Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Hot Rock Film Review

l_68718_3ad63b1aA brand spanking new year, 2013, and we’re already one month down. Almost. The last day in January means it is time once more to restart the parallel post series. If you’re new to this, that’s when the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I take on a pair of literary and cinema works that share an interconnection. Traditionally my colleague Rachel will examine and review the text of a novel later adapted to film, which I will critique. For this month, the wordy one will examine the first novel in a series by the prolific and very much celebrated American crime writer/novelist, the late Donald E. Westlake.

His 1970 book, The Hot Rock, introduced the unique character of one John Archibald Dortmunder to readers. As he once described him, “That’s what I want, an action hero with something wrong with him.” Of this, there can be no doubt. I’ll look at its similarly titled film adaptation which debuted forty-one years ago this month. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake

A brief synopsis of the film: Only recently released from a stretch in prison, John Dortmunder somehow seems to attract only those kind of job offers that got him incarcerated in the first place. Of course, there’s a reason for this. The man has a master criminal’s mind. A sheer genius for planning heists, in fact. Just the unluckiest. So when his brother-in-law comes to him with an undertaking to steal a gem from a New York City museum for an African diplomat, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty. How Dortmunder and his crew deal with a stone that just doesn’t want to be had is the gist of the story.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“You sure you guys got the right place?”

Almost five years ago, one of the first bloggers I began to read online, a guy who wrote some marvelous book reviews, Corey Wilde, kept on about the writing of someone named Donald E. Westlake. Who was this guy, I thought? Donald, not Corey. The latter soon became one of the first people I befriended on the inter-tubes. The former created one of Corey’s favorite literary characters. John Dortmunder, or just Dortmunder. It was only later that I discovered I’d already come across this persona in a film decades ago. The same year I graduated high school. Or that Westlake was responsible for the adapted screenplay to a favorite film of mine — one of the great neo noirs of recent time.

the hot rock movie title

The Hot Rock came out in 1972 and set down in a particular span of time already sinking into a collective understanding and realization that things really could get a Hell of a lot worst. And did. The timing couldn’t have been better, though. For all of its clusterf… er, crises and missteps, the Me Decade heralded some of the absolute best cinema this country had to offer in that period. Even if it seemed to do this from behind bars. For that reason, it shouldn’t surprise that the off-beat and the crime films of the time have rarely been surpassed. Some of these are almost legendary.

As someone who’d know, screenwriter Josh Olson may have described this Peter Yates film best in a 2011 Trailers From Hell segment:

“This is a really fun movie, the kind of thing we just don’t make that much anymore. Hollywood seems to have trouble nowadays with anything that combines tonalities. It’s a very funny movie, but it’s not strictly a comedy. It’s more a caper film with a light touch.”

Josh nailed it. And with the very same reason the current film gathering Oscar-buzz, Argo, works so very, very well today. Oddly, it’s the cheerful tone in the story that changed the course in Westlake’s writing. Originally, this book was supposed to be another murky ‘Parker’ novel (the same character the Brit Jason Statham re-introduced to moviegoers just last week). When he originally wrote it, the intended dark pulp novel kept coming out funny, and so un-Parker-like. Especially for the unlucky thief and his crew stuck having to steal the same thing over and over. And so a new character was born. The rest is literary history.

Peter Yates

No doubt the reason that it worked as a film, beyond the great story, was the fact it was placed into the more than capable hands of British director Peter Yates. Yates always had a knack with crime film. You only have to look at 1968’s Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle the very next year to realize the criminal craft he lovingly framed never failed to intrigue with him at the helm. I have my colleague Colin to thank, by way of his fine movie review, for putting the film that started it all on my radar. If studios hadn’t seen Robbery (1967), well the likes of Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum, and movie viewers would have been poorer for it.

Like those movies, The Hot Rock exhibited a prime ingredient for this filmmaker. All of his films have a real sense of location. The environment and ‘place’ are firmly rooted in the story right along with the characters. And the New York City of the 70s was unlike anything you see or experience today. Not even close. The high crime rates and other social disorders of the time that made the city notorious at home and abroad was captured like a fly in amber by Yates, the screenwriter, and cast. A bit like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. With just the right mix of funny and bad luck to not totally scare the crap out of ‘ya.

Just ask the hippie holding the scissor blade in your ribs.


“I’ve heard of the habitual criminal, of course. But I never dreamed I’d become involved with the habitual CRIME.” ~ Dr. Amusa

Few films could do better with someone the caliber of William Goldman (reuniting with Robert Redford from his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid days) penning the translation of a novel to the screen. Let alone one with Donald Westlake’s way with dialogue and plotting. Both have a distinct and adept way with words. There were no slouches here, folks. Obviously, the equivalent analog would be Westlake adapting Jim Thompson’s The Grifters in much the same way for Stephen Frears almost two decades later. And with all its brilliant grit intact, I’d say.

