In the opening scene of Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch we get the classic setup for an international, Cold War thriller. We find ourselves in Munich during Oktoberfest, weaving around in the crowds that are oblivious to the espionage happening under their drunken noses. A few of the sober men in the crowd look around suspiciously, a camera snaps some shots, and all the while the great Walter Mathau is humming along with the drinking song and pulling funny faces. Just like us, he’s been here before, he’s seen the set-up, he knows the players, and he’s not going to take it too seriously.
Mathau plays veteran CIA agent Miles Kendig. Over the years, he’s figured out how to be a charming spy without all the death and betrayal. He likes peace and quiet and good wine, and he’s smart enough that he can do his job without even needing to tote a gun. He’s also been around long enough that he knows the other senior players. They’ve developed a relationship of respect. They’re each “just doing my job.” Indeed, toward the end of that opening scene, Kendig walks up to the Russian agent, Herbert Lom’s Yaskov, whom he’s just seen exchanging microfilm with East German agents, and, rather than have a shoot-out — in fact, rather than even apprehend Yaskov — Kendig asks for the film in the most friendly manner imaginable. He’s won this round, and Yaskov is not a sore loser.
The tone is light-hearted from the start. And while Mathau always comes off as smart and in control, he doesn’t showcase any of the usual qualities we might expect in a movie spy. He’s no master of disguise, and he seems to adopt an accent mainly to have fun at his own expense rather than try to truly fool someone. That self-deprecating charm is, in fact, just how he swoops in and gets what he wants.
Not everyone, of course, likes their spies to behave this way. One such individual is Kendig’s foul-mouthed boss, Myerson, played wonderfully by Ned Beatty. When Myerson learns that Kendig had Yaskov and let him go, he’s furious. Kendig tries to explain to the short man with the fragile ego that that was all for the best: he knows how Yaskov works, they respect each other, and if Yaskov is gone someone else, unknown, will take his place.
As is often the case with such men, Myerson is much less interested in practicality than he is in dramatic results. He demotes Kendig on the spot. And with that, one of the most playful spies in cinema goes up against his own house.
Kendig isn’t going to let Myerson win, and he’s going to employ his charm and intelligence to humiliating the boss. As an accomplice, Kendig seeks out an old love interest, Isobel, played with charisma by Glenda Jackson. Kendig’s plan is to publish a tell-all memoir, an embarrassment for the intelligence community.
This is all fun for Kendig, but the stakes are enormous. The memoir could get him killed. Everyone seems to know this while Kendig keeps digging in deeper, insulting Myerson, and the whole intelligence gathering game, more and more. Even Yaskov is interested in seeing him stopped. Meanwhile, Kendig ambles along, singing his opera, engaging with everyone as if he were just a retired old man with absolutely nothing to worry about.
Hopscotch is based on the book by Brian Garfield, who also wrote Death Wish. It wasn’t a comedy, at first, though Garfield had set himself the task of writing a thriller where no one is killed. Upon reading the initial screenplay, Neame refused to direct the film several times until he finally said he’d do the job only if Walter Matthau would play Kendig, thinking that this was a sure way out as Matthau would never agree. Obviously he was wrong, and so Neame found himself with Matthau, and they both seem to realize that this could be a great deal of fun. Like Kendig, these are two men with decades of experience whose main concern is that they get to do their job their own way. Often, that kind of arrangement doesn’t work out to the audience’s benefit, but here it certainly does.