Directed by: Ronald Neame
Written by: Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes
Featuring: Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterson, Ned Beatty, Hebert Lom, George Baker
Miles Kendig is a subtle clever and successful CIA agent, unfortunately for him his new boss is more of a ‘hawk’ than a ‘dove’ and wants tangible results, including pulling in or even eliminating enemy agents. Kendig has spent a long time building up a rapport and professional respect with his Soviet counterparts and this new direction is not to his liking. With this in mind, his protégé is promoted to his role and Miles is put out to pasture in a desk job. That is until he decides to write and publish his tell-all memoirs.
Although Hopscotch was based on Brian Garfield’s novel you would be forgiven for thinking the entire enterprise had been written specifically for Matthau. Miles Kendig is sharp, witty, kindly, and ambles through life with a knowing glint in his eye and thus the ambling and witty Matthau easily slips into his shoes bringing the ‘old hand’ CIA agent to life immediately making you care about him and like him. Nothing other than a joy to watch regardless of the story.
The story itself is familiar a rogue agent goes up against friend and foe to give information to ‘Joe Public’ that neither would rather have out there. Mostly these are played seriously with great peril and often death for most of the participants. In Hopscotch we are in this for the laughs and know full well that although Kendig’s former bosses would actually bump him off, he is so far ahead of the game and clever enough for it never to be a possibility. Therein lies the rub, it is fun as his admiring friend played by Sam Waterson, tries his hardest to capture him with a wry smile whilst all the others, led by Ned Beatty, pompous and unctuous, along with his other charges get angrier and more frustrated the longer the Kendrig continues. It is fun and funny. Hebert Lom even turns up as Kendig’s adversary who admires him and works more like him than his CIA colleagues..
Along for the ride, and possibly shoe-horned in, is Matthau’s old film partner Glenda Jackson, as she helps and advises his character and rekindles an old romance, being a retired British spy and former beau. This does feel as if Jackson is in the film so we can have that chemistry between her and Matthau, but why not?
The story whips along with no real peril for Matthau, you know full well he is going to succeed and you get the impression it was a relaxed set and everyone enjoyed themselves and had fun. In the worst cases this translates terribly to the screen, when the viewer gets no fun, but in this film the fun and enjoyment are infectious and we all get to partake.
With a British director, Ronald Neame, he of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Poseidon Adventure and similar but differently toned The Odessa File, we get some UK locations and proof that Walter Matthau has driven a Ford Escort and Rover SD1 and acted alongside ‘Bullet Baxter’ of Grange Hill fame and late and venerable George Baker.
Credulity is stretched to breaking point near the end but the film wraps up as it proceeded, whimsical and enjoyable. The acting by all involved is exactly what you need for this type of romp, although the good actors are not stretched, the locations and incidental music, different and interesting.
Overall, it is a Walter Matthau film, near the top of his game, playing a role made for him.
Hopscotch is a fine way to spend 106 minutes of anyone’s time.