From left: Robert Redford, Paul Sand, & George Segal in Peter YaAdd to this a cast headlined by Redford (who for some reason didn’t think much of this movie, strangely enough) as Dortmunder and a mix of character actors and faces worthy of any NYC film of the time. Ended up a movie everyone could spot but few really understood back then. Audiences stayed away — it didn’t make its budget back at the box office. Although it has to be said Ron Liebman, Paul Sand, and Zero Mostel steal every scene they’re in on its behalf. George Segal and Moses Gunn aren’t exactly chopped liver in this, either. Sprinkle in Quincy Jones’ score, and the attitude one would expect from this city and time, and The Hot Rock had the raw quality that made films of this era distinct. And brought another anti-hero to a decade known for them.

All this was manifested in one crucial sequence, gelling all of the story’s quirks and cast. A surprisingly dramatic one. The stellar clip highlighted those tonalities Mr. Olson noted. The unnerving segment culminated the second act and really set up the third. Specifically, the pretense of getting kidnapped Abe Goldberg (Zero Mostel) to spill where he’s hidden that damn rock. That it’s staged in some abandoned Gotham warehouse William Friedkin or Sidney Lumet would be right at home with and assuredly stands out. Even if it possibly costs the life of one of Dortmunder’s own (Paul Sand) to do it, it showed what this crew was capable of. The threat and mayhem director Yates’ put on parade here brought the main tension to an unexpected release by the scene’s end. It’s brilliant and memorable, IMO.

“Not me. I’ve got no choice. I’m not superstitious. And I don’t believe in jinxes, but that stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go. I’ve been damned near bitten, shot at, peed on and robbed. And worse is gonna happen before it’s done. So I’m takin’ my stand. I’m going all the way. Either I get it, or it gets me.”

When all is said and done, Peter Yates, with a big assist by William Goldman, crafted an entertaining caper film in The Hot Rock that respected the material, played to his strength within the crime genre, and translated both quite well to the big screen. It easily ranks as the best of the film adaptations that came out of Donald E. Westlake’s series. Bank Shot with George C. Scott being the next one down, chiefly since it was filmed during the same era. The less said of What’s the Worst That Could Happen? from 2001, the better. Perhaps most readers didn’t see the 70s sex symbol, Robert Redford, as the distinctive Dortmunder, but he made the most of it. Getting away with it by way of his reaction shots throughout. But perhaps the film’s real achievement was balancing between being fish and fowl. That, and crime pays. Hey, as someone who survived the 70s, you could have done a Hell of a lot worst back then.

Parallel Post Series

32 Responses to “The Hot Rock Film Review”

  1. Colin

    One of Yates’ films that I haven’t seen, or at least don’t recall doing so. I’ll have to check this one out.


    • le0pard13

      I think you’ll enjoy this, Colin. Yates had quite a talent dealing with those on the other side of the law. And this really was one of those 70s films that was a hallmark for the era. Thanks, my friend.


  2. Cavershamragu

    Greta review and this one of my favourite caper films (The UK release title sums up its appeal to me completely: HOW TO STEAL A DIAMOND IN FOUR UNEASY LESSONS) and is chock full of clever reversal and tons of great dialogue (such as when Amusa gets asked for another long list of equipment to retrieve the stone yet one more time: “I’ve heard of the habitual criminal, of course. But I never dreamed I’d become involved with the habitual crime”). Apparently the original airport climax of the book was included in Goldman’s original screenplay but Yates didn’t want to have a climax so similar to the one he’s already used in BULLITT,


    • le0pard13

      It is, indeed. I never knew about its UK title. Splendid. I think it would have been to see how Yates would have staged the book’s airport finale. As someone who grew up during this period, an unexpected hijacking did fit the period. Great to find another fan of this. Thanks very much, Sergio.


  3. jackdeth72

    Hi, Michael:

    Excellent critique!

    I caught ‘The Hot Rock’ when it first came out and left very happy. A neat, compact try and fail and try again heist flick with a tight script, great cast, on location shooting and an objective that kept slipping through many fingers at the last moment.

    Thought Redford made an seamless Dortmunder. And showed great potential for being a long con man or grifter later in ‘The Sting’.

    Westlake, very much like Ross Thomas can pack a lot of story into a few pages. And ‘The Hot Rock’ is a very quick, slender read.

