Category Archives: Hot Stuff

Review: Hot Stuff

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The original story of Hot Stuff was about a sting operation in Washington, D.C., that had been written up in Time Magazine.  But the producers got hung up negotiating the rights with the cops, so we moved it to “Anytown, U.S.A.,” which never works.  I finished up the script, and four years went by.  All of a sudden the movie was being made, and when I got the proposed credits there were a total of six writers, including [Dom] DeLuise [who was starring as well as directing].  A maximum of two could get credit.  I would get a production bonus if I got a credit, so I applied, and wrote a four-page letter describing my contributions.  Dom DeLuise also applied, sending in a script where he underlined all the lines he claimed.  Some of them I’d written, and some of them were old before DeLuise’s grandfather was born, like “Do you know what burns my ass?”  “What?”  “A flame this high.”  I became one of the two credited writers.  DeLuise did not.  I got my bonus.  The movie has the same basic thread to it as my script…and there are some bits in it that are very very funny. But it’s a funnyman’s movie, not a writer’s movie.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

This will be a very short review for a movie I just finished watching for the first time.  Hot Stuff is now available on DVD (but is not available on Netflix at the moment).   It will undoubtedly turn up on cable at some point.  And if you never see it, don’t feel like you missed anything.   But as insubstantial 70’s cop comedies go, it’s not bad.  And here and there, you can see Westlake’s mark on it.   It’s not a complete waste of 91 minutes (less if you skip the credits).  I’ve enjoyed worse movies than this, and so have you.

From about the Mid-70’s to the Mid-80’s, films like this were all the rage.  Freebie and the Bean Mother, Juggs and Speed.  Used Cars.  Night Shift.   This is roughly in that zip code (and definitely a cut above Police Academy, which marked the start of an even worse era of low-budget comedy).

See if this sounds familiar–a very contrived set-up, involving an unconventional partnership of oddballs.  Lots of ethnic humor.  At least one sassy sexy broad who pretends not to like the male lead, even though she does.  Over the top physical comedy.   Racially mixed cast (but white people in the foreground, unless they have a really big star who isn’t white).  Funky background music. Disrespect for authority.  A big loud climax, followed by a happy ending, and a quick wrap-up.  Roll credits.

I don’t know how Westlake’s original treatment would have gone if they’d filmed his script as written, but he said they stuck to the main thread of his story–and he knew what general kind of movie he was writing.  I don’t think he was that disappointed, but this was the first original script of his that ever got filmed, and one can imagine him heaving the occasional exasperated sigh in the theater.  Hang in there, Mr. Westlake.  It gets better.  Eventually.

What he couldn’t know when he wrote it was who’d be in it–writers don’t drive the way movies are made–stars and directors do, and in this case the star was the director.  I have never been a huge Dom DeLuise fan, but he’s not too annoying here.  He knew he was making an ensemble piece, and he lets it be that.   There’s just a few moments where he overindulges his more irritating predilections– like this one routine where he has to smoke a joint undercover, and he gets all goofy.  And really, he has to do that kind of thing–his fans would expect it of him.  He’s from the Curly Howard school, for better or worse.

(And this would be one of the few bits of the movie that made it to YouTube).

The movie is not, in fact, set in Anytown USA–it’s set in Miami, not D.C., which means all the Florida-related humor isn’t from Westlake.   Can we tell what’s from his original script?

The main premise, for sure–cops posing as fences, in order to arrest purveyors of stolen goods.   Though as you can see up top, he was basically assigned that premise, which was based on a real-life sting operation (and as we know from Jimmy The Kid, there’s no such thing as plagiarism when you’re using real-life events).

Ernie (DeLuise) and Doug (Jerry Reed) play partners working in a task force tasked with catching people who make off with other people’s property, but the courts keeping throwing their cases out, and their funding is about to be cut–they’ll end up in narcotics, which is a much more dangerous area.

Doug has a brainstorm–take over a pawn shop whose owner they just arrested, and receive stolen goods directly, paying for them with what’s left of their budget–Louise (Suzanne Pleshette, professional and pulchritudinous as always), who just joined their unit because they need a love interest for Reed (c’mon, you know that’s the real reason), suggests they videotape each transaction through a one-way mirror.

I definitely see Westlake’s input in the way the technology is all glitchy and problematic at first.  Louise has to keep bugging her colleagues to make sure they stand on their marks, so the audio will be clear.   The perps aren’t looking at the camera enough, so they stick pictures from nudie magazines around the one-way glass.  They’re producing their own reality show, for an audience composed of a judge and grand jury.  Westlake was already well-experienced in writing funny scenes involving thieves and the people they sell to, particularly in the Dortmunder books.  There are a lot of good moments, and probably none as good as the scenes he wrote, but he’s in there.

