Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Older Wines Are Better

HOPSCOTCH feels like a relic of another time and it’s not even really that old. Or, at least, I’d like to think it’s isn’t that old but I guess it probably is. Either way, it’s very much a product of an era when nice, polite entertainment was aimed more at adults. It’s the sort of thing that a married couple, like my parents, might have gone to see it at the neighborhood movie theater on a Saturday night out, enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion, were home probably ten minutes after the credits rolled then gave it not another moment’s thought until it turned up on the NBC Sunday Night at the Movies a few years later, exclaimed “Hey! This was pretty good!” and you would finally get to see it since all the swear words had been removed. This memory I’ve just described is probably a total fabrication that’s come from the deep recesses of my own brain, but you get the idea.

Certainly the notion of pairing Walter Matthau with Glenda Jackson is also something from another time and this was the second of two movies they made together—the first, 1978’s HOUSE CALLS, directed by Howard Zieff, which I saw for the first time about a year ago is a cute romantic comedy but not all that memorable and very much a reminder how there was once a time when the main goal of certain movies was simply to be just sort of pleasant. And nothing more. Henry Mancini did the music for that film, a score which is pretty mild stuff even for him and I couldn’t help but imagine even that composer musing, “Hmm, this could maybe use a little edge” while looking at certain scenes. HOPSCOTCH, which followed two years later when it was released in September 1980, is a little more exciting if only by the nature of its own espionage world backdrop but it still may very well be just about the most pleasant, genial, laidback spy movie ever made as well as maybe the most puzzling DVD release ever to come from Criterion—it’s certainly not the worst of the films they’ve put out (after all, they released discs of Michael Bay’s THE ROCK and ARMAGGEDDON, after all) but that they did still seems a little strange, as if it happened because someone over there was a Ronald Neame completist or maybe they were just trying to do something nice for their mother. There are certainly worse reasons to put something out on DVD and no real complaints from me since I get some pleasure out of the movie but, regardless, HOPSCOTCH is pretty mild stuff.

After successfully putting a stop to a microfilm transfer in Munich, longtime CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) returns to Langley and discovers his new department head, the hated Myerson (Ned Beatty) is furious at him for not apprehending his Russian opposite number Yaskov (Herbert Lom) at the same time. Determined to make an example of Kendig, Myerson insists he take a desk job to wait out his pension but instead Kendig quickly shreds his file and leaves without telling anyone. Before anyone realizes, he’s jetted off to Austria to meet up with lady love ex-spy Isabel Von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson) where he soon gets the idea to write his memoirs and blow the lid off what really goes on within the agency. Quickly after doing this he mails the opening chapters to not only the CIA but to various others agencies around the world. He sets off to continue writing as Myerson, fearful for what Kendig might reveal in the book about agency activities, sets off in pursuit along with Kendig’s more sympathetic protégé Cutter (Sam Waterston) in tow and the game of hopscotch begins.

It’s a nice movie, which is probably the best way to put it. HOPSCOTCH could sort of be seen as a James Bond-type fantasy played at a more down to earth level for any middle aged men going to see this at the time. It’s got the globe trotting as Matthau’s Kendig jets around on the Concorde and the sticking it to your hellish boss in every way possible, only no cheating on your special lady friend or any nasty violence to worry about. Released in September 1980, the stylistic approach HOPSCOTCH takes seems kind of like the sparkling Peter Stone thrillers of the 60s (Matthau was in CHARADE, of course) crossed with the more dry, naturalistic tone which became the norm in the seventies along with a scenic tour of various European locales. Directed by Ronald Neame (whose many credits include the ever-popular THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE) with a screenplay by DEATH WISH author Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes (based on what was apparently a more serious novel by Garfield) the tone is consistent but frankly not all that much happens for it to ever become inconsistent. Around the midway point Matthau spends several scenes arranging for a seaplane from Georgia to Bermuda, presumably to make it easier for him to travel to England next but the point is easily obscured and since he doesn’t actually do anything in Bermuda it just winds up feeling like one of those points that occasionally happens here where the film is just spinning its wheels in the hopes that no one will notice there isn’t much of a plot. The seaplane pilot in question is played by Lucy Saroyan, Matthau’s own stepdaughter and there’s even a bit of dialogue which seems to be alluding to this but anyone watching this would probably wonder why the film dotes on such a minor character for several scenes to no effect.

The section involving Kendig renting out his nemesis Myerson’s own house from under his nose to continue writing the book is about as clever as the plotting ever gets with an enjoyable payoff and almost seems to be setting up for a more complex bait-and-switch later on but instead HOPSCOTCH just sort of ambles along, with a gag about a photograph of Myerson that subtly changes expression about as silly things ever get, not really worried about the details. We never know much about the book beyond how it’s going to blow the lid off certain secrets and it seems to take Kendig about as long to write it as it does to type it out--naturally, there’s no real political angle to his motivation beyond just being fed up with the tight-ass bureaucracy Myerson represents. He even turns down a chance to work for the other side when offered but his reasons seem to have more to do with his own principles than any kind of loyalty. And he’s not worried about that either, with unredeemable prick Myerson with all his incessant swearing (giving the film its R rating which still seems undeserved) and total lack of social graces making him seem like an idiot thug leftover from the Nixon era—listening to him say “No kids, no pets, no Democrats” to his wife on the phone about renting out their house makes this one element of the film that hasn’t dated much at all and lends HOPSCOTCH a certain amount of potency it still has, even if spies in movies don’t look very much like Walter Matthau anymore.

