The Hot Rock (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Westlake-Hot-Rock-coronet-tieinJohn Archibald Dortmunder is a professional thief but not always a very lucky one. In his debut comic caper he plans and executes an elaborate jewel heist that quickly descends into farce when one of his team gets caught and has to be busted out of jail … and this is just the beginning. Westlake’s book was turned into a smashing movie starring Robert Redford, George Segal and Zero Mostel with a witty script by William Goldman and a great jazz score by Quincy Jones.

The following film and book review is offered as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for review links.

“Drat,” said Greenwood, and he ate the emerald.

Dortmunder has been out of jail all of 2 minutes, and recovering from being chased down the street by a hot car driven incompetently by his cohort (and cousin-in-law) Kelp, when he agrees to a new job. The object is the Balabomo Emerald, currently on display in a museum in New York, and Major Iko wants it for the Talabwo people, who venerate it as a religious artefact, as do rival tribe the Akinzi, who currently have possession. Along with Dortmunder and Kelp, the rest of the team is made up of car nut Stan Murch who in his spare time listens to recordings of auto races on LP, model train enthusiast and expert locksmith Roger Chefwick and Alan Greenwood, the team’s ‘utility outfielder’, who starts the trouble by inconveniently making a mistake during the museum getaway and getting himself caught. But because he had the stone on him at the time, and was able to secrete it, the team have to get him out of jail …

“Well, we were white men stealing the black man’s emerald, so a lot of excitable types from Harlem took the subway down town and made a fuss. They wanted to lynch him.”
“Lynch Greenwood?”
Kelp shrugged. “I don’t know where they learn stuff like that,” he said.

Westlake-The-Hot-Rock-futuraSo the team actually breaks into jail, and actually get him out and get away – only things aren’t that simple and the story starts to escalate exponentially, each new wrinkle leading to another caper and then another, becoming in the process more and more elaborate. The book is divided into ‘six phases’, with the motley group in effect having to undertake not one job but half a dozen in pursuit of the elusive gem as they are met by assorted impediments and double crosses. One of the joys is the repetition of the scene in which Kelp goes to the Major, helps him learn how to shoot pool, and then hands over the new shopping list of their requirements, each time awaiting for the sheer horror and disbelief with which it is met. 

“Afghanistan banana stand”

Their plans will ultimately include an attack on a police station via helicopter, breaking into an insane asylum with a train (yes, you read that right), getting into an impregnable bank vault and then hijacking a light aircraft for good measure! Not surprisingly, Dortmunder will come to believe that the job is jinxed – but decides regardless that he just has to see it through. The ending has just the right note of muted delayed gratification for such an elongated shaggy dog story and Westlake’s barbed dialogue and delight in the preposterous make this book a delight from start to finish. There are some great reviews of this book out there: be sure to check out the analysis of this and other books in the series by Martin Crookall, as well as what Trent has to say at The Violent World of Parker as well as Art Scott’s review from 1001 Midnights; while the indefatigable Patrick had some very cogent comments over At the Scene of the Crime. And a final word of thanks to celebrity novelist Mike Ripley for providing the pristine copy of the book pictured at the top of this review – you’re a mate!

The-Hot-Rock-01

In adapting the book into a screenplay, William Goldman (who of course had won an Oscar for his earlier buddy movie about a pair of thieves starring Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) proves particularly skilful in making the most of the book’s plot and the best bits of its dialogue and then inventing much that is new but that is completely in the spirit of the original. Some of the changes are cosmetic – such as the emerald being turned into a diamond – and others just the natural process of reduction (as suggested by the UK title, How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons, down from the original six heists), cutting Chefwick from the story entirely so that it is now a four-man team. Redford is Dortmunder, and is made a little smarter than his literary counterpart. Indeed, while Redford is always engaging as in all of his too infrequent comic roles (even Legal Eagles is OK), he was originally supposed to play Kelp while George C Scott would have been Dortmunder. It didn’t pan out that way, though the producers finally got Scott to play the role when they made the next book in the series, The Bank Shot (review coming to Fedora soon).

The-Hot-Rock-fox

The always underrated Ron Leibman is great casting at motor-head Murch while Kelp ended up being played to kibbitzing perfection by George Segal, and here is turned into Dortmunder’s brother-in-law (in the book he is a more distant cousin-in-law); in keeping with the more familial feel, Greenwood’s role is changed quite considerably in this regard. A real ladies’ man in the book (who is revealed in an amusing throwaway twist at the end to be a long-standing character from Westlake’s Parker series ) becomes more of a nebbish and is re-named Greenberg and turned into the son of the back-stabbing lawyer Prosker, who becomes Abe Greenberg and is played with relish and his usual scene-stealing bravura by Zero Mostel, here sporting a very large and floppy fedora that for some reason looks great on him. In addition there is Moses Gunn as the General (here made into a more refined diplomat named Dr Ammusa), who muses philosophically at one point:

“I’ve heard of the habitual criminal, of course. But I never dreamed I’d become involved with the habitual crime

According to Westlake, William Goldman’s screenplay originally included the airport climax from the novel – or rather, got as a far as the airport and then created a new sequence in which Redford is chased by one of the henchmen and it turns into a parody of a track race. However, this was dispensed with because it was felt that it was a bit too similar to the ending of director Peter Yates’ previous thriller, the dead serious but undeniably chic Bullit. Instead the ending is brought forward (Goldman has done this several times, most notably in his Oscar-winning All the President’s Men), allowing the audience to fill in the blanks.

