Monday, January 21, 2019

Walter Matthau Plays Hopscotch

When CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) lets a Soviet spy get away, his new boss is most displeased. Kendig explains the logic behind his actions, but his explanation is abruptly dismissed. He is banished to a desk job until his retirement. The veteran spy has no intention of complying with that directive, so he shreds his personnel file and heads to Europe.

Kendig links up with Isobel von Schmidt (Glenda Jackson), a retired agent and former lover, who lives comfortably in Salzburg. He is unsure about his next move until a meeting with his Soviet counterpart gives him an idea. Kendig decides to write his memoirs, providing details on botched espionage plots and inept colleagues. After he finishes his first chapter, he mails copies to intelligence agencies in Peking, Bonn, Moscow, London, and, of course, Washington, DC.

Glenda Jackson as Isobel.
Not surprisingly, Kendig becomes a hunted man. As he completes his memoirs (again mailing out copies of each chapter), he has to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. Naturally, he still finds time to exact a little revenge on his former boss (Ned Beatty).

Made in 1980, Hopscotch may appear to be a follow-up to House Calls, an earlier teaming of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. However, that was not the intent. Warren Beatty was originally cast as Kendig before production delays caused a shift to Walter Matthau. It's the viewer's good fortune that Matthau became the star because Hopscotch is the perfect vehicle for the actor's unique style of humor.

He makes it grand fun to watch the crafty, opera-humming Kendig outmaneuver the CIA at every turn. It's also entertaining to watch him unveil his grand scheme step by step. (Strangely enough, it reminded me of watching Edward Fox's assassin in The Day of the Jackal develop his plan down to the most minute detail).

Sam Waterston as Kendig's protege.
There's a downside to the structure of Hopscotch, however, and that's relegating Glenda Jackson to what amounts to a supporting role. From her opening "meet cute" with Matthau, she lights up the screen with her sophisticated comic timing and is sorely missed when the plot focuses on Kendig's elaborate scheme.

Hopscotch was co-written and based on the novel by Brian Garfield. The author, who died last month, also penned the novel Death Wish. He was very unhappy with the adaptation of that book into the 1974 Charles Bronson film. It's a key reason why he insisted on being involved with the production of Hopscotch.

Walter Matthau in disguise.
In director Ronald Neame's autobiography Straight from the Horse's Mouth, he describes how he and Garfield transformed Hopscotch once Matthau was cast. The original screenplay's serious tone was discarded in favor of a more lighthearted approach. Even Matthau's real-life fondness for Mozart was incorporated into his character. Neame considered Hopscotch one of his favorite films and Garfield also expressed satisfaction with the end results.

Hopscotch is rarely listed as one of Walter Matthau's best works, but it always generates a lot of positive comments when I mention it on social media. It may be a bit of lark for Matthau and Jackson, but it's also a delightful way to spend 106 minutes.


  1. Funny you should mention Hopscotch. I was just looking for a delightful way to spend 106 minutes.

  2. I love this movie. It's probably my favorite Matthau role. He and Glenda Jackson make a great couple. A feel good movie.

    1. I'm not sure who came up with the idea of casting them together, but it works wonderfully in this film and HOUSE CALLS.

  3. He was also good at drama. He did three TV movies for CBS as lawyer Harmon Cobb. Harry Morgan was also in them.

  4. Oh, this sounds good! I love Walter Matthau and that picture of him in disguise makes me really eager to see this film.