On an operation in Germany veteran CIA agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) angers his superiors by allowing Yaskov (Herbert Lom), his affable opposite number with the KGB, to escape capture. Forced into retirement, a disgruntled Kendig goes rogue. After reuniting with his lover, Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson), Kendig sets out to publish his memoirs exposing the inner workings of both the CIA and KGB. Agents from both sides promptly set out to silence Kendig permanently but reckon without his resourcefulness and trickery as a global chase ensues.
In 1975 former CIA agent Philip Agee published the book “Inside the Company: CIA Diary” detailing his experiences working for the agency in operations based around central and south America. Around the same time Brian Garfield, author of Death Wish (1974), published his fictional novel Hopscotch which many considered a humorous interpretation of Agee’s true-life story. However, Garfield (who co-produced the screen adaptation having been disappointed with the films made from his previous work) always maintained he set out solely to create an exciting, suspenseful spy thriller where no-one got killed. In other words, a sober alternative to the world of James Bond with its fixation on sadism, sex and gadgetry.
Released just before the Cold War escalated again under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, far from a spy spoof, Hopscotch is actually a solid, even plausible thriller albeit with an abundance of gregarious though sharp humour. Intended as a vehicle for Warren Beatty under the direction of Bryan Forbes (who retained a co-screenwriter credit) the producers lucked out with the great Walter Matthau whose unique combination of sardonic wit with human warmth accounts for much of the film’s charm under the able direction of veteran Ronald Neame, bouncing back after the disastrous Meteor (1979). However, despite the provocative subject matter it is worth noting that Hopscotch is only tangentially a spy film. It is really a movie about a mid-life crisis, the story of an ageing man trying to make up for past mistakes while proving he has still got what it takes in the field. It is forced retirement, not any sense of moral duty that drives Kendig to blow the lid on the CIA’s history of dirty tricks. At one point he remarks of his superior: “He tried to emasculate me and I retaliated.”
Like Matthau’s earlier crime classic Charley Varrick (1973) this is essentially a story of one man against the system wherein the pleasure lies in watching wily Miles Kendig outwit his far younger ex-colleagues, including his amiable protégé Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston) and more importantly, his bull-headed, foul-tempered boss Myerson (Ned Beatty). Although the presentation of the CIA as bumbling oafs robs the concept of some potency and Kendig himself sometimes comes across too self-serving to be wholly sympathetic, as a satire Hopscotch moves remarkably well with an agreeably dry wit. For example, the amusing scene wherein Myerson discovers Kendig is hiding in his house which trigger happy FBI agents then shoot to pieces. The film has a playful quality, indulging the odd subtle wink at the audience underlining that the spy business is itself something of a game for overgrown boys. However, Garfield does a fine job detailing the human relationships including Kendig’s almost paternal affection for Cutter and his romance with Isobel. The leads are on fine form relishing some choice lines of dialogue while Matthau’s real life son David Matthau and stepdaughter Lucy Saroyan also play significant roles in the film. On the run Kendig displays as much cunning and ingenuity as James Bond only minus any womanising and, in line with Garfield’s original concept, repeatedly makes a point of his disdain for violence, although the film does climax with a spectacular aerial chase-cum-shoot-out.