperdinck of being a coward, a rotten, lying, despicable coward. They say the truth hurts, and in this case, Humperdinck gets so mad, he storms down to the Pit of Despair, where Westley is connected to some sort of pre-industrial electrocution machine made of wood and water, slams it up to 50, and kills Westley.

Yes, that’s right. Kills. As in Dead. Dead dead. “You’re not reading it right,” complains the Grandson.

The hero is dead. But we still have Inigo and Fezzick, skill and strength. But without Vizzini, they need a brain: who better than the Man in Black? Even if he is dead: all they need is a Miracle.

Enter a great cameo from Billy Crystal, all made-up to be oooooold and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, allowed to improvise and doing so so well that Bill Goldman confessed that he wishes he had written one of their lines. This brings Westley back to life, if not actually motion, which leads to a storming of the Castle by two-and-a-bit men.

From hereon in to the end, this just gets too good to spoil, though there’s this confrontation scene between Inigo and Rugan, in which all of Mandy Potinkin’s dialogue is repetitions of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” For months, I could reduce David to shrieks of laughter just by putting on the accent and saying “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”

And it all ends happily ever after.

The film was praised everywhere but didn’t become a commercial smash until the era of Home video.With one caveat I’m about to come to, I think it’s brilliant, and what makes it so is that it is played completely seriously throughout. The casting is perfect throughout, and everyone is not only completely comfortable in their roles, they are plainly loving every minute of it. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence to play the Clifftop scene, and that’s all them (except for the somersaults).

What makes the spoof side work so well is that they play the story entirely seriously at every moment. That’s how it works: the film respects its audience, it condescends neither to its material nor to them. It’s the perfect example of why the 1979 big budget Flash Gordon was such a piece of shite.

You can only get under the skin of something and make it so funny if you love it. You can’t do it with something you hate, that you only want to tear down.

My one caveat, and it’s something that has only struck me today, on this watching, is that the film is very male-oriented. Apart from supporting cast, there are only two female roles of any substance, and one of those is Carol Kane. There’s basically just Robin Wright, and that’s it. She’s perfect for the role and even at twenty she shoulders such an important part without any missteps. But it took the Fire Swamp sequence for me to suddenly see that hers is an almost purely passive role.

Buttercup is the incarnation of the old-fashioned Princess. She’s there to be rescued, as Westley does, time and again, in the Fire Swamp. She doesn’t have anything to do herself. There are two confrontations with Humperdinck where, once out of desperation, once out of contempt, her words change the movement of the story. And there are two points where Buttercup takes actual, physical action in her own behalf, instead of waiting for Westley to save her. The first is where she dives out of Vizzini’s boat in an attempt to escape, only to land in water infested with deadly Screaming Eels, forcing her to retreat. And the other is when she shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts in the back, down into the ravine, discovers it’s Westley back from the dead, and hurls herself after.

It’s not much. It’s certainly not any kind of subversion of the cliches. I didn’t think that way back in 1988, when we took David to the cinema, but I think that now, and it’s a blot, a tiny blot on a film that would definitely be one of the ten I’d take to a desert island with a functioning DVD player and a reliable source of electricity. The Princess Bride is out-and-out fun!

