1980. Directed by Ronald Neame.
A comedic reprieve from the serious cautionary spy thrillers of the late 70's, Hopscotch is an intelligent, quasi-satire of the espionage genre and one of acting legend Walter Malthau's finest performances.
Miles Kendig is an old school CIA operative who hasn't carried a weapon in years and holds his Soviet counterparts in high regards. His tactics are viewed as archaic by his morally repugnant supervisor who uses Kendig's mercy for his adversaries as means to drum him out of the field. He's replaced by his loyal protege and is banished to a desk for the remainder of his career. Kendig decides to go rogue and publish a memoir about his time in CIA, exposing the secrets of various government agencies. Soon the CIA is hot on his trail, with the intent to silence Kendig permanently. Using his pantheon of contacts and decades of experience, Kendig misdirects his pursuers as he tries to get even in a riotous mix of romance, action, and subterfuge.
Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes' script is a superb achievement that separates Hopscotch from other offerings in the genre. Despite it being a comedy, there are elements of very real danger that the narrative often flirts with. Matthau's impeccable command is what keeps the film from going too far in either direction. It's funny, but not overly slapstick. It's exciting, but with virtually no bloodshed. It's lusty without a single sex scene. Hopscotch is a film that implicitly trusts it's audience (while the audience conversely had no trust for the post Watergate government) and allows them to fill in the gaps that are purposely left in the shadows, keeping the focus on the cat and mouse game, rather than the justifications.
Matthau is sublime as Kendig. He masterfully subverts the world weary veteran cliche' by making Kendig a likable spy whose weapon is his mind. He's smart, restrained, and has a love for the chase that continues to get him into trouble. The great Glenda Jackson stars as his love interest, an Austrian widow. Their chemistry is one of the most respectful couplings ever committed to film. They are playful and yet always concerned about the other's safety. Their raw and discernible attraction offsets the bitter cold of pastiche spy thrillers by infusing the film with various scenes of their affection. This is not a story of betrayal. Even Kendig himself believes in his country and government, he's just tired of the corruption.
Sam Waterson supports as Matthau's protege who tries to remain loyal to his idol, despite the difficulties. Ned Beatty stars as Myerson, the villainous boss who wants to end Kendig and protect his checkered political past. Both actors excel in their roles without stealing the focus of the pursuit.
The soundtrack, rumored to have been picked by Matthau himself, features various songs by Mozart, the classical music symbolizing the out of time motif of the protagonist. Arthur Ibbetson and Brian Roy's cinematography is warm and inviting, yet another reversal of the the spy movie. The world in which the character's are at play is filled with the vibrant colors of life. Carl Kress's film editing is one of the strongest technical aspects, presenting the world of Hopscotch as simple and natural. There is no fat to this story and the cuts between the target and the pursuers come together fluidly. Jerry Stanford's sound editing blends the music of cold war Oktoberfest, faux-gun play, and the quiet sounds of nature with ease.
Available now on Huluplus or on DVD from the Criterion Collection, Hopscotch is a rare comedy gem that deserves a revisit. This is a film that was made without any violence, sex, and only a handful of colorful words. The way in which the cast tackle the absurd and the serious is jarring in a manner that doesn't truly hit home until long after the film's conclusion, as there are many pieces to Neame's whimsical conspiracy that require a deeper examination. If you're interested in a spy film that breaks all the conventions in the name of having a good time, give this one a go.