US / 105 minutes / color / International Film Investors, Sham, Connelly, AVCO Embassy Dir: Ronald Neame Pr: Edie Landau, Ely Landau Scr: Brian Garfield, Bryan Forbes Story: Hopscotch (1975) by Brian Garfield Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Herbert Lom, Ned Beatty, David Matthau, George Baker, Ivor Roberts, Lucy Saroyan, Severn Darden, George Pravda, Jacquelyn Hyde, Mike Gwilym, Douglas Dirkson, Allan Cuthbertson, Ann Haney.
Hopscotch (1975) is widely regarded as one of the best novels by the incredibly talented Brian Garfield, who died at the end of December 2018, aged 79. The screen adaptation of that novel, even though co-written by Garfield, is a rather more light-hearted affair than its print original, although it shares very much the same plot (a notable difference is that the character of Isobel von Schönenburg is new) and the same fascination for the way one man’s twisted ingenuity can outwit the efforts of powerful but unimaginative institutions, no matter the resources they can bring to bear against him. It is, in short, a Trickster story, to use the terminology created by my old friend and colleague John Clute for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.
Walter Matthau as Kendig.
After a successful operation in Munich, CIA veteran Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) is berated by his self-important, blustering pig of a boss G.P. Myerson (Beatty) for not having taken the chance to bring in or eliminate Mikhail Yaskov (Lom), head of the KGB in Western Europe. Ignoring the valid reasons for Kendig having decided as he did, Myerson demotes him to a desk job.
Glenda Jackson as Isobel.
So Kendig walks away from the agency, without so much as a goodbye, to join his old flame Isobel von Schönenburg (Jackson) in Salzburg. There, following a jokey suggestion of hers, he begins to write his tell-all memoirs, mailing the manuscript one chapter at a time to his old colleagues in the CIA and to their counterparts in the other security agencies around the world.
Under an abundance of different identities—James Butler, Charlie Hannaway, Jim Murdison and Leonard Ross were the ones I counted—Kendig plays a sort of hopscotch across the globe, always one step ahead of Myerson, Kendig’s onetime protege Joe Cutter (Waterston) and their agency gofer, Leonard Ross (David Matthau, Walter’s son).
Sam Waterston as Joe.
In the most successful of several set-piece sequences, Kendig rents from realtor Mary Jo Elkins (Hyde) the Georgia pied à terre of Myerson’s wife (Haney) in order to write his next chapter in peace, then deliberately draws the FBI, plus Myerson’s team, down on himself. As the house is surrounded, Kendig sets off a string of firecrackers. The feds, believing they’re being shot at, let loose a barrage of weaponry until Mrs. Myerson’s treasured house is reduced to a smoking ruin.
Herbert Lom as Yaskov.
A number of familiar faces turn up in smaller roles, notably site favorite George Baker as Kendig’s London publisher, Parker Westlake. Allan Cuthbertson plays Myerson’s supercilious equivalent in MI5, Sir Giles Chartermain. Lucy Saroyan plays charter pilot Carla Fleming, who believes she’s complimenting Kendig when she tells him he reminds her of her father; in the novel she beds him. Severn Darden is fixer Leroy Maddox, George Pravda is forger Saint-Breheret, Ivor Roberts is airstrip boss Ludlum, and Mike Gwilym is electronics whiz Alfie Booker. A rather larger part is played by Douglas Dirkson as the hapless agent Follett, who tries to trail Isobel wherever she goes only to be forever thwarted by her intimidating Doberman.
Ned Beatty as Myerson.
In Kendig’s determination to get his memoirs published despite the equal determination of the authorities to stop him there’s a presentiment of the palaver a few years later over Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (1987) by ex-MI5 spook Peter Wright. Margaret Thatcher’s government did its best to make sure the book never saw the light of day, which guaranteed it huge international sales after initial publication by Heinemann Australia. I still have, I think, the copy I bought by way of sending a double-digit message to Thatcher. The book, alas, was dull as ditchwater and revealed little that was new—unlike Kendig’s fictional manuscript which, we’re given to believe, blows the lid right open and is a white-knuckle read.
David Matthau as Ross.
George Baker as Parker Westlake.
Lucy Saroyan as Carla Fleming.
Allan Cuthbertson as Sir Giles Chartermain.
The movie version of Hopscotch seems to fall between a number of stools. Neither truly a comedy nor truly a thriller, it takes a rather mannered, solidly paced approach to its material. Matthau père has a ball playing the curmudgeonly but lovable veteran spy, but Jackson and Waterston and Lom and indeed Beatty are left in that dreadful situation for actors of having to make the best they can of what they’ve been given, which is not much. Jackson actually succeeds quite well in this, and we do become invested in Isobel, but really the movie’s an amiable showcase for Walter Matthau and not much more than that.
Interesting that some of the characters have the surnames Ludlum, Westlake, Follett, Fleming . . .