Sunday, January 03, 2010

Movie Log: Hopscotch

Netflix kept recommending Hopscotch, a Walter Matthau/Glenda Jackson spy movie from 1980, and I finally gave in. The Wife scoffed at watching Matthau's face for two hours -- even after I explained that this movies was from thirty years ago, when his face had about 37% fewer jowls -- so I saw it alone, in the frigid basement where all bloggers are assumed to spend their days.

It's a decent cat-and-mouse game, not taken too seriously, from the era in which at least some movies -- relatively major movies, and not art-house curiosities -- were made for adults about adults. I'm not sure why it's in the Criterion Collection, since it's not a towering masterpiece of cinema, but I suppose that means someone at Criterion really liked it, or that the rights were available for a song.

Matthau is Miles Kendig, a long-time section chief in central Europe for the CIA. As the movie opens, we see him stymie his KGB counterpart -- Herbert Lom as Yaskov -- and knock apart a major Russian operation. He flies back to Washington, more hurriedly than expected, to be met by his protege Cutter (a startlingly young Sam Watterston) and taken to a confrontation with his boss Myerson (Ned Beatty, doing that half-snake, half-weasel act only Beatty could do). Myerson is not happy with Kendig, having expected him to either arrest or "eliminate" Yaskov. (Myerson came out of the dirty tricks division, and has no patience for more elegant spycraft, or finesse in any form, so he ignores Kendig's complaints that the Russians would immediately replace Yaskov with a new man that he wouldn't know or be able to work with.)

Kendig is to be transferred to a desk job to wait out the time until his pension -- another way in which this is an old movie is the assumption that life employment is as unquestionable as the sun rising -- but Kendig instead steals and destroys his own file, goes on the run, and runs into old flame Isobel (Jackson) in Salzburg. She inadvertently sparks his desire to write his memoirs, which he dives into with great energy. And that wouldn't be too much of a problem, except that he both uses those memoirs as an excuse to tweak Myerson's nose at every turn and mails each chapter of the memoirs, as he completes them, to Langley, Moscow, Peking, etc., etc., etc..

Myserson gets predictably upset -- in that inimitable Beatty bluster -- and sets Cutter to finding Kendig. (After a couple of chapters and near-misses, the missions shifts to "eliminating" Kendig.) Kendig uses his skills to move around Europe and the US, eluding his pursuers at every turn -- he even holes up in Myerson's rental house for a while, getting Myerson and cohorts to besiege it in order to do the maximim damage -- and keeping in contact with Isobel back in Europe.

Eventually, there's a big confrontation in London, where Kendig has gone to shop his memoirs to publishers. (And that didn't quite make sense to me, since, as I understand it, it would be trivially easy for the British government to quash such a publication...assuming, of course, that Myerson could convince them to do so, and that may be a hugely unwarranted assumption.) Everything goes in the ways you would assume they would, and Kendig and Isobel ride off into the sunset together.

Hopscotch isn't a great movie, but it is a solid piece of entertainment from the era in which chase movies for adults didn't have to be excused by comparisons to carnival attractions, which is a good thing. And an era in which Matthau -- not a great looker even then -- and Jackson, in a terribly severe and unflattering '70s haircut, can be romantic leads is something to mourn the passing of.

1 comment:

jmnlman said...

You're right in several cases the British government shutdown publication of possibly damaging memoirs [most famously Spycatcher not that it worked]. Manuscripts were smuggled into the U.S.and published their without problem. Although Frank Snepp was successfully sued by the CIA for writing Decent Interval, his book on the fall of Saigon. The argument was that it was a violation of his employment agreement. He lost the royalties but it was still available.

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