Hopscotch (1980)
September 10, 2014 1:07 PM - Subscribe

A lighthearted Cold War spy thriller, Hopscotch follows the retirement of the most dangerous man in the world, CIA field agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau). At odds with his new boss and desk assignment, the wily Kendig is ready to hang up his spook, settle down with an old flame, and write his memoirs. But the Company, the FBI, and the KGB would prefer he not spill the beans, and will do everything in their power to shut him up and lock him down... with hilarious results.

Here's the (typical, dry, early 80's marketing genius) trailer
An essay from film historian Bruce Eder on Hopscotch:
... in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the discovery that U.S. presidents had employed the CIA to further their own political ends, espionage movies had taken a humorless turn. The moviegoing public, no longer enamored of spies, turned its attention to cautionary tales of governmental duplicity. Gone were capers on the order of Our Man Flint (1966) and Caprice (1967); in their place were violent, cynical, and paranoia-laced thrillers in the manner of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976).

Hopscotch was not only more lighthearted in tone, but more nuanced in its portrayal of espionage. The screenplay, co-authored by Garfield and Bryan Forbes (who was also to have directed, until a scheduling conflict forced him off the project), was devoid of the violence of contemporaneous spy stories—it’s pointed out that protagonist Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) hasn’t carried a gun in years, and there’s not a single death in the entire film. Nor was Hopscotch a simplistic anti-establishment movie—a close look at the plot reveals it as not so much against the concept of the CIA as against what the CIA was perceived as having become, in the hands of bureaucrats like Myerson (Ned Beatty).
Criterion also has Karen Stetler's profile and interview with director Ronald Neame.

Can you stream Hopscotch?
posted by carsonb (23 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Hopscotch hits two of my big loves: Walter Matthau the actor and Retiring Spy the character. And it's funny AND smart AND it holds up well. Walter Matthau is in his prime. Old enough to know better, and young enough to do it anyway. (Though I guess he's done it anyway every time no matter his age.) He takes a stab at Figaro's Aria, no, the other Figaro! and utters my favorite horrible boss insult: Hello Meyerson, you short person!

Ned Beatty plays the despicable power-sucking bureaucrat impeccably. Sam Waterston as Joe Cutter, heir apparent to Kendig's shennanegin-laden style of snooping, is extra dapper at all times.
posted by carsonb at 1:22 PM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

*clicks canistream.it link*
posted by Etrigan at 3:22 PM on September 10, 2014

I usually take the DVD out from the library.
posted by carsonb at 3:51 PM on September 10, 2014

Man, I love this movie. It's so playful. I like how Kendig prefers not to use guns. I like his relationship with Joe Cutter. I love the way they use the Mozart Rondo in D Major throughout the movie, along with the little bits of opera here and there. I like the kind of grown-up, sexy, relationship he has with Glenda Jackson. Speaking of Glenda Jackson; sometimes I wonder if at some point in the 80s she just kind of shed her skin like a snake and turned into Judi Dench. She stopped showing up in movies around the time Dame Dench's star began to rise. She's great in this though.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:39 PM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I usually take the DVD out from the library.

*checks local library online catalog*
Woo hoo!
posted by Etrigan at 5:59 PM on September 10, 2014

My bf recommended this to me after giving him some absolutely vague criteria (like probably "I dunno ... maybe something with spies but also kind of fun"). This is a delight.

I've ranted about this before but I enjoyed that this movie is about grownups. It's not about people pretending to be 29 when they're 45 nor is it about "Oh, I'm so old!" It's just actual grownup people doing things.

It's smart and it's fun in a way that's missing from so many movies now.

(I've also watched the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three recently and Matthau is just so much fun to watch. I've seen him in other things too, of course -- we all have -- but it's been a delight for me to see what a huge presence he is on screen. I've taken him for granted before! Now I just want to watch all his movies all the time.)
posted by darksong at 6:30 PM on September 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hopscotch is available on Netflix. It popped up as a suggestion a couple of weeks ago - I took one look at the cast and watched it immediately.

I just checked and it's still available.

Ned Beatty plays the despicable power-sucking bureaucrat impeccably.

And how! This is such a wonderful film!
posted by Pudhoho at 7:37 PM on September 11, 2014

She stopped showing up in movies

As you may know, she began a full-time career in politics, serving in Parliament from 1992 until the present day, including stints as shadow minister in the opposition and in Blair's cabinet; she's even run for Mayor of London. (She has a BBC clip where she talks about changing careers here.) Anyway, she and Dench are contemporaries and the main difference is that Dench didn't get into films until after her TV series As Times Goes By; they both had significant respected stage experience, which still counts for the British profession.

So, Hopscotch. One of the things I like about it is that it doesn't talk down to the audience and doesn't feel the need to explain what he's doing in advance. Good stuff, and grown-ups being grown-ups is so rare nowadays it becomes even more of a delight.