And more than anything, it’s totally and completely a Walter Matthau vehicle with much of the enjoyment coming from just watching the star in a role clearly tailor made for him breeze through this film as if without a care in the world, making sure that no one watching this film ever gets overly concerned about very much and pulling one over on everybody seemingly without trying, listening to all sorts of classical music (which also makes up the films score) and singing along with opera at every opportunity—it feels like an addition to the script done to make him happier playing the role and reading up on the film that seems to be exactly the case. In addition to the picturesque European locales there’s also a touch of sophistication to the dialogue here and there, like a discussion about drinking wine in the first scene between Matthau and Jackson that at least give things a somewhat adult air that when watched now is kind of refreshing—any movie that equates a character played by Walter Matthau with the process of how wine ages and how one should drink it can’t be all bad. Plus there’s the bit where a poorly placed beer bottle spills over when placed a little too close to his typewriter which just feels like vintage Oscar Madison which balances out all that talk nicely. We're told Kendig doesn't even carry a gun and ultimately the film is about middle-aged characters who don’t have much interest or patience anymore in all that running and chasing (“we’d look like Laurel and Hardy” says Kendig at one point, giving me a pleasant mental image of Matthau chasing Lom in such a scenario), content to live their lives the way they want to do off in the luxury of Europe without blustery American pricks like Myerson shoving their weight around--a sly, barely explained joke that goes by without comment has the Brits not at all surprised that the Americans are staying in the Hilton when in London. There's also a slight post-Watergate feel of how one can’t trust the government that seems specific to the time (“What secrets did he steal?” “It’s on a need-to-know basis, a matter of national security.” “Yeah. That’s a phrase that’s lost a good deal of meaning lately.”) so it's easy to imagine a version of the material produced deeper into the Reagan era wouldn’t have portrayed Kendig as such a good guy. Maybe that’s digging a little deeper than necessary and there’s not very much else to the film but maybe it’s enough. Even when there’s a bit of extra suspense shoehorned in near the end involving a flat tire the matter is taken care of with zero consequence about as fast as possible. The Glenda Jackson role seems slightly shoehorned in as if the actress was cast several drafts along to capitalize on the HOUSE CALLS success and they don’t even have all that much screen time together but it’s interesting how her turning up here almost functions as a sequel—they already know each other, she’s used to his American boorishness and reacts to what he’s doing with exasperation but always supports him regardless so this way it’s almost as if we don’t have to deal with any sort of exposition telling why she’s helping him out. Jackson doesn’t do much more than roll her eyes and act annoyed but we can see why they make an ideal pairing and is one of many things about the film that even if it gets me to smile more than it does get me to laugh out loud it’s still pleasant enough. And it’s one of the things that make HOTSCOTCH such a breeze even if there isn’t any real point in still thinking about it ten minutes after the credits have rolled. I guess sometimes that’s ok.

The part fits Matthau like a glove and he’s just right for it and it’s hard not to smile at some cracks he makes like his “How’d you get to be this short?” to Beatty or not even trying to put on a convincing southern accent. There’s something lived-in and genuine about his presence even down to some small bits of business like asking if he’s pronouncing “Marquess of Queensbury Rules” correctly, an intellectual curiosity like he’s actually bothering to think about why he does things, which Myerson seems to take as an affront. Jackson is more than dependable enough to handle the scenes when he’s not around dealing with the agents on her tail as the annoyance that they are. Lom, also one of the leads in the even more enjoyable GAMBIT for director Neame, is reliably good company in his small role as the Russian, Beatty is enjoyable bluster as the annoyed Myerson (sort of the Chief Inspector Dreyfus role) and Sam Waterston plays his part as never all that concerned about anything, even when he’s being tied up. Apparently some dialogue was written in to comment on how tired the actor looks because he had just arrived from the set of HEAVEN’S GATE and really did look exhausted. Maybe he just seems relaxed because after that shoot anything, particularly a production based mostly in Europe, was going to seem like a vacation. Severn Darden appears for one scene helping Matthau rent the seaplane—there’s a bit between the two men involving a money clip that I’ve always had a fondness for, Matthau’s son David is CIA operative Ross and George Baker, Sir Hilary Bray in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, is a London book publisher.

Not that I’m looking to give anyone any ideas but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a remake set in the high-tech world, maybe a more light-hearted BOURNE. Hell, you could even try to give the satire a little more edge if you wanted to go that route. Since HOPSCOTCH isn’t exactly a classic there wouldn’t be much wrong with trying to do something else with the basic story. And I suppose I do have a fondness for it, the way I sometimes do with a few of these movies that I remember from when I was a kid but was too young to actually go see. I can’t really explain my attachment to these things but maybe they’ll always seem slightly special to me because of how I was one step removed from them and somehow in there my own fantasy of what the movies are, as well as what I’d like them to be, began. Ultimately, HOPSCOTCH isn’t too demanding, it gets a smile out of me and is a nice excuse to hang out with Walter Matthau for 104 minutes. And I may have an urge to begin another, more substantial movie immediately after finishing it but there’s nothing wrong with that. Minor as it may be, there’s not all that much wrong with HOPSCOTCH either and it’s a film I can’t bring myself to dislike.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I like the idea of remaking this - Movies like RED (retired agent chased by own bureau) and Burn After Reading (agent writes tell-all memoir) sort of point the way. I feel like I've seen version of this scenario in other movies that I can't pin down.

But I really enjoyed the original. I'm not a great Matthau fan, but you are right: This fits him like a glove. His genial personality (and the gag with the rented house) are about all this Hopscotch needs to satisfy me.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

BURN AFTER READING is an interesting comparison point, definitely. RED, well, honestly didn't do much for me but I see what you're saying. Good to know there's another fan of it out there--it's like the filmic equivalent of easy listening music or something.

Jonee said...

This is one of those movies where I remember the commercial much more than the film itself. "Hopscotch!" Always fun to see Herbert Lom, though.