The Leicester Resentment

Not everyone is as happy to see this as you think

It’s less than a week since Tottenham Hotspur failed to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and, as a consequence, cemented Leicester City’s position as Champions of the Premier League. The trophy is now safely in their hands. It’s the biggest, most exciting, unpredictable, romantic thing to hit football for many years, and is a serious contender for one of the most amazing sports stories the world has ever known.
It’s excited millions, over and above the Foxes’ fans who have lived this adventure and seen their impossible dreams made concrete. It’s been a gigantic boost to football, a massive spanner in the works of the existing order. For so long, we’ve been used to the big clubs monopolising everything: the best players, the trophies, the prestige, the attention. Leicester have reminded everybody that it needn’t be so, that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong (despite Woody Allen’s sage advice that that’s the way to bet).
The essence of sport is unpredictability. It’s about not knowing what the outcome will be. When we know, in advance, who will win, and when our predictions are fulfilled, only those who are direct supporters of that winner gain any real enjoyment.
Leicester are the antidote, the call-out, the refutation. They are the dream incarnate that anything is possible, that anybody, no matter how unlikely it seems, can win, can topple the big boys. They are the fulfilment of the urge within all of us to see the tortoise bound past the hare.
So why then have so many people this week been so eager, almost from the moment of the final whistle at Chelsea, to predict doom and gloom for next season for Leicester. There is an overwhelming insistence that not only will Leicester not repeat their feat in 2017, but they will be relegated, all their best players will promptly leave them for bigger clubs, and they will be back in mid-table at the very best.
The curious aspect of this is that these are not merely cynical pronouncements, but that they are being spoken of with relish. They are what the commenter wants to see happen, to see the old certainties restored, the predictability back. Leicester have bucked the trend, they have not known their place and it is imperative to these people that they return to their place (and everybody else to theirs) without the slightest delay.
Some of this is clearly motivated by that sadly ineradicable tendency of human beings to be simply nasty creatures, unable to bear the sight of other people succeeding, or having joy of things. Leicester victory and the joy it has brought is simply insupportable, and it must be diminished, torn down, trampled upon.
Some of it, but not nearly enough to explain it, comes from the fans of the clubs scorned. Being beaten by Leicester – Leicester! -is a personal humiliation, and they demand it be avenged by being wiped out as if it had never happened.
It’s familiar in its way: remember the FA Cup Final on 2008, Portsmouth versus Cardiff City? It was the first Final for seventeen years not to feature any of the ‘Big Four’ (and you couldn’t exactly  accuse Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest of being nobody clubs). At first, there was pleasure, welcome of the idea that the usual suspects were for once eclipsed, but even before the Final was played, there were open expressions of concern, even fear, that the game would be sub-standard because, after all, it was to be played between two ‘sub-standard’ teams.
But the most prevalent emotion behind this kind of reaction is fear. So many people, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, have been frightened by Leicester’s win. Uncertainty has been brought, forcibly, into their lives. The ground between their feet has been undermined. Anything could happen. And they are herding together to diminish it, deny it, refuse it any power beyond the moment. They’re fearfully insistent that the world they recognise be restored, even before anyone’s had the chance to truly enjoy the victory.
It puts me in mind of William Goldman’s classic book, Adventures in the Screen-Trade (an excellent book, one you should read, plus it’s sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?).
Goldman’s book is famous for many things, not least his defining statement of Hollywood – NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Once spoken, it became an instant truth, the single, most perceptive and frightening thing ever said about the Film Industry. Nobody knows Anything. They’re in the business of making money from films, but they don’t know and are terrified of recognising that they don’t know what sells.
But that’s not what comes to mind when I contemplate the responses to Leicester’s win. Shortly after Goldman introduces his maxim, he goes on to anatomise something called a ‘Non-Recurring Phenomenon’.
It’s a phrase that Studio Executives use to describe one-off successes, films that are absolutely massive without fitting any of the standard categories for massive success. They don’t fit an accepted genre. They aren’t sequels to a previous success. They don’t star a star who sells a picture based on their name alone. The Executive comes up with all sorts of reasons why this film has made it, none of which hold up on any realistic basis. He then calls it a ‘Non-Recurring Phenomenon’.
To quote Goldman: “What it means, of course, is this: It was a freak, a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The deeper and more important meaning is this: ‘Get away, boy, you bother me’.”
Leicester City are a Non-Recurring Phenomenon.
They frighten people. People know what is needed to succeed in football: money, star players, 4-2-3-1, 67% possession. Being bankrolled by billionaires. Leicester don’t have any of that (ok, the owners aren’t exactly short of a bob but this is a club that, in the entirety of its 132 year history, has spent less on players than Manchester United has in the past two seasons). They’ve done all the wrong things, and they still came out on top.
And that’s not just scary, it creates resentment. Forget that the whole situation changes this summer, that the money coming into the game from the latest TV deal means that the Big Four clubs can’t just offer salaries no-one can match now, so many football fans want Leicester’s team to break up. Not necessarily out of malice towards the Foxes but because that’s just what usually happens. The likes of Leicester aren’t supposed, aren’t allowed to have star quality players. The likes of Mahrez, and Kante belong to the big clubs. That’s where they’ve always performed: the likes of United, Chelsea etc. are entitled to buy these players.
Normal service must be resumed as soon as possible.
And that is so sad, so unutterably sad that we have been given such a priceless gift this year, that we have had all our dull, interminable predictabilities ripped up in front of our eyes, and even before the Trophy is presented, so many people who don’t even feel any rivalry towards the Foxes, are down on their knees, clutching the sellotape, desperately scrabbling to put it all back together the way it was.
Not in this quarter, and not in a thankfully large proportion of the football fan’s hearts. But listen to those applauding Leicester’s feat and how quickly they come to ‘next year’. That ‘next year’ has a specific meaning. It means, ‘Get away, boy, you bother me.

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.