Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch has the distinction of being the only “feel-good” realistic spy film ever made. As the movie walks a fine line between serious drama and satirical comedy, and between topicality and escapism, it beguiles the viewer with its sophistication and complexity. The most surprising aspect of Hopscotch, however, may not be how well it walks that tightrope, but that its makers accomplished this balancing act in an era that saw the spy movie genre reduced to tales of relentless despair.
Author and co-producer Brian Garfield—best known for writing the novel Death Wish—had published Hopscotch in 1975. It promptly won the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the Year, and Garfield began working to bring it to the screen with more control than he’d had over the Death Wish adaptation. But in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the discovery that U.S. presidents had employed the CIA to further their own political ends, espionage movies had taken a humorless turn. The moviegoing public, no longer enamored of spies, turned its attention to cautionary tales of governmental duplicity. Gone were capers on the order of Our Man Flint (1966) and Caprice (1967); in their place were violent, cynical, and paranoia-laced thrillers in the manner of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976).
Hopscotch was not only more lighthearted in tone, but more nuanced in its portrayal of espionage. The screenplay, co-authored by Garfield and Bryan Forbes (who was also to have directed, until a scheduling conflict forced him off the project), was devoid of the violence of contemporaneous spy stories—it’s pointed out that protagonist Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) hasn’t carried a gun in years, and there’s not a single death in the entire film. Nor was Hopscotch a simplistic anti-establishment movie—a close look at the plot reveals it as not so much against the concept of the CIA as against what the CIA was perceived as having become, in the hands of bureaucrats like Myerson (Ned Beatty). Myerson’s background, combining a history of dirty tricks, a reliance on implied blackmail, and self-serving careerism, made him a good symbol for Nixon-era politics—and kept Hopscotch more firmly grounded in reality than such fanciful tales of secret agencies and government cover-ups as Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1976). (Such topicality didn’t prevent Garfield and Forbes from having fun with the genre, however—for the mystery literati, the array of players in the picture include characters with the names Westlake, Ludlum, and Follett, all inside references to Garfield’s mystery-writer colleagues.) That Hopscotch was made at all, given the combination of literacy, seriousness, wit, and sophistication that it offered, was a tribute to Edie and Ely Landau, the producers Garfield finally found. Ely Landau, an innovative figure in television production who had fostered film adaptations of The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Rhinoceros, was also a childhood friend of Walter Matthau, and was responsible for bringing him into the film as its star.
Hopscotch was Walter Matthau’s first espionage film since Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), in which he’d played the murderous villain. Hopscotch gave Matthau the chance to portray the hero, a highly unorthodox but gifted counterintelligence agent—in effect, the Cary Grant role—and he proved as funny and charming in that role as Grant had in his. Glenda Jackson was perfect as Matthau’s ex-colleague and romantic match Isobel; the actors implied deep attachment and even mutual lust without ever losing an article of clothing. Sam Waterston, showing the same mix of wry wit and seriousness that he would later bring to the role of Assistant D.A. Jack McCoy on Law and Order, transformed Cutler into one of the most interesting characters in the movie, genuinely torn between his devotion to duty and his admiration for his one-time mentor. Ned Beatty made the villain of the piece into someone the viewer could deeply resent on a personal level, for his all-too-realistic flaws—you don’t want to hiss Myerson in the manner of a Bond villain, but you want to slug him. And Herbert Lom, best known as for his over-the-top Inspector Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther movies, provided a quiet commentary on the action as Soviet station chief Yaskov, amused (in an always-elegant manner) at the situation in which these Americans have found themselves.
Part of the film’s sophistication lies in Kendig’s relationships with all of these characters: the way he hides his love for Isobel behind banter, the respect with which he treats Cutler and Yaskov even as he maneuvers around them, and even the depth of contempt he holds for Myerson, which possibly hints at a self-loathing for having once been allied to him. These complexities keep the near-slapstick sections of Hopscotch true enough to life that it isn’t terribly jarring when the movie turns “serious”—that is, when Myerson no longer seeks to arrest Kendig, but to kill him. The movie builds toward this darker tone in a manner so subtle it’s difficult to pinpoint the shift, and Neame keeps the actors on such an even keel that they don’t have to change a beat when the characters start looking for blood.
Ironically, the years it took for Hopscotch to jump from the printed page to the screen may have helped the public’s acceptance of the plot, as reality caught up with art. What had once seemed like merely a clever idea—a disillusioned ex-CIA agent publishing a memoir—had actually come to pass. A string of books written by former agency insiders, among them Victor Marchetti’s The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (1974) and Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval (1977), had been published, panicking both the agency and the government in the process, and precipitating several drawn-out court cases. By 1979, when Hopscotch was ready to go before the cameras, Frank Snepp had appeared on 60 Minutes and the agency’s legal action against him had wound its way to the United States Supreme Court. Thus, instead of being a clever piece of “what if” fiction, Hopscotch suddenly seemed very immediate and topical.
Ultimately, the movie is a marvel of seeming contradictions, romantic yet informed by cynicism, topical yet escapist, and, in its particulars, anti-establishment yet not anti-CIA. If Hopscotch seems irreverent to the point of being nihilistic, it is also funny enough to come off as more comedy than political tract—which makes it all the more subversive.
Bruce Eder, who has written for the All Music Guide and Current Biography, has also produced and narrated several Criterion Collection releases.