Blu-ray Review: Criterion Brings 1980's HOPSCOTCH in From the Cold

Spy Walter Matthau goes MIA from the CIA, wackiness ensues.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Blu-ray Review: Criterion Brings 1980's HOPSCOTCH in From the Cold

When one thinks of films built on international espionage and spy movie cat and mouse, an entry like Hopscotch likely isn’t what springs to mind. An ambling and easily digestible affair, this 1980 caper stars everyone's favorite sad turtle of an actor, Walter Matthau, as the world's most laid back rogue agent.

Matthau plays Miles Kendig, an affable lifer in the field for the Central Intelligence Agency. When he opts not to bring in a Soviet agent when he has the chance, he's immediately downgraded to a desk job in the dreaded file room.

Not having any of that, the disgruntled Kendig launches into the most elaborately devised non-lethal payback scheme ever. Don't be fooled by the nonchalant way Matthau and veteran director Ronald Neame glide through the plot - it's wound tighter than a clock counting down Jimmy Carter's final days in office.

Nevertheless, Hopscotch is a refreshingly easygoing diversion that playfully violates Anton Chekhov's rule which states that any gun established in the story’s first act should be fired in the next. Kendig, while not exactly an outspoken pacifist, takes a certain pride in the fact that he hasn't fired a weapon in over twenty years of service. Not for being spineless or soft, but rather because he's just that good. Why shoot someone when you can nonchalantly stroll up and tag them out of the game?

What is Kendig's big plan for gaining satisfaction against the Agency? To write and eventually publish his memoir. That's it.

Having been a deeply entrenched covert agent for so long, he most definitely has a tale or two to tell - the kind that the boss who directly wronged him, Myerson (Ned Beatty), cannot allow to be told, much less published as a surefire bestseller. Whether Kendig should or shouldn't do this is beside the point of the film, the whole allure of the film being the satisfaction derived in watching Matthau, helped along by his always dignified former flame Isobel (Glenda Jackson), run circles around everyone.

Jackson may not have loads of screen time, but she goes beyond being the mere love interest. Playing a widowed former spy herself, it's never inconceivable that she has a few tricks of her own up her regal sleeves. The actress's uncrackable cat-like cool and laser-like presence go kilometers (as well as Miles) in defining both her and the film as something unique. Well shorn with a winning pixie cut and loyal Doberman always in tow, it's all but obvious that this isn't Jackson's first film with Matthau.

Besides Jackson, the other supporting roles are equally well filled. Ned Beatty's terse CIA frontman, Myerson, is a shouting anomaly of curse words and raw stress. (If not for his dozen or so f-bombs, Hopscotch would definitely not have a "restricted" rating.) After being repeatedly humiliated by Kendig, one almost understands why he'd be driven to call for the killing of his tormentor. Likewise, one would also understand why his inner circle of underlings, in all their tired running around, essentially shrug off the order.

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A young Sam Waterston is Cutter, Kendig's protege turned replacement. One of the film's small pleasures is watching Cutter live up to his name, undercutting Myerson at every opportunity. Pink Panther star Herbert Lom is the seasoned Soviet agent whom Kendig allows to walk. (His rational being that the CIA already knows how Lom’s character operates, as opposed to a potential replacement, whom they’d have to profile from the ground up.) Ironically then, the Soviet agent ends up getting called by Myerson to assist in the chase.

Hopscotch is sort of based on Brian Garfield's (Death Wish) book of the same name, then adapted for the screen (and into a light comedy) by the author, as well as actor/director/writer Bryan Forbes. The story goes, following the success of the violent Death Wish, Garfield decided to challenge himself to write an equally suspenseful spy tale in which no one gets hurt.

While not exactly James Bond, then, Hopscotch all the while doesn’t skimp on espionage fantasy wish fulfillment. How satisfying must it be, then, for Garfield hitting his mark from an authorial point of view, that the biggest threat to anyone in this story is the written word?

The Criterion Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty good, if also, to some degree, shows the film’s age. One would be unlikely to guess that Hopscotch is any newer than its 1980 release date, but that’s okay. The fact that, after Criterion’s initial DVD release of the title (circa 2002) had been out of print for so long, the company has been able to bring Neame’s film in from the cold in a new, upgraded Blu-Ray edition, is reason enough to celebrate. Which, in this case, means belting out a stanza or two of Rossini, maybe having a beer and humming along to the Mozart soundtrack.

That's right, Mozart. Not only was Matthau himself a big fan, but the persistent use of the composer's music works well in lieu of any original score. Really classes up this workaday joint!

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The extras provided by the Blu-ray definitely fall into "short but sweet" category. We get two vintage video supplements, both about 20 minutes long. There's a crosscut interview piece featuring Ronald Neame and Brian Garfield, both happily reminiscing about making the film. All too often, such supplements are polished, revisionist tellings, but in this case, they're entirely believable. By all accounts, making Hopscotch was a pleasure to make.

Next up is a positive gem of an interview with Walter Matthau from The Dick Cavett Show. Bearing no mention of Hopscotch, though contemporary with it, one may understandably wonder why it’s included here. After watching the 20-plus minutes of lighthearted stream of conscious ramblings and comedic callbacks, the thought becomes, “Why wouldn’t Criterion include it?” More than anything, Matthau’s warm yet aloof and entirely playful demeanor on display with Cavett demonstrate why, though initially against type, he proved to be the perfect actor to play Kendig.

In an odd turn, seemingly veering away from Criterion’s usual “authorial intent” angle on everything, they’ve included the “cleaned up” broadcast television audio track as an alternate viewing option. Interesting. The published essay is a new one by Glenn Kenny, a longer affair than the now MIA Bruce Eder essay from the Criterion DVD edition.

Neither full-blown comedy nor outright cynical espionage thriller, Hopscotch nonetheless proves to be a romp all it’s own. Neame, Garfield and company land on just right square in their singular presentation of a magnetic Walter Matthau hopscotching to and from Austria, Munich, Georgia, and scads of other practical locales, all in the interest of having a little fun with his pursuers. It’s a pleasure to be along for the ride.

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Brian GarfieldcomedyCriterionespionageGlenda JacksonRonald NeameWalter Matthau