The-Hot-Rock-02

Thus we finish with the bank sequence – and I have to say, there is something really refreshing about the fact that back in the 70s a major studio picture, starring probably the biggest actor in the world at that time, could have as its climax a simple sequence just showing your lead confidently walking a couple of blocks. Today it would be absurdly overblown probably with three false endings added for good measure! The simple but sweet end to the film is backed by a great bit of Dixieland to create a lovely finish. Indeed, the icing on this already delightful confection is its funky jazz score by Quincy Jones that is occasionally a little rushed in the mix but at its best perfectly matches this louche and ironic comedy, featuring such heavyweights as Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax, Ray Brown on bass, Clark Terry on trumpet and Grady Tate on drums.

You should also see what Michael has to say about the movie over at his It Rains … You Get Wet blog.

Hot-Rock-poster-frenchDVD Availability: A decent if bare-bones DVD edition offering an anamorphic transfer that nicely preserves the wide-screen compositions of this perennial are available wherever good movies are sold – you should get one!

The Hot Rock (aka How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons) (1972)
Director: Peter Yates
Producer: Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts
Screenplay: William Goldman
Cinematography: Ed Brown
Art Direction: John Robert Lloyd
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Robert Redford, George Segal, Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Moses Gunn, Paul Sand, Charlotte Rae

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, Donald Westlake, Dortmunder, New York, William Goldman and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to The Hot Rock (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Great look at this wonderful gem of a caper film, Sergio. I loved revisiting the film, and reading the novel, earlier this year. And thanks so much for the shout-out and linkage, my friend :-).

    • The very least I could do Michael with my humble effort! The book is such great fun but the equally good movie is fifferent enough I think so that you can enjoy them both separately in equal measure, which does not happen often enough, let’s face it!

  2. Sergio – Before anything else I have to say how much I love that ‘photo of the group crossing the street. What a great still! As to the film, I agree with you that Redford has comedic talent. That’s one thing I liked about his performance in The Sting. Nice fit for this film,. I’m glad you chose this one too, as it’s a solid comic caper without going overboard on the absurd. Thanks as ever for the excellent review.

  3. Or perhaps *Redford* *Shakes head at own stupidity* Sorry!

  4. justjack says:

    I’m in a conundrum because I haven’t read the book OR seen the movie. Which do you I recommend I do first?

    • In my case I happened to see the movie first but to be honest Jack I might have preferred to read the book first because the characters are slightly different and I felt myself being pulled by the more familiar source, whereas when you get to the film you kind of know how the various actors are likely to behave and it won’t bother you – not a huge problem either way, but if you have the choice then definitely read book first! You shouldn’t miss either though, that’s the important thing!

  5. Colin says:

    One of those movies I always mean to get round to, and then something comes along and shunts it out of my thoughts again. I like these kinds of films, and Redford and Segal are two very personable performers. Cheers for bringing this back to my attention.

    • Hope you get round to it Colin – it’s really great fun and very funny (can’t believe it’s over 40 years old though …) – but then I’m a sucker for a good caper movie!

      • Colin says:

        I’m sure I will – I love the sub-genre.

        I’ve no idea why but it just keeps slipping my mind.

        • I don’t think I had much choice but to watch it when I was growing up – seemed to be on Italian TV all the time (Dial M for Murder and Bell, Book and Candle were the same – no idea why but I watched them countless times … well, it just felt like it anyway).

          • Colin says:

            Well I find there’s something tremendously uplifting about a well executed caper movie. I guess I’m not alone in that either as it’s a type that keeps being revived periodically.

          • My favourites tend to ne the most Romantic, like the remakes of Ocean’s 11 and Thomas Crown Affair of The Sting and Big Hand for the Little Lady, in which only evildoers truly suffer and nobody dies! True escapism for me …

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I don’t remember ever seeing this one. Knee-deep in babies about then.

  7. Yvette says:

    Okay, Sergio, you sold me. I am definitely adding this to my list of movies that I somehow missed the first time around maybe because I was never a big Redford fan. But I ADORE Zero, so I will be seeing this sooner rather than later. Thanks! So many movies, so little time. :)

    • I know what you mean Yvette – when I think of all those entire cinematic nations I have yet to try my head just spins (and not in a good way) – I think you’ll like this one though, truly!

  8. This is one slick film. I love it. This is Redford at his light comedic best. And you’re right, the score is a joy. I think George Clooney must have spent a lot of rewinding and replaying this film to learn his trade.

