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Walter Matthau was considered a major star in 1980 when he was approached to make Hopscotch, a comic spy adventure tailored to his talents. Matthau had been a recognizable character actor for two decades, often playing heavies, before partnering with Jack Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie (1966) and The Odd Couple (1968) in the mid-1960s. The success of these comedies turned Matthau into a leading man with a shaggy dog persona who could squeeze the last bit of humor out of a line of dialogue and mug with the best of them. As a leading man, he starred in the best films of his career during the 1960s and 1970s, with his roles declining in quality and quantity as he aged in the 1980s. By the 1990s, he had returned to character and secondary roles, typical for an actor of his years. Hopscotch could be considered the end of a long career peak or the beginning of his slide downhill, depending on the viewpoint.
Hopscotch was loosely based on Brian Garfield's award-winning novel. Garfield was best known for writing the novel Death Wish, which became the basis for an action vehicle for Charles Bronson. Hoping to maintain more control over the film adaptation of Hopscotch than he had over Death Wish, Garfield negotiated to write the screenplay and serve as associate producer. Ironically, his position as writer-producer did little to prevent the film version of Hopscotch from turning into something completely different from the novel.
Garfield cowrote the adaptation with director Bryan Forbes, who dropped out of the project because of another commitment. Producers Ely and Edie Landau asked Ronald Neame to step in, but the veteran English director did not like the Garfield-Forbes version of the script, which retained the book's serious tone. The Landaus countered with an offer to have the script rewritten by Garfield, but Neame refused it a second time. Ely Landau asked him to reconsider, baiting him with the idea that Walter Matthau might take on the role of the protagonist. Landau and Matthau were friends, and the producer had been urging the comic actor to participate in the film. Neame reread the novel with Matthau in mind as the protagonist, but he still didn't think it would make a good film narrative, so he turned the project down a third time.
Finally, Landau requested that Neame and Matthau, who also had qualms about the serious tone of the material, meet face to face. Both agreed to make the film, but only if the script was rewritten as a dry comedy tailored for Matthau's star image. During preproduction, Garfield rewrote the script under Neame's guidance and with contributions by Matthau. Neame provided the continuity so that the narrative hung together; he also shaped certain scenes by suggesting key locations, sly situations, and character details. Matthau provided insight into his character, often writing his own dialogue. Neame and Garfield had approval over Matthau's contributions, which were accepted or discarded at their discretion. In the process of rewriting, the film was turned from a serious drama into a comedy showcase for Matthau's wry, unpretentious screen presence.
In Hopscotch, Murnau plays CIA agent Miles Kendig, a veteran operative who has been chasing down Soviet agents and communist plots for decades. His old-school methods depend on honing keen instincts, constructing aliases, developing long-term professional relationships in the field, and then exploiting those relationships for information. When Myerson, a new bureaucrat who represents a younger generation of agents trained in dirty tricks, discovers that Kendig intentionally did not arrest a high-ranking KGB agent during an operation, he demotes him to office work. Kendig quits, shreds his personal files, and leaves for Europe, where he rekindles a relationship with his long-lost love Isobel, played by Glenda Jackson. Kendig decides to write his memoirs, exposing the long-held secrets and internal operations of international espionage. He mails each chapter to the world's major agencies, which embarrasses the CIA and enrages his former colleagues, particularly Myerson, played as an unscrupulous bureaucrat by Ned Beatty. Kendig is tracked by spies from both sides of the Iron Curtain, but none are as dogged in their pursuit as Myerson, who enlists the aid of a young agent named Cutter, played by Sam Waterston. Kendig's experience and expertise at his craft not only allows him to stay one step ahead of his pursuers but also leads to further embarrassment for the espionage community.
The character of Miles Kendig was completely altered to take advantage of Walter Matthau's strengths as a comic actor. Matthau's rumpled appearance, which is made more obvious by his lanky frame and sloped shoulders, suggest Kendig's relaxed, down-to-earth approach to espionage in contrast to Myerson's tailored suits, rigid posture, and uptight personality. Myerson, like many of Kendig's enemies, are outfoxed by the veteran spy in part because they continually underestimate him, assuming that his hang-dog appearance and casual air are indicators of sloppiness, old-fashioned methods, or inferior intelligence. Likewise, Matthau's ability to tweak, twist, and squeeze his lines for comic effect, or to use his expressive face to react with bemusement, gave the character a playfulness that contrasts nicely with Beatty's tightly wired bureaucrat or Jackson's proper British lady.
