Hopscotch (1980)

*. In his Criterion essay on Hopscotch Bruce Eder calls it “the only ‘feel-good’ realistic spy film ever made.” I’d quibble with this. For starters, I have a hard time seeing it as being in any way realistic. The basic premise is far-fetched and the way it plays out goes even further. While more down-to-earth than the zanier spy spoofs of the 1960s, it’s not that far removed, at least to my eye, from Charade and Arabesque.
*. For Eder’s “feel-good” I might also substitute genteel, mature, or cozy. As screenwriter Brian Garfield (adapting his own novel) put it, “I wrote it with a very specific aim in mind and that was to show that it’s possible to do an exciting story with lots of suspense and adventure in which nobody gets scratched let alone killed.” So sort of like a Disney spy movie for grown-ups. But grown-ups who are young at heart. Barrels of oil tipped out of the back of a truck, making the cars in pursuit slip and slide into a ditch? Good fun!
*. I haven’t read Garfield’s novel but apparently it is not comic. Nor was the less-than-cozy novel he’s best known for writing, Death Wish. So this really was a change of pace. Efficient but unglamorous field agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) doesn’t even carry a gun, and wouldn’t use one if he did. He gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.
*. As for the maturity, what can we say about a spy movie where the spy in question wears argyle sweaters, listens to Mozart, and has prostate issues? And one where his main motivation is, according to Garfield, mere boredom.

*. It’s hard to be negative about a movie that, in the estimation of director Ronald Neame, “never pretended to be anything except a lighthearted comedy.” The presence of Matthau made me think of Charade, and the way Isobel (Glenda Jackson) uses the word “charade” a couple of times can’t have been a coincidence. But even Charade, which was a bit of fluff, was a darker movie than this.
*. Eder talks a bit about how against the grain this was for the time. Spy movies had been taken over by 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). I guess by the time the decade turned over to the ’80s we’d become more optimistic. Credit Reagan. And so, Eder again, Hopscotch was not “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).”
*. The way I would put it is that the CIA isn’t presented as evil so much as incompetent. They are bumbling bureaucrats and Keystone Cops. Sam Waterston seems a decent enough guy, but in being so he is totally out of place. Now the question of whether stupidity and incompetence may be a greater threat than corruption and conspiracy is still a live one, but I don’t think it’s one that Hopscotch addresses.
*. Not that I can complain about that. As Neame says, it’s a nothing more than a lighthearted comedy. Looking for any deeper message or meaning to it is pointless. It’s still enjoyable forty years later. But if I’m being honest, totally forgettable too. Roger Ebert: “Hopscotch is a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it’s over. . . . It’s a strange thing to say about a thriller, but Hopscotch is . . . pleasant.”

19 thoughts on “Hopscotch (1980)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    I like Matthau, but this just sounds boring. A spy thriller where no one dies? Or even gets scratched? Pfft. They’ve got to be violent, bloody, morose, have some clear, slightly racist mention of how the Russians are going blow everyone to Kingdom Kong, and, most of all, thrilling. No thank you.

    1. Alex Good

      This is definitely a throwback to the sort of fun, and clean, spy romps of the ’60s. Matthau is his usual rumpled curmudgeon, but not a burnt-out case. There is a good helicopter chasing a biplane scene at the end. That’s thrilling!

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I think that’s likely. He wants to sound like he’s one of the cool kids with insider access, but in fact he’s waiting in line with the rest of the us.

      2. fragglerocking

        Wouldn’t surprise me. All this ‘can’t publish before it’s released’stuff he goes on about. I’m reading reviews of it in the national papers!

  2. tensecondsfromnow

    I’d say that the film of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, ending with a ‘punch the air’ homecoming, a jolly song from Julio Iglesias, and a round of applause has the biggest, bestest feel-good ending of any genuine spy flick.

    Do they play One Night in Bangkok in this, or was that just inside your head, Alex?


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