Film

'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.


Hopscotch

Director: Ronald Neame
Cast: Walther Matthau, Glenda Jackson
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1980
USDVD release date: 2017-08-15

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 Carré'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.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.