The inimitable comic team of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson star in this nimble tale of international intrigue from master British filmmaker Ronald Neame. Based on Brian Garfield’s best-selling novel, the blithe thriller centers on Miles Kendig (Matthau), a disillusioned retired CIA agent who, with the help of a chic and savvy Viennese widow (Jackson), threatens to publish his memoirs and expose the innermost secrets of every major intelligence agency in the world. Despite being in major hot water with his former colleagues, Kendig refuses to get in line—he’s having too much fun. Set to the sounds of Mozart, this lighthearted sendup of the paranoid dramas of its era is an expertly crafted, singular take on the spy movie.
"Welcome to London, Mr. Ross. Business or pleasure?"
Certain decades of films can be defined by the dominance of a specific genre. In the post-Viet Nam Conflict, a post-Nixon world of the 1970s, the paranoid thriller was pervasive on cinema screens. These films typically centered around a low-level government employee or contractor who stumbles upon a larger, far-reaching diabolical plot that results in them being followed, surveilled, or even targeted for assassination. These tension-filled exploits were merely mirrors of the angst and distrust the public held against their elected officials. Director Ronald Neame along with star Walter Matthau turned the paranoia on its head with 1980s hilarious Hopscotch.
Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) has been in the intelligence game a long, long time. With decades behind him covering West Berlin, he knows the how its played, he knows the score, knows when to burn a contact or when to let a Russian operative like Yaskov (Herbert Lom) walk away. Unfortunately, after his last assignment is completed, Kendig's glory-hungry idiot of a boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) puts him behind a desk until retirement. Rather than waste away his last good years, Kendig burns himself and shreds his file leaving the C.I.A. in the dust. Only Kendig isn't done. He wants to have a little fun before he puts the life behind him. After writing a chapter of his memoirs, Kendig with help from his fellow spy and romantic flame Isobel (Glenda Jackson) send copies to every major intelligence agency in the world promising more chapters exposing the C.I.A.'s darkest secrets - sending Myerson into a frantic frenzy to get his former operative back in line.
There are comedies that wear their jokes on their sleeves. There are comedies that like to play things closer to the vest relying on subtlety. And then you have a movie like Hopscotch whose brand of humor is so dry it's practically a desert. The jokes are so subtle that they're likely to fly right past you before you even realize you missed the punchline. That's why the film's form of parody works so perfectly. It plays right along with the typical paranoid "Rogue Agent" thriller. Taking elements of flicks like The Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, and The Conversation, Hopscotch quickly becomes a dryly hilarious comedy that plays to star Walter Matthau's every-man strengths.
As great as Matthau is in Hopscotch, Ned Beatty as Myserson is equally hilarious. Beatty was always good at playing the goofy doofus but the man gets little credit for playing the legit straight man. Hopscotch as a movie is funny precisely because the comedy doesn't overplay its hand. Beatty isn't channeling his Otis character from Superman: The Movie. Instead, he's playing a hard ass with an ego who doesn't get a joke and over reacts and over thinks everything. On the other side of the spectrum, we get Sam Waterson as Kendig's protege Cutter - the man who is in on the joke but powerless from keeping Myerson from over reacting. It's a terrific dynamic between Beatty's frantic Myerson and Waterson's apathetic Cutter that work to make the subtle antics of Matthau's Kendig genuinely funny.
Even with the great performances, a big hat tip must be given to director Ronald Neame. He smartly manages the film like a straight thriller with numerous acts of intrigue and suspense. There is a constant air to the film that everything Kendig is doing is of some dire importance - even though the audience is in on the joke that it's just an elaborate prank. The laughs of the film aren't the hard-hitting gut busting belly laughs sort. Instead, it's the brand of comedy that puts a smile on your face and keeps it there. You might let out a solid laugh or two but that's it. Neame keeps you laughing on the inside because the film's form of parody isn't the easy surface joke like you would get out of Airplane!.
Hopscotch is funny because it plays like all of the other 70s paranoia films that came before it with a smart everyman sort of character who stays one step ahead of the game as if his life depends on it. Here, that every man happens to be Matthau and his character is out to have some fun at the intelligence community's expense. Those films are still great, pitch-perfect thrillers, but the sly humor of Hopscotch gives them the needle where it counts and shows how ridiculous those films can be.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Hopscotch arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard clear Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet featuring a terrific essay about the film from Glenn Kenny. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Hopscotch arrives in 2.39:1 1080p from a fresh 2K transfer. In the booklet, a note about the transfer states that the 2K scan was taken from a 35mm internegative and the restoration work removed thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches and other imperfections. If that is true, the restoration team must have done one hell of a job because this is a damn great looking transfer. Hardly any issues with speckling, scratches, or other age-related anomalies remain. The film can still appear a bit thick at times, a little rough around the edges with some brief contrast blooms, but that's the worst of it.
Fine film grain is intact allowing for plenty of detail to reach the screen. Clothing, facial features, and the film's terrific production design and scenic locations come through with amazing clarity. Colors are bold with that rich 70s primary-heavy tone. Blues and reds feature a particular prominence as Matthau's Kendig galavants around the world while the C.I.A. offices look drab, lifeless, and void of all character - leading to some great jokes in of itself. Black levels are rich and inky without any crush issues to speak off. All around this is a fantastic looking film that lives up to the Criterion Collection namesake.
Hopscotch enjoys a terrific uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono track. Dialogue comes through crystal clear throughout without any sort of interference. Imaging may be a bit restrained at times, but the layering of the Mozart soundtrack and natural-sounding sound effects work to create a track that enjoys a terrific sense of atmosphere and space. Most of the film is just a good mix of clean dialogue and music, but the film's grand finale pushes the mix nicely without any distortion. Some hiss is detected here and there, but nothing too serious. All in all, this is a terrific audio track that plays perfectly with the film.
Also included with this set is an optional LPCM mono "Television Audio Track" that simply removes a few stray curse words for those younger viewers or those with sensitive ears. Between the two tracks, outside of some obvious drop outs or overdubs for said naughty words, there is very little difference between the two mixes. Both tracks are virtually identical in every other respect.
While The Criterion Collection did a bang up job with the A/V presentation, the bonus features assembled for this release are pretty slim. The Brian Garfield and Ronald Neame interviews are terrific and the Matthau's appearance on Dick Cavett is fantastic, those featurettes only provide a slim amount of insight into the film's production and history. They're still great to watch, just don't offer much.
Brian Garfield and Ronald Neame (SD/HD 22:00) This is a terrific pair of interviews with the original novelist Brian Garfield and director Ronald Neame discussing the novel and its adaptation into a film.
Dick Cavett and Walter Matthau (SD 21:55) Any interview that you can pull up with Dick Cavett is great and this one featuring Matthau is a delight as you're not only being entertained but also gaining a lot of information about Matthau and his career. Just his entry on the stage will put you into fits of laughter.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 2:56)
Teaser Trailer (HD 1:37)
I love a great 70s thriller. I also love a great parody that knows how to twist a genre. Fortunately, Hopscotch is both things all at once. The humor is sly, dry and plays perfectly to Walter Matthau's strengths. Director Ronald Neame crafts the comedy as a near-perfect parody. I'd only ever heard of this film as I was never able to locate a copy to rent so this release from The Criterion Collection is a real treat. Considering the work that went into restoring the film, the A/V presentation is pretty great. The film looks fantastic and sounds amazing. The bonus feature package assembled for this release may not be the greatest thing Criterion ever pulled together, but the interviews are well worth watching. Fans of the film will be very happy with the release and newcomers should enjoy the film immensely. Recommended.