John 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.
“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.”
Kelp shrugged. “I don’t know where they learn stuff like that,” he said.
So 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!
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 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.
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.
DVD 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