Criminal Masterminds

Criminal Masterminds

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jul 12th 2018

Writer/critic/mystery genre authority and The Thrilling Detective website founder Kevin Burton Smith once declared: “Donald Westlake [1933-2008] is the King of the Comic Caper Novel (any argument?) and John Archibald Dortmunder, his prize creation, is the savvy professional thief whose plans always, for some strange reason, go spectacularly and hilariously awry. The thing about Dortmunder is that he’s a genius, a certifiable criminal mastermind. He’s also the world’s unluckiest crook – no matter how careful his schemes, no matter how brilliant and elaborate and intricately plotted, right down to the (almost) last detail, something always goes wrong. No wonder Dortmunder, already a two-time loser, is plagued by worry. And it doesn’t help that his usual cohorts are, uh, more than a little eccentric. And not exactly the brightest Crayolas in the box.” Westlake, born 85 years ago today, claimed huge chucks of genre literary real estate under several pseudonyms – most famously Richard Stark, who penned several adventures of the merciless, hard-edged criminal thief Parker, respectively depicted with name changes by Lee Marvin (Walker), Jim Brown (McClain), Robert Duvall (Macklin) and Mel Gibson (Porter) in the films Point Blank (1967), The Split (1968), The Outfit (1973) and Payback (1999). 

Indeed, the first Westlake-Dortmunder book was initially conceived as a Stark-Parker affair, but the plot idea about having to execute multiple break-ins, breakdowns and breakouts to steal a valuable jewel provoked a sense of goofy fun that Westlake could not resist. So the 1970 novel became the 1972 movie The Hot Rock, “the most hilarious cops and robbers yarn in years” (Jeffrey Lyons, WPIX-TV/New York), thanks in large part to the rogues gallery behind the camera – director Peter Yates (Bullitt), screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), cinematographer Ed Brown (Eleanor and Franklin), editors Frank P. Keller (a Bullitt Oscar® winner) and Fred W. Berger, and composer Quincy Jones (In the Heat of the Night). Better yet was the in-front-of-the-camera motley crew that, for talent and charm and New York flavor, spelled motley in capital letters with a gemlike sparkle. On the printed page, Dortmunder is “tall with stooped shoulders and lifeless, thinning hair-colored hair” bearing “a disreputable hangdog face which rarely smiles;” on screen, Dortmunder is the distinctively handsome, furrowed-browed Robert Redford, without Sundance’s facial hair but with the laconic, reserved cool that a “master planner” required. Playing his ready, willing and nearly able gang of specialists are George Segal as Dortmunder’s schmoozer/negotiator/ brother-in-law Kelp, Ron Leibman as gonzo motorhead Murch, and Paul Sand as munitions maven Greenberg. Moses Gunn is Dr. Amusa, the African emissary who sets the heist in motion, and Zero Mostel is Greenberg’s shady shyster father. Doing the math on this widescreen Panavision Big Apple escapade that generates as much sweaty tension and palpable danger as it unleashes mischievous humor, Archer Winsten of the New York Post calculated that the film“offers four crime capers for the price of one, six beautifully characterized criminals and metropolitan New York settings of splendid definition.” For its Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray breakout, The Hot Rock glistens wonderfully as the result of Twentieth Century Fox’s brand-new 4K restoration transfer, while the appeal of this undervalued treasure is explored in a new Audio Commentary confab of resident TT historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. For a flick centered around the best-laid plays going haywire, there’s so much that’s right about this larkish Westlake larceny that arrives August 21. Preorders open August 8.