    Remember. It’s all about “Afghanistan Banana Stand”!


  4. J.D.

    Excellent review! I finally discovered this film via Netflix streaming last year and enjoyed the hell out of it for all the reasons you so eloquently articulated. It is the lightness in touch that makes the film so enjoyable. The characters bicker and argue among each other it is a lot of fun to see them bounce off each other.

    As you also pointed out, the setting is crucial. You really get a sense of place with this film and that is certainly down to Yates who does a great job, here. I would love to see a special edition Blu-Ray one of these days. It really feels like an under-appreciated gem of a film dying for some attention.


    • le0pard13

      Yes, the dialogue and banter between the characters really played wonderfully. It showcased both Goldman and Westlake. I’m with you in hoping someone gives this 70s film a Blu-ray special edition release. It’s worth it. Good to see many appreciate the film now. It always deserved a resurgence. Many thanks, J.D.


  5. Rachel

    Hey Michael, So great to get back to this series of ours. I had to dust off the blog and dig out the keyboard (as I’m sure you’re aware:) and what a way to get back to it. I had so much fun with the book. However, I wasn’t as lucky as J.D. as Netflix doesn’t stream this one anymore. The DVD was on “very long wait” but is finally wending its way to me so I get to watch this one this weekend. I didn’t want spoilers (you know, just in case it has some surprises the book doesn’t) because I love caper films and so I’m going to watch the movie and come back.


      • Rachel

        I think the book ruined me for this one. I liked it so very much that when I switched to the film version all I could think of was everything I loved from the book that didn’t make it. (Poor film makers – they do an impeccable job of adapting this and there’s still That Stinker out there that whines, “but I wanted to see…”) My boo hooing aside I really did think a lot of the wit got lost. I felt the tone was much more serious with a few laughs rather than the other way around. However, the kind of subtle wit on display in the book is very hard to adapt so I should probably have prepared myself.

        I was very dubious of Redford being cast in the role as he is probably the exact opposite of what I pictured but I think he brought a version of Dortmunder that was still very satisfying if really different from who I think Dortmunder is in the book. I completely agree with your assessment that he played the hell out of the “reaction” shots.

        Favorite thing the film added: the mistaken building helicopter landing. Priceless!

        Favorite thing the film removed: the billiards moments between the General and Kelp

        Great suggestion on this one. Thanks so much!


        • le0pard13

          Glad you got your hands on this, Rachel. I see your point that the novel could spoil your view toward the film. They’re the same, for the most part, story-wise, but there are those key differences you note. I saw the film first (way, way back in ’72) and read the book for the first time just last week. Although, this wasn’t my first Donald E. Westlake novel. So his plotting and storytelling skill were well-known to me. Still, I very much enjoyed the book, differences aside.

          Yeah, that mistaken building/helicopter scene is just priceless. It’s a favorite of mine, too. I agree that the billiards/Kelp moments from the novel would have made a marvelous addition. Who knows, maybe they were filmed and cut from the theatrical release. There are many of the film’s fans (me included) who wish they’d finally release a special edition Blu-ray of it and include extras like that. I do get a kick out of this film every time I watch it.

          I’m so glad my suggestion worked out for both of us. Many thanks, Rachel.


  6. ruth

    Awesome post Michael. This looks really good. I’d love to see Redford as an antihero and I’ve only seen George Segal in that Just Shoot Me! TV show, ahah.


  7. John DuMond

    I enjoyed this flick as well. While the movie strayed a bit from the book, this is probably the best adaptation of a Dortmunder novel Hollywood has given us. A good cast and a great director probably had a lot to do with that. Nice review, Michael.


  8. Novroz

    I haven’t been visiting in ages and look and quite surprise with the new look. I guess I’ll be the last one who will change my blog theme 😉

    Great review, Mike. I have never heard of this movie before (not surprising as it was released before I was born). But it sounds interesting and I might try looking for it to enhance my movie genre


      • Novroz

        I haven’t changed mine in ages…and I don’t think I will do it anytime soon. The background is too dear to me, it was an edited version of sleeping Kame.


  9. ajshu

    One of my favorite caper films. I tried to bring a similar tone to The Bank Job, but it ended up more sober than was my original intent. The Hot Rock has some wonderful unique scenes. My favorite is when George Segal gets trapped inside the glass cage. I always laugh out loud.

    And you can’t beat the easy rapor of the cast who seem like old friends. How can you not love Greenberg who learned to make bombs while studying at the Sorbonne and Berkeley, commenting laconically, “I love school.”

    I highly recommend this film to everyone. Nice twists and turns, and that understated sense of humor that I love.

    Liked by 1 person


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