Hopscotch – 1980

Director Ronald Neame
Screenplay Bryan Forbes, Brian Garfield from the book by Garfield
Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, George Baker

CIA field agent Miles Kendig (Matthau) is given the shaft in the form of a desk job by his boss, Myerson (Beatty). On his way out the door, he shreds his case file (this is the day when that was done literally), placing the contents of another file in its place. Then he’s off to Salzburg, Austria to strike up with an old flame Isobel (Jackson). Another meeting with a long time rival turned friend, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), Miles decides he is going to write his memoirs. Only this is the kind of biography that could wreak havoc for the CIA, most especially for his boss.

Beatty is well cast as a shorter, rounder preview of future FBI head James Comey. Let’s just say he’s in it for himself. Thankfully, he has one of Kendig’s friends, Joe Cutter (Waterston), who presents a rational side to Myerson’s desire to have Miles handled with extreme prejudice. Waterston is perfectly suited for this role. He may be the best thing in the film after Matthau.

Hopscotch is a slower version of Smokey and the Bandit, where more miles are travelled offscreen. We’re waiting for Matthau to make wise as makes fools of everyone chasing him. Similarly, Jackson has someone tailing her, until the moment she decides it’s time to ditch him.

The difference here is Cutter. Waterston is the Yin to Matthau’s Yang. He knows the score and, despite the compromised position he is placed in, he’s in it for the best result for all. The performance matches Waterston’s talents so well, it feels like we’re looking at a future movie star. That this never happened is more a representation of the changing tastes of cinema away from clever semi-action movies to extremes in both genres.

Another pleasure of the film is the character Isobel, as played by Jackson. It’s doesn’t feel dated in the slightest, as showing an intelligent and dangerous woman worthy of respect has always been in fashion. Jackson disappeared in the early 90’s, getting involved in politics of her native U.K. through 2019, when she finally came back. This film reminds viewers what we’ve missed during that time.

This is not really a classic film. It’s comfortable, clever and perfectly suited for Matthau. His charm is evident throughout. He gets some amazing one liners in here and there. My favorite two include when he passes a bribe and when he takes a hostage outside of Myerson’s home. There is nothing here award worthy, but it certainly is memorable.

Ned Beatty is one of the more enduring figures in film history. His range is surprising. From passive (Deliverance) to sinister (Toy Story 3), he always delivered and here is no exception. Myerson is a role right within his wheelhouse as a nasty company man. The joy one gets watching him see his house surrounded is exquisite.

Neame has a light touch here that fits the story perfectly. There are no real outstanding feats, but there some interesting cuts, especially before the dogfight between the old plane and Beatty in the helicopter. Overall, he is a director of his time. He churned out several pleasant, if unremarkable films, then one giant hit, The Poseidon Adventure. He would release only two more films.

Hopscotch feels like a comfortable robe that one puts on during a lazy Sunday. We know there is no real danger, but we also know it’s not going to be really boring, either. It’s worth viewing at least once. If you’re a Matthau fan, you’re going to want to keep it near the top of the list of his best films.

(**** out of *****)

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