Walter Matthau in 1980's "Hopscotch."

Hopscotch June 6, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Ronald Neame

 

STARRING

Walter Matthau
Glenda Jackson
Sam Waterston
Herbert Lom
Ned Beatty

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1980

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 46 Mins.

I

t feels wrong calling a spy or chase movie “laid back,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe Hopscotch (1980), which could be classified under both subgenres. In it, Walter Matthau is a CIA field agent named Miles Kendig who turns vindictive after his new boss, G.P. Myerson (Ned Beatty), pettily reassigns him to desk duty after a microfilm transfer in Russia isn’t handled by Kendig the way he’d have liked. Because he’s not someone to

shrug and and take a task handed to him he finds stupid or unfair, though, Kendig works not a day in his demoted role. Instead he insubordinately shreds his file; decamps to Salzburg to stay with his on-and-off lover, ex-agent Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson); and then, after someone makes an offhanded suggestion, concludes that the best way to get revenge on the unreasonable Myerson — whom he already holds in contempt for his unethical history — and the CIA is to write a no-holds-barred memoir about his experiences with the agency. 
   

Kendig taunts Myerson and a handful of underlings by sending copies of new chapters to not just them but other leaders in different countries. Because he knows his teasing won’t merely get him in trouble but in all likelihood lead to literal silencing, Hopscotch becomes a transcontinental game of cat and mouse that gets particularly rude when Kendig somehow finds the time to buy Myerson’s childhood home and then waits there long enough to get it destroyed by a CIA gunfire. (Agents ambush it and get trigger-happy when they catch a whiff of Kendig’s being there.) Matthau, resembling a smirking basset hound, is an extraordinarily nimble mouse. All Jerry-like, he’s such a gifted outsmarter it appears he neither needs to lay out plans — his improvisations, usually banged out while listening to opera, are smarter than any overly-worked-out CIA blueprint, it seems — nor breaks even a little sweat over whether a trick won’t work out the way he envisions. He’ll plot as long as it takes him to get a publishing deal. 
   

Hopscotch feels just as relaxed about everything as Kendig seems to. So your pulse doesn’t quicken, even slightly, when the director, Ronald Neame, offers something we’re supposed to consider thrilling or exciting. The movie is mostly just “very amusing,” though at times can go as far as being laugh-out-loud funny. Although your mileage may vary on how enjoyable you find watching Matthau be an always-right smartass, chances are scarce you won’t nonetheless find this movie generally charming. 
 

Hopscotch wouldn’t work without Matthau. The premise could only function, I think, with a star of his caliber who’s good at affable unself-seriousness. Though all the supporting actors don’t get to be anything besides either foils or friends, I loved watching Beatty snarl and be generally pissed off, and Jackson, whose introductory monologue made me laugh hardest across the movie, chew on her character’s crisp wit. In Hopscotch, taking down the CIA seems like a breeze. B