This is a cop comedy, and Westlake has never really been known for police procedurals–but these are maverick cops, outsiders in their own system, and lots of cop movies are like this (and still are) so it’s not a huge problem.  Even so, there’s huge sympathy for the crooks, who actually end up saving the heroes from angry mobsters at the end (it would take too long to explain).   The last character we see onscreen is a thief making off with Ernie’s TV set.   Westlake is for the independents, whatever profession they might be in.  The gang actually catches a corrupt cop on camera, trolling for bribes, and are going to get him busted.   I have to think that’s from the original script.

There’s a dog in it.  A big hairy soulful mutt named Jaws (played by canine thespian Scratch).   I’m tempted to say the dog is an addition to the script, except for some telltale hints of Westlake’s lifelong cynophobia.  The pawn shop gets robbed, and since they can’t arrest robbers without blowing cover, Ernie decides they need a dog for protection.   Cut to an outfit that sells big scary Dobermans and German Shepherds, only the purebreds cost too much, so they end up with Jaws.  Who at no point in the narrative ever attacks anybody but the good guys, fond though he becomes of them.  I think they probably softened him up a bit for the movie, and he’s definitely one of the gang, but he’s a Westlake dog, bet on it.

Somehow or other, Westlake managed to stick little references to his own work in there.  Like the guy who comes into the pawnshop with a bunch of stoles–stolen stoles--I Gave At The Office.  The pun is implicit this time. There’s a roguish married couple of elderly British criminals with upper class affectations–much like the felonious ffork-Lintons from Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   They don’t really fit the setting, but of course Westlake didn’t know the setting when he wrote them in.

And there’s even a poster in a store window advertising something called ‘Kidd Stuff’–Kid Stuff was the name of the movie Jimmy Harrington wrote and directed after the Dortmunder gang kidnapped him, in Jimmy The Kid–and it’s clearly a sly reference to this script, which wouldn’t be made into a movie for a few more years.   Somehow a reference to that novel Westlake was writing around the same time ended up in the film, unless it’s a coincidence, which I doubt.

Weird that the movie is set in Florida, as Westlake could not possibly have known it would be–because there’s a gun-running subplot, rather reminiscent of the one in I Gave At The Office–these crooks want to sell the pawnshop a truckload of Korean-made submachine guns, and Ernie jokingly asks them if they realize they’re the third most powerful nation in the world.  He was recycling a lot of ideas and research from his less well-known books (that were never going to get a film adaptation of their own, so what the hell).  Probably a lot of other sly self-referential gags were cut to make room for various–how shall I put it?–Deluise-isms.

Ossie Davis plays the captain who is theoretically in charge of this chicken outfit (they literally get a bunch of stolen chickens one day), and I’m not sure the black police captain who has to keep these wild maverick cops in line was a well-established movie/TV cliche by then, but Ossie gets to have some fun himself at the end, and the character isn’t too marginalized.   Cuban actor Luis Avalos gets a lot more scenes, but a lot of them involve him getting chased by the dog.  And this is, according to Wikipedia, his most important film role ever.  Oh well, at least he had The Electric Company.

I doubt much of Westlake’s dialogue made it in.   I could go over the movie again, and try to fish out a few possible snatches of original Westlake snark, but frankly, nothing really jumped out at me.  If they hardly ever used the dialogue from his best novels when they made them into movies, why would they use it in a script that got rewritten by a bunch of kibbitzers over the course of several years?

Taken on its own slight merits, this is an okay example of a low budget 70’s comedy.   If they’d thought to bring Westlake in for rewrites, they might have really had something, because the cast chemistry is good, and DeLuise’s direction–not terrible.  Believe it or not.

No sex scene between Reed and Pleshette, which I guess means that somehow they thought they had a family comedy here, in spite of the drug references, and the nude pictures on the one way glass.  Or maybe Pleshette just didn’t feel like it, and they needed her name in the credits.   It really does not matter, either way.

If we ever get a sequel to The Getaway Car, is it too much to hope for that we could get at least a few selections from Westlake’s original script?  Got to be a copy somewhere.

Westlake’s attitude towards Hollywood was always a mix of affection and cynicism.  He understood most movies are entertainment made by committee, and that given the money spent on them, that is to some extent unavoidable.  He needed some of that money to stay afloat financially, and so he not only agreed to attach his name to this rather threadbare effort–he insisted on it.  Because to him this wasn’t really something that mattered.   You go to the movies, most of the time, to see stars go through their paces.  They used his work, and he got paid for it.  No harm, no foul.

I think he probably laughed here and there.

I didn’t, but I was watching it at work, because my DVD player is busted.   Anyway, the dog is cool, and Pleshette is hot.  You could do worse.  You have done worse.

But next time, we’ll be doing a lot better, because we’ll be looking at a novel that has been twice made into a film–and I suspect both films make this one look pretty good by comparison.  But the novel itself is an acidic gem.  Did you ever hear the one about the guy who pretended to be his own twin brother so he could take twin sisters to bed?   And having become two people, he ended up–well, that would be telling.  Trust me.  It’s very hot stuff indeed.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Even though it isn’t.  A book, I mean.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays, Hot Stuff