in Criterion Month

Hopscotch (1980)

As long as we’ve had edgy, paranoid, cool spy thrillers, we’ve needed punchy satires of them to keep us all in check. All work and no play makes us all MAD. There were a lot of these movies post-Watergate, so we needed a big swing by 1980. Hopscotch wants to be that movie. It almost is that movie. The only problem is it’s a bit too caught up in the genre it should be dismantling. And that’s not just coming from me, a huge Hot Shots! Part Deux fan. Even Roger Ebert wrote, “Hopscotch is a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it’s over… It’s a strange thing to say about a thriller, but Hopscotch is… pleasant.”

Did you ever see Burn After Reading? Then you actually got a pretty good idea of what to expect with Hopscotch. A disillusioned CIA field agent named Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) is forced into retirement when he doesn’t take an opportunity to arrest the head of the KGB, Mikhail Yaskov (Herbert Lom). It’s bad spycraft, Kendig says, he’d rather keep someone he understands in that position than need the time to learn someone new. Directionless and a bit bitter, Kendig destroys his files and disappears to Salzburg to visit his old flame Isobel von Schönenberg (Glenda Jackson). There he’s tracked down by Yaskov who tries and fails to recruit him, which causes Yaskov to sarcastically ask, what is he going to do, write his memoirs? Kendig instantly decides to do exactly that.

Kendig starts sending chapters of his memoir to the heads of the world’s intelligence agencies, inciting a global manhunt. No one can stand the embarrassment of Kendig publishing what he knows. Kendig’s boss, Ned Beatty, sends Kendig’s protégé, Cutter (Sam Waterston when he still had dark hair), to track him down. It’s all a merry game for Kendig though, who manipulates everyone to do exactly what he wants them too. He also really likes Mozart, often singing that famous son of Salzburg’s songs to himself. The score is also full of Mozart’s music. It seems like it’s all fun and games, but as Cutter explains to Isobel, eventually Kendig will make a mistake. And when he does, well… it won’t exactly be child’s play.

Hopscotch was directed by Ronald Neame, the English director best known for The Man Who Never Was and the original Poseidon Adventure. Normally I like to focus on directors or writers in these posts, but in this case, the star of the show is definitely the star, Walter Matthau, who is just crushing it out here in the dream role the smartest guy in every room. I picked this movie because I knew I’d be seeing it around when I saw the new Mission: Impossible, and it’s really funny to think that Matthau was the same age making this as Tom Cruise is now. He… doesn’t really do any stunts here. Back in 1980, 60 was considered old! But he is very charming as the man with a plan. Plus without Matthau we wouldn’t have gotten Glenda Jackson, who had worked with him on House Calls and was eager for an opportunity to team up again.

Glenda Jackson died about a week before I drafted Hopscotch, June 15th of this year, at the age of 87. Despite my own ignorance of her work, she was massively successful, having attained two Oscars, two BAFTAs, three Emmys, a Golden Globe, and a Tony. She also served as a Member of Parliament for 23 years, 1992-2015. She then returned to acting and even got cast in a movie with Michael Caine called The Great Escaper, based on the true story of a D-day veteran who escaped his nursing home – in uniform – to attend festivities honoring the 70th Anniversary of the landing in 2014. Jackson finished filming before she died and the film is expected to be released later this year. I look forward to seeing her on one last international romp.