‘Hopscotch’ is Anchored in Walter Matthau’s Playful, Irascible Personality

With his novel, Hopscotch, Brian Garfield challenged himself to write a suspenseful spy tale in which nobody gets killed.

After their popular romantic comedy House Calls (1978), Walther Matthau and Glenda Jackson reteamed for 1980’s Hopscotch, thus proving it was possible to make a film of Julio Cortazar’s milestone of mischievous modernism.

Just kidding. The film was actually based on a serious novel by Brian Garfield, best known as the author of Death Wish. The author strongly objected to the violent vigilante drama made from that novel, as he felt the film sent the opposite message of what he’d written, and he insisted on being involved in adapting his Edgar-winning Best Novel Hopscotch for the screen. He wrote the first screenplay with Bryan Forbes for the latter to direct with star Warren Beatty, and as projects will, that plan dissolved and reconfigured until he was revising it considerably for director Ronald Neame and star Walter Matthau.

With his novel, Hopscotch, Garfield challenged himself to write a suspenseful spy tale in which nobody gets killed. That docket is preserved in the film, which comes across as a handsome lark very much anchored in Matthau’s playful, irascible personality. It was even Matthau, according to Neame, who wrote the cafe scene introducing Jackson’s character. Matthau, as a hardcore Mozart buff, was responsible for having the score be adapted from Mozart, plus the famous aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Matthau even got parts for his son David Matthau and stepdaughter Lucy Saroyan, the latter in a non-traditional role as a no-nonsense pilot, in return for which Matthau relinquished his personal prejudice against shooting during Munich’s Oktoberfest. As a Jew who’d lost family in the Holocaust, he had serious emotions about working in Germany.

So what’s the story? It’s really nothing, and that’s largely the point. When veteran CIA field agent Miles Kendig (Matthau) is reassigned to desk work by an angry foul-mouthed bureaucratic boss (Ned Beatty) who doesn’t appreciate his experience, Miles goes AWOL and abruptly begins writing his tell-all memoirs of scandalous blunders and secret operations. He sends copies to several international agencies to stir up a hornet’s nest or open a can of worms or some similarly appropriate invertebrate metaphor.

The parallel between authorship and “spyship” is underlined by Kendig’s manipulation of his puppet-like characters, and even further by the use of names borrowed from other spy novelists: Ludlum, Follett and, in the case of Parker Westlake, both an author and his famous character. The female pilot’s name, Carla, could be a nod to John Le Carr√©’s male Karla. Two set pieces feature a lot of firepower, yet the joke in both cases is that these routines are wasteful and literally hollow, directed at objects with nobody inside.

Jackson’s acerbic, stylish presence as a wealthy widow and ex-lover living in Austria helped sell the movie to a receptive public, even though hers is an undersized supporting role of a woman in the wings. Absent from the book, her character was shoehorned into the screenplay. She has less screen time than Beatty or than Sam Waterston as Kendig’s sympathetic replacement, although not less than Herbert Lom as the old-school Russian spymaster who’s practically an old friend. Jackson and Saroyan function as signs of intelligent, in-control women surrounded by men behaving foolishly.

Neame is a happy example of an Award-winning cinematographer who was also a successful producer and director. As such, he was a veteran of spy larks and everything else. His Gambit (1966) is one I’d love to see on Blu-ray, while his fondly remembered A Man Could Get Killed from the same year is one I’d love to see on disc in any format — where the heck is it? He and photographer Arthur Ibbetson made Hopscotch in widescreen in several locations, from Salzburg to Savannah, Georgia.

The movie could be better, the dialogue more scintillating, the pace quicker. It’s a modest diversion, and as such, perhaps some will be surprised at its choice by the folks at Criterion, just as they chose House Calls many years ago. But if it’s not “important”, that doesn’t matter so much as the typical care they apply for fans who want an optimal presentation. Criterion’s Blu-ray preserves an interview piece with Garfield and the late Neame from a 2002 DVD, plus Matthau’s 1980 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. An optional soundtrack is the “family friendly” TV version that redubs Beatty’s profanity.

RATING 6 / 10