Related films I can highly recommend include Neame's 1956 The Man Who Wasn't There, about a real incident where the Allies tried to hoodwink Nazi Germany. The film didn't have this information at the time, but Ian Fleming of 007 fame was involved in the planning. Matthau's Charade is another lighthearted spy/caper film, and he's pretty effective in the 1970s movies Charley Varrick and The Laughing Policeman, to name two lesser-known titles.
posted by dhartung at 12:31 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

dhartung basically laid out my plan here, except I didn't like The Laughing Policeman at all—even Matthau couldn't save it—and won't be posting about that one.
posted by carsonb at 10:37 AM on September 12, 2014

Charley Varrick though? I'll just say it again in the hopes that the name will stick with you dear reader and you'll be ready for it when the post comes: Charley Varrick. Last of the independents!
posted by carsonb at 10:38 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you for reviewing this here. I had never heard of it and just watched it on Netflix. It was well designed for my tastes with it's whimsy, silliness, but enough intrigue to keep me hooked. A really fun, light little movie that was good for a Friday night.

An R rating sure has changed. This movie had one, presumably because characters say "fuck" a few times. These days you can impale dozens of people and cut people's heads off or what not and it's rated PG. That part was striking to me. I wouldn't have said, "1980, what an innocent time" but this movie almost made me think that.

Another funny thing I realized in the credits was Walter Matthou's son plays the bumbling Jr CIA agent. That kind of vanity casting (or maybe big stars demand this in their contracts?) is sooooo annoying to me but since it's 30 years later I guess who cares - but it was funny to me to realize after. This is a weird tangent but in Battlestar Galactica (new version), Edward James Olmos' son is a regular cast member, similarly playing a kind of loser. Is this a thing? The big star demands their son gets cast too, and so the character is written to be a dufus by the resentful writer?

Anyway, fun movie. I'll look into some of these others you recommend dhartung.
posted by latkes at 10:22 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Matthau's daughter also has a role in the film, as the boat-plane pilot who picks him up after Meyerson's mother's house gets shot up.
posted by carsonb at 10:51 PM on September 12, 2014

Whoa, that's weird because did you sense a little mild flirtation between the characters?
posted by latkes at 10:51 PM on September 12, 2014

Yeah a little tiny bit but I think you have to know that she's his daughter in real life otherwise it's ambiguous. Watch it again with that in mind and I think it looks a lot more like a daughter/father thing.
posted by carsonb at 10:55 PM on September 12, 2014

OK, just wikipedia'd and she was his step daughter. Interesting. They actually make a joke about it: "You remind me of my father". But it's a bit weird still...
posted by latkes at 10:58 PM on September 12, 2014

This just sent me into a google-hole: Matthou's stepdaughter was William Saroyan's biological daughter and did you know his grand daughter is named Strawberry Saroyan and she apparently wrote a totally forgettable memoir when she was in her mid-twenties?

Lifestyles of the rich and famous! Or famous anyway! Or related to famous people!
posted by latkes at 11:02 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a great little film. As said upthread, a story about actual grownups. I watched it a couple of years ago as part of a series about a particular type of spy movie. I wish I could find that list again, but it was an online recommendation and now lost to the vagaries of search engine results.

"He's actually had the balls to hide out in my house!" Ha, ha, ha.

"What's happening?!"
"They're shooting up your house."
Ha, ha, ha ha.

The flat tire made the movie so delicious. And, yeah, the score is very well-done. The getaway is a little dodgy but I'll give it a pass. The blackface is just wrong. It's great that Cutter figured it out.

(Thanks for the reminder of As Time Goes By, dhartung. Charming show. Did you ever see Waiting for God?)
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 5:36 PM on September 13, 2014

Ik ben afgesneden, was it this old question of mine?
posted by carsonb at 7:44 PM on September 13, 2014

This is a delightful movie. In addition to being about adults, it's about smart, competent adults, who are good at what they do. I prefer my spy movies to be a battle of wits to a battle of guns, so this totally hit the spot for me.
posted by julen at 8:27 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks, carsonb. That wasn't it BUT an answer there mentioned Harry Palmer which seemed familiar and led me to The Ipcress File with Michael Caine. I was thinking of that specific movie but couldn't recall the name and the movie was definitely on the same list as Hopscotch. Appreciate the lead!
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 8:49 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you, carsonb. I had seen this before, years ago... it was an exquisite Saturday night romp for us.

Perfectly personal trivia... The last time Kendig contacts Isobel from the London hotel, he sits down to wait for the call to be placed. He picks up a magazine. That happens to be the first issue of Scientific American I ever bought. Still in my collection of periodicals.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 9:15 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just bought the Criterion DVD of this after catching it on TCM a while back and falling in love with it. The DVD is fairly light on features, but does have a twenty-or-so minute video introduction with the director Ronald Neame and the writer of both the original book and film adaptation Brian Garfield.

It touched on some of the usual industry hijinks like scheduling (Sam Waterston, who plays Kendig's protege Cutter, just flew in from filming Heaven's Gate on location when he shot his first scenes, which is why there's several ad-libs about him looking terrible), to the story behind Walter Matthau's son and step-daughter being cast (He initially refused to shoot the Oktoberfest scenes on location due to his Jewish heritage and family losses during the Holocaust, but relented to get them cast).

Altogether it sounded like one of the more pleasant movie-making experiences of their careers, and ended with a commercial success, if not a critical one. It seems fitting that such an amiable movie was such a joy to make.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:58 AM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and also Ned Beatty, who plays Kendig's unlikeable foul-mouthed boss, was actually a clean-cut, devout Christian. Giving him so many F-bombs was kind of a crew joke, and I guess Beatty, like a pro, would practice cursing during meals before his scenes.
posted by JauntyFedora at 2:34 PM on October 17, 2014

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