  9. Well reviewed, Sergio! I didn’t know about this movie but then (surprisingly) I have seen very few movies of Robert Redford till date. His last notable film I remember watching was OUT OF AFRICA at USIS (American Centre) back in the late 80s. I might have caught one or two films on cable but I don’t remember which. This looks like one of the early team-heist films. I also had occasion to buy a couple of books by Donald E. Westlake at the exhibition I visited recently and, well, gave him a complete miss. THE HOT ROCK may have been one of them, I’m sure.

    • Thanks you Prashant – Westlake is one of the masters of the humorous caper and, as ‘Richard Stark’ of the Neo Noir and is always a good investment. After 1980 Redford got very choosy and started making far fewer films in fact, partly to concentrate on his career as a director, though he has been appearing much more regularly of late. Together with Barefoot in the Park and The Sting, this film shows his comedic side a something like its best – hope you get to catch up with it sometime.

  10. TracyK says:

    I know I read the book, because Westlake was one of my favorite authors back then. I thought I saw the movie but that was a long time ago and the photos don’t seem familiar. I should re-read the book and watch the movie.

    How many book to movie reviews have you done this year. I am still at only two, and still intimidated by “reviewing” a movie. (The Big Sleep is the one I plan to do before the end of the year.)

    • According to Katie at Doing Dewie I am currently leading the pack at the moment in terms of book and movie reviews (I’ve done about 20 I think) – but then I am a complete movie nut, so not really a hardship for me! And let’s not mistake quantity for quality either … Would love to know what you make of The Big Sleep – are you going to review the Bogart version? I reviewed the Mitchum one and don’t really recommend it frankly!

      • TracyK says:

        Oh, definitely the Bogart version. We have watched it many times, but we did get a newer copy a while ago that we haven’t watched yet.

        20 book to movie reviews! I had the feeling the number was up there. That is great. You should not be modest. All of your entries are interesting. And informative.

  11. Jeff Cordell says:

    I had never even heard of this movie before I saw it late one night on TNT. I saw the cast, screenwriter and director and I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of it. Very good movie. Comic gem.

  12. Kelly says:

    I never made the connection between the old movie and Westlake –probably because I didn’t discover the novels until many years after the film version.

    • I think I too was more aware og Goldman than Westlake when I first saw the movie too though I may have known about ‘Stark’, probably through the film adaptations though (weirdly) …

  13. Mike Doran says:

    Confession time:

    I read The Hot Rock several years before the movie was made.
    At this time I was alsoreading weekly Variety in an effort to keep up with what movies and TV shows were being done; it was there that I first learned that The Hot Rock was going to be a movie.
    The announced cast threw me a bit; I was certain that George Segal would be Dortmunder and Zero Mostel would be Prosker the lawyer – OK, 50% there.
    Redford, on the basis of his screen image to date, seemed to be the choice for Alan Greenwood as written in the novel – a vapid pretty boy.
    *Admission here: I’ve never cared for Redford as an actor; he’s always come across as smug and self-satisfied – and the older he gets, the smugger he’s become.*
    The other actors mentioned were Paul Sand (I had no idea what he was there for), Ron Leibman (Kelp, obviously), and William Redfield, who to my mind was the ideal choice for Chefwick, the locksmith/train buff.
    So that gives me two and a half out of five. Anyway … I see the movie, note the loss of Chefwick

    say (to

    • Cheers Mike – I think I like Redford a bit more than you, especially in light comedy mould as here and I thought he was terriffic as the Sundance Kid (but yeah, Newman was much the better thespian) – fascinating collection of announced names, thanks for that! (end of part 1)

  14. Mike Doran says:

    Do you have a character limit on how long these can be?
    I seem to have crashed a wall in mid-sentence.
    Anyway … I see the movie and it’s OK, despite Redford being all wrong for Dortmunder.
    In retrospect, I still would have given Dortmunder to Segal, and maybe used Billy Redfield as Kelp.
    But that’s just me.
    Of all the subsequent screen Dortmunders, only George C Scott even comes close to what Westlake had in mind; of the others (Paul LeMat, Christoper Lambert, Martin Lawrence), the least said the better.
    I seem to be at the end of the line again.
    Bye-bye …

    • Never knew there was a limit – sorry about that Mike – might be an anti-spamming thing (hope not) – I plan to review Scott’s attempt fairly soon but it may be next year now as I struggle to complete the various challenges I set myself for 2013! Thanks again for all the great feedback!

  15. John says:

    I also agree that this is an under-appreciated gem (pun intended) in the comic caper category. Redford has exasperation down perfectly and the other performers wear their roles like perfectly tailored suits. Definitely one of Goldman’s best scripts and a respectful adaptation of a fine book.

    • Thanks John – I’m a huge fan of Goldman and it is a pleasure to see a film where apparently the production all went smoothly with no one moaning about being re-written or re-edited and so on – just a great little movie played practically to perfection.

  16. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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