“Hopscotch never pretended to be anything but a light-hearted comedy,” Ronald Neame, Director. “It’s a comedy-thriller.”
“We wanted to show that you could tell a suspense story like this where no one gets killed,” Brian Garfield, writer.
They did. And it’s wonderful.
Roger Ebert once called Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau as Miles Kendig and Glenda Jackson as Isobel von Schmidt, “pleasant.” I call it a pure delight. Laughter and suspense are hand-in-hand throughout the movie, and they carry the plot along with them perfectly. I saw this movie for the first time recently, and have since watched it several times because it is such a pleasure. I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and I can’t tell you how much I just love being lost inside the Hopscotch world right now. This escape factor is a good illustration of why movies like these are so important to me.
Ned Beatty plays Kendig’s nemesis, G.P. Myerson. He’s the new head man at the CIA department Kendig works in and is an arrogant, nincompoop bureaucrat. Beatty is great in making us despise him right from the start. The tension begins with Myerson being upset with Kendig. Seems Kendig had a chance to “dismantle” the Russian network in Germany (and make Myerson look good because of it) but didn’t. Kendig didn’t arrest the top Russian spy Myerson wanted him too because he thought it was a better idea to keep a relationship with him so they could better keep an eye on what he was up to. Myerson uses the incident as a reason to take the aging Kendig out of the field….and out of his way. He sends him to a desk job and Kendig is devastated. After thinking about it for what seemed like a second, and a suggestion from that same Russian friend/counterpart, Kendig decides to write his memoirs instead of take that desk job.
He immediately flies to Austria to meet with Isobel, a former love, to ask for her help. Kendig meeting Isobel at a restaurant, and the detailed conversation they have about wine, reveals the plot, and chemistry between the two that makes the movie doubly satisfying. You can’t help but root for them from the very beginning. Isobel was not a character in the book and was created just for the movie. Thanks to her, he’s able to implement his plan to perfection. It’s a little more complicated than that in the book when he tries to do it without her.
It took some convincing, Isobel wasn’t supportive at first, but Myles pouted until she gave in (who wouldn’t?) and got him a typewriter.
With Mozart records playing in the background, Kendig began to write about his detailed CIA missions. He sent the CIA, and other spy agencies in the world, one chapter at a time as he completed them. It drove Myerson crazy. Kendig realized, as he wrote, that he’d never go back. This realization amped up his game. He led them on a chase across the U.S. and Europe, always one step ahead of them and everything they assumed he’d do.
At that first meeting in Myerson’s office, Kendig overheard him talking to his wife about their vacant house in Savannah, Georgia. Of course that house became an entry on Kendig’s agenda of mayhem! He rented it, used it as a place to write a couple more chapters…..and to provoke Myerson, who had to call in in the FBI for help. That had to hurt. And then it got worse for Myerson. Together, the FBI and CIA gassed and shot up the house, destroying it, while assuming Kendig was inside. They proved they were out to kill him. He wasn’t wasn’t inside. Another clever ploy.
Kendig keeps writing and sending out chapters one by one while hopping back and forth over two continents. Meanwhile, the CIA becomes more and more desperate to stop him.
“What are you trying to prove?” – CIA Agent Cutter (Sam Waterston)
“I’m just trying to have some fun,” Kendig.
Boy is it fun to watch him accomplish this. Every single thing that happens is specifically planned for a result that takes them to the next thing that makes the CIA look foolish. Everything is carefully laid out to create the most mayhem. He is successful on all accounts. It’s suspenseful, yes, but it’s hilarious too…..and extremely satisfying to watch.
Brian Garfield also wrote Death Wish in 1972. It was turned into a movie starring Charles Bronson in 1974 with Wendell Mayes writing the screenplay. In an interview for Hopscotch, Garfield implied he hadn’t been too happy with “other books that had gone to movies” so he took a bigger role in this one. It worked. He helped give us a terrific movie. “The motivation for the main character is that he wants to have fun instead of a desk job,” he said. “This movie was a delight all the way around.”
P.S. The Criterion Collection DVD is terrific and includes interviews with Ronald Deame, Brian Garfield and Walter Matthau.