If Jim Broadbent had been hired to play the next James Bond (and that idea sounds better and better with every word I write), the result might be something like Walter Matthau in “Hopscotch.”
He’s an international secret agent who jets from Germany to Bermuda to London, a master of secret identities who catches the bad guys and stays one step ahead of his pursuers. All while wearing grandpa sweaters and reading glasses.
The fun of this light comic thriller, which the Criterion Collection re-released in a new Blu-ray edition this month, is in watching the irascible Matthau secret agent at a spry 60 years of age. And turn out to be better at it than the competition.
“Hopscotch” was based on a novel by Brian Garfield, who after seeing his previous novel “Death Wish” turned into such a bloodthirsty movie wanted to write a thriller where nobody got hurt or killed. It was retrofitted into a comic vehicle for Matthau, who plays Miles Kendig, a seasoned CIA agent.
After busting up a Soviet spy ring in Munich, Kendig is called on the carpet by his imperious middle-management boss (Ned Beatty) and read the riot act for letting his KGB rival/old friend (Herbert Lom) go. Sensing he’s about to be booted, Kendig swipes his personnel file and goes on the lam, intending to write a tell-all book about his time in the CIA.
It’s hard to call the results a “thriller” – the movie loves Matthau too much to ever put Kendig in any real danger. Instead, it’s a hoot to watch Matthau trying on different disguises and outwitting the younger CIA agents (including a very young-looking Sam Waterston) on his trail. Kendig is clearly having fun, Matthau is clearly having fun, and it’s infectious. In perhaps the movie’s greatest set piece, he even breaks into Beatty’s summer home in Georgia and tricks the FBI into shooting it full of lead.
The film was tailor-made for Matthau, who not only contributed to the screenplay but, a devout classical music fan, even selected some of the Mozart pieces that play on the soundtrack. Glenda Jackson, who worked opposite Matthau on “House Calls” a couple of years earlier, takes a rather small role as Kendig’s girlfriend, and you can tell she did it just because she loved being around Matthau.
“Hopscotch” isn’t great cinema, but it’s a good time. Perhaps the most telling bonus feature on the Criterion edition isn’t the bonus interviews with Garfield or director Ronald Neame.
It’s the option to listen to the alternate, profanity-free audio track used when the film played on TV, so the entire family can enjoy it. It’s that kind of a movie. If only Criterion could have added the “ABC Sunday Night Movie” bumpers as well, it’d be perfect.