Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: Hopscotch (1980)

With the benefit of hindsight it would seem that, in order to make a good spy-caper movie, the first thing one needs is society’s inclination to invest an evening thinking about spies. I don’t know about you, but the most recent movie I’ve seen about international idea-traffickers was Billy Ray’s Breach—a 2007 film whose absence of a backdrop of cold-war-style paranoia left me feeling fidgety and un-engaged. So yes, context played a role in priming the potential of a Carter-era jab at hapless government secret-keepers. Then again, potential isn’t worth a hill of shredded documents if the resulting picture fails to deliver on its promised resonances, and Hopscotch hits nearly every note.)

Walter Matthau is Miles Kendig, the anachronistic CIA field agent tasked with preventing western secrets from leaving the west through Munich. When at the outset of the film he catches red-handed his opposite number Yaskov, played by Herbert Lom, Kendig decides of his own initiative that recovering the microfilm is enough, and lets Yaskov go. His enraged department head Meyerson, played by Ned Beatty, summons Kendig to Langley and reassigns him to a desk. Instead Kendig—after a creative switcheroo to cover his tracks—disappears to Salzburg and the company of old friend and intermittent canoodle-partner Isobel, played by Glenda Jackson. There he hatches a plan to write a tell-all memoir and circulate it simultaneously to all the major intelligence bureaus of the world, one chapter at a time.

What follows is one of the great and clever chase narratives in all of cinema—with our hero chagrining his erstwhile colleagues, east and west, as-much-with his globetrotting elusiveness as his whistle-blowing candor. All with his young protégé Cutter—played by Sam Waterston—and reluctant old friend Yaskov in hapless pursuit. At each stop along an intercontinental triptick, Kendig flourishes the completion of his next chapter with progressively brazen revelations of his own whereabouts, only to have worked-out his escape with progressively shrewder and more hilarious stylistic flair.

It is for this reason that Hopscotch turns out also to be an unwitting celebration of nostalgia for a world driven by paper documents, and all the intrepid lateral mobility that has disappeared right along with them. Kendig hands a fake passport to an Austrian border guard, and at least one member of his 2011 audience bemoans living in a time in which the same stunt would end the movie in its first reel. Kendig masks his non-compliance with his boss by switching two sets of paper personnel records, and at least one member of his 2011 audience wishes that the H/R department of his local community college was run the same way!

In the end, though, the simple genius of writer Brian Garfield’s story is that our swelling sympathy for Kendig can itself hide in such plain sight, with moments of his near-capture bringing genuine, squirm-in-the-seat urgency because of, rather than despite all the comedic set-pieces and playfully romantic repartee that has come before. In this investment we are aided inestimably—just as Kendig is—by Jackson’s remarkably un-self-conscious Isobel, written just lightly enough that we infer a long and star-crossed backstory between the two, without knowing exactly what has kept them apart or even, once we think about it, whether perhaps Isobel might have come to know and so deeply care about our hero while working for the other side.

There are, it must be said, a series of narrative and continuity problems in Hopscotch, at least one of which pulls-out from the movie every friend and colleague with whom I’ve watched it. But surely it must speak volumes for the undiluted joy of this picture that I’ve departed far enough from character not to let this bother me. Films, it would seem, were more easily fudged in 1980 as well—a lesson the aspiring movie aficionado would be advised to keep in mind, the better to embrace a quirky, underrated cinematic gem like this one.

The Key Grip gives Hopscotch four bald heads out of five.

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