Matthau was a major music enthusiast, and he loved the work of Mozart. Neame decided that Kendig should be a classic music aficionado and asked arranger Ian Fraser to select certain music by Mozart to help establish Matthau's character and to support the film's light-hearted tone. Except for an occasional snatch of Puccini or Rossini, Fraser based the entire score on Mozart. During the chase sequence, for example, the Post Horn Serenade as recorded by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, adds a lightness to the action, implying that any gunplay or car crashes will not end in tragedy. In another scene, Kendig sings an aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville while crossing the Swiss border, baffling the poor border guard but endearing Miles to the audience.
While the novel version of Hopscotch served as a serious examination and critique of the espionage industry, the film is a vehicle to showcase the strengths of Hollywood filmmaking, that is, charismatic stars delivering sophisticated dialogue in colorful locations. In that regard, the scenes of literate dialogue between Matthau and his costars are more important than details of the plot--something that Neame and Matthau emphasized to Garfield while he was writing the final version of the script. In the scene in which Kendig and Isobel meet for the first time in years, Garfield's original script consisted of a plot-heavy description explaining why the two had been apart. Matthau found the scene dull and the plot detail unnecessary, so he rewrote their meeting, using wine as a metaphor. The relationship is established and explained as the former lovers banter about wine, with each line exposing something about their romance. She asks, "Do you prefer a young or an old wine?," and he responds, "As a general rule, the older wines are better." The conversation continues about wine as they move in closer, and then finally embrace. Matthau and Jackson had costarred two years earlier in the successful comedy House Calls (1978), which revealed a surprising chemistry between the scruffy American and the prim Englishwoman. Matthau suggested Jackson to Neame, and the two reignited their spark.
Later, Kendig looks over Isobel's enormous estate, which she inherited when her wealthy husband died. "How many hectares do you have?", he deadpans, and she replies, "Two." A hectare is a metric unit of measurement equivalent to 10,000 square meters, something many people would not know. It is also a funny-sounding word, especially as spoken by Matthau, who draws out his pronunciation. But, Isobel is not bested by his acerbic use of "hectare," and their exchange speaks to their intellectual compatibility as a couple.
In a bit of self-reflexive humor undoubtedly added by Matthau, the female pilot who flies Kendig to his last adventure remarks at the end of their flight, "You remind me of my father." The actress portraying the role is Lucy Saroyan, Matthau's real-life stepdaughter. Saroyan landed the part at her stepfather's insistence, after he had negotiated with Neame to cast his son, David, as a CIA agent named Ross.
For a spy adventure, Hopscotch relies little on fast-paced action, exciting car chases, or graphic violence. Instead, the measured pace reflects the casual manner of its main character, Miles Kendig. Large-scale sequences such as the Oktoberfest celebration shot in Salzberg, Germany, were choreographed to reflect the spectacle of the event, which is a characteristic lost on the small screens of the home-viewing experience. The deliberate craftsmanship, the presentation of old-fashioned spectacle, and an understanding of a star's persona and charisma are hallmarks of director Ronald Neame, who began his film career with the legendary Arthur Rank in England during World War II. There he met David Lean, which led to a creative partnership in a company called Cineguild that also included producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and writer Noel Coward. During the 1950s, Cineguild produced films with some of England's most talented actors, including Alec Guinness, John Mills, Celia Johnson, and Kay Walsh. Years later, Neame was recruited by Hollywood, where he experienced his greatest success with the star-studded disaster drama The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
For the most part, critical reaction to Hopscotch is dependent on the age of the reviewer. Established critics understand the context of Hopscotch, including its value as a vehicle for Matthau, the appeal of a literate script, and the craftsmanship behind Neame's measured style. Contemporary reviewers, accustomed to the violence of spy dramas and the fast pace of action films, tend to be critical of its fluffy plot, dry humor, and lack of action scenes.
Executive Producer: Otto Plaschkes
Producers: Edie Landau and Ely Landau with Jonathan Bernstein and Brian Garfield
Director: Ronald Neame
Screenplay: Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes based on the novel by Brian Garfield
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Editor: Carl Kress
Production Designer: William Creber
Music: Ian Fraser
Cast: Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), Isobel von Schmidt (Glenda Jackson), Cutter (Sam Waterston), Myerson (Ned Beatty), Mikhail Yaskov (Herbert Lom), Ross (David Matthau), Westlake (George Baker), Ludlum (Ivor Roberts), Carla the Pilot (Lucy Saroyan), Maddox (Severn Darden), Saint Breheret (George Pravda), Realtor (Jacquelyn Hyde).
by Susan Doll