Studio: Criterion

Aug 15, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Films that follow a series of twists and turns need to be handled delicately. While an incredible last-second twist can be an exciting discovery, it can often feel insulting or generally implausible even within the context of a film centered on a heightened reality. Spy movies and books – even the great ones - are notoriously convoluted because the nature of espionage comes from secrecy, lies, and discovering the truth between the lines.

Hopscotch does something different with its storytelling: it brings the audience along for the ride, effectively making the viewer an accomplice to the shenanigans at play. This works primarily because the tone is far more lighthearted than those based on John Le Carre novels. Walter Matthau plays Miles Kendig, a brilliant CIA agent who is in charge of a sting at Munich’s Oktoberfest to kick off the movie. There, he and his partners identify Russian agents and he confronts Yaskov, a long-time adversary who promptly hands over some microfilm that Kendig had watched change hands. Kendig takes the intelligence and lets Yaskov go.

This does not sit well with Kendig’s boss Myerson (Ned Beatty). Myerson, short of temper and in stature, dresses his agent down in debriefing and demotes him to desk work for the rest of his career. Little did Myerson suspect, however, that Kendig’s career would end within minutes instead of years. The agent swaps his file for another’s, shreds his documents, and flees to Austria where he meets his former and future lover Isobel (Glenda Jackson) and starts writing his memoirs. The kicker is he sends chapters to embassies across the world, possibly compromising CIA intelligence and splashing egg on Myerson’s face in the process. Naturally, a globe-spanning chase ensues.

A plot of this type could easily be played out with dour seriousness and Kendig portrayed as a bitter stoic hell bent on getting revenge on those who wronged him. Instead, Hopscotch is as light and playful as the children’s game the title evokes images of. It probably would not have worked as well with someone other than Matthau in the lead role. He plays Kendig as casual instead of harried. He’s a true professional and is several steps ahead of his pursuers. And he knows it. Kendig never betrays a sense of stress even when both the CIA and FBI are breathing down his neck. He sticks to his plan, and makes fools of them all in the funniest bit when he rents a home in Savannah, Georgia that just so happens to belong to good old Myerson. It features a wonderful visual gag involving a framed photograph of his former office superior as he tricks the FBI to open fire on the house, effectively tearing it to shreds as he sneaks out the back.

Hopscotch is rarely laugh-out-loud funny and it never falls into the trap of becoming self-serious in a moment of clarity that often befalls comedies that strive for something more. Instead, director Robert Neame and screenwriters Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (the latter also wrote the novel) keep it purposefully light and breezy. It’s amusing and an overall delight while maintaining a compelling narrative of pursuit while keeping the stakes relatively low for a story set in the world of international intrigue.

The Criterion Collection originally released Hopscotch on DVD in 2002, and the Blu Ray features no new material save for a fresh transfer. This would only be a disappointment for those looking to upgrade from the previous release or those looking to dive deep into history of the film. But, it’s not really necessary. As good as Hopscotch is, it doesn’t require a deep, analytical commentary track to reveal its secrets. The featurette with director Neame and novelist Garfield discussing the adaptation and the difficulties getting it made – Neame didn’t want to do it and, apparently, neither did Matthau – provides a nice bit of after-viewing context. The most interesting revelation being that Kendig’s obsession with opera, Mozart in particular, comes from Matthau himself. Throughout the film, Matthau’s Kendig is humming along to Mozart as he types, saunters, and flees. In a story that would often be treated with intensity, this lightness is a welcome diversion from the norm.



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