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Criterion 163
1980 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 104 min. / Street Date August 20, 2002 / $29.95
Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, George Baker, Ivor Roberts, Lucy Saroyan, Severn Darden, George Pravda
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson, Brian W. Roy
Production Designer William J. Creber
Film Editor Carl Kress
Original Music Ian Fraser
Written by Bryan Forbes from a novel by Brian Garfield
Produced by Otto Plaschkes
Directed by Ronald Neame

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion takes an interesting turn, adding to its illustrious line a film that is neither famous, foreign, trendy, hip, camp, a genre oddity, or the work of a trendy director. Hopscotch is a movie your mother will love, a lightweight spy film more in tune with The Rockford Files than XXX. It's also a very good one, and its graces are those of a movie that makes us smile - a clever story, charming actors, and a few surprises along the way. It's one of the late Walter Matthau's best vehicles, and it was made by talented cameraman-director Ronald Neame, of Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Gambit, Tunes of Glory and The Horse's Mouth.


Veteran CIA spy Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) still operates the old way, succeeding in his missions while observing such polite rules of espionage as refusing to arrest or liquidate without cause opposite numbers like Russian agent Yaskov (Herbert Lom). This infuriates petty bureaucrat-turned spy manager Myerson (Ned Beatty), who demotes Kendig to desk duty. Miles' response is instantaneous: with the help of Viennese girlfriend Isobel von Shonenberg (Glenda Jackson), he hides his agency file, takes a typewriter and goes on the lam, serializing a proposed book on the CIA's most shameful episodes of the last 30 years, and gleefully naming names as he does it. He sends his exposé chapter by chapter to interested parties in spy agencies across the globe. A furious and flabbergasted Myerson pits Cutter (Sam Waterston), Kendig's best student, against him, but to no avail - Kendig outmaneuvers them all with sportsmanlike ease.

In 1980, just having the nerve to be light adult entertainment in a debased film culture was becoming more of a rarity. Comedy was something that served as relief between lasergun battles. Hopscotch supposes that the world's greatest spy is an ordinary but very smart guy who can predict his opponents' reactions and act accordingly, and thus slip through every net employed to catch him. Miles Kendig uses disguises and false identities to get where he needs to go and stay a hop, skip and a jump ahead of capture.

Hopscotch is a refreshing change in the filmography of writer Bryan Forbes, in that it's so light-hearted - a look at Forbes' filmography shows him acting in minor roles in serious movies, writing even more sober ones, and directing some of the least humorous films of all time. I'd like to see a double bill of Séance on a Wet Afternoon and The Pumpkin Eater at a Hollywood Comedy Roast. Hopscotch is no yock-fest, but instead an intelligent light comedy with a consistently amusing tone.

In setup, Forbes and Neame's film is more than liberal. It's presumed that the CIA is an institution constructed out of dirty laundry, run by stuffy autocrats and political climbers with little real-world experience. The villain of the piece, Ned Beatty's Myerson, is the kind of clod who expects the structure of command to function just because he gives orders. Kendig, on the other hand, bases all of his work on personal relationships. Not having any ambitions except professional ethics, he's got no time for Myerson's feeble attempt to make him a subservient lackey. He invents his own policy - when ordered to eliminate a spy like Yaskov, he simply refuses. He's dealt with Yaskov for years. If Kendig killed him, Yaskov would just be replaced by some unknown agent whose actions would be unpredictable.

The game is really no contest, as Myerson runs the agency in such a stiff, by-the-book way that his operatives protect themselves politically instead of keeping their eyes on the goal. That's why they keep shooting Myerson's own house to bits, even after they realize they've been tricked by Kendig into doing so. They're following orders, and when they follow orders, they can't be blamed.

Walter Matthau spent the previous decade exploring more interesting roles beyond his Odd Couple eccentric typecasting, and did a good job creating memorable characters in crime dramas light and heavy: Charley Varrick, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, and The Laughing Policeman. Here he's an active man just a couple of years away from trading in the CIA for AARP, but still vitally interested in life. The script invents for him a low-key, Adam's Rib kind of relationship with the equally independent Isobel (Glenda Jackson), an operative in her own right who enables his espionage hi-jinks. It isn't exactly a torrid romance, but it's more than believable, which in the spy genre circumstances, is an achievement.

Ned Beatty has the thankless role as an idiot schmo and can't really do a whole lot with it, as Myerson has to be played broad and irredeemable. Sam Waterston is amiably pleasant, and Herbert Lom is given a nicely congenial part, after years of verminous baddies and Pink Panther idiocy.

Hopscotch covers a lot of territory in the U.S. and Europe and as such becomes something of a travelogue. The fast action keeps things moving, but in this mental chess game there aren't any real car chases or fight scenes, just clever surprises. True, the last surprise isn't credible or even that clever, as its basic trick was being done before and after, most recently in last year's awful Bandits. But the interesting context compensates quite nicely, and Hopscotch winds up as two hours of intelligent diversion.

Criterion's DVD of Hopscotch is presented in beautiful widescreen 16:9, which will be a pleasant surprise to those who saw it only on cable television. It's one of those titles (like Popeye and Sunburn) that found its main audience at the beginning of the cable explosion, which is where your mother (and mine) fell in love with it. Besides a video intro from director Neame and author Garfield, and a pair of trailers, there's a televison audio track that presumably neutralizes Ned Beatty's frequent use of the f-word. Therefore, this DVD of Hopscotch is perfect for your grandmother as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hopscotch rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, interview intro with Neame and Brian Garfield, censored television soundtrack.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 15, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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