Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980)
What happens when the CIA decides to put a longtime, successful, high-powered spy out to pasture because he’s getting old? That’s a question that’s been dealt with many times (usually in Robert Ludlum-esque cold war thrillers), but never so amusingly as in Ronald Neame’s 1980 film Hopscotch which, in the age of Valerie Plame and the media dimwits who outed her, is—as is more and more often the case with political flicks we found absurd-yet-compelling in the seventies (viz. The Conversation)—even more relevant today than it was thirty-two years ago.
Miles Kendig (The Bad News Bears‘ Walter Matthau) has flipped from the “asset” side of the balance sheet to the “liability” side, as far as his boss, Myerson (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) is concerned. And for Miles, the feeling’s mutual—he’s fed up with the incompetence of Myerson and his new flunkie, Cutter (Law and Order‘s Sam Waterston). In order to show them just how incompetent they are, he issues them a challenge: prevent him from writing a tell-all memoir that will expose reams of highly classified information, not to mention how horribly it’s handled by the CIA, the KGB, etc. And thus begins Miles’ last great spy game.
Perhaps the movie’s most surprising note is that the romance subplot (and I use the term
“romance” loosely here; Matthau and Glenda Jackson behave more like an old married couple) doesn’t feel in any way forced in a movie that really has no place for a romance subplot. Neame and Brian Garfield (Death Wish), adapting his own novel, take enough of a slice-of-life approach in between the car chases and stuff blowing up that it works. (Imagine a romance subplot in, say, Ronin and you’ll see just how ludicrous the idea is.) And that’s a great example of what a surprise this movie is decades later; with the cold war long over and most of the countries mentioned in the film as enemies now considered our allies, this should feel as dated as a Bell Telephone commercial, and yet it still pops. Ronald Neame, who died in 2010 at the ripe old age of 99, was nominated for three Oscars in his career, all in the forties—twice for writing (both times for David Lean films) and once for special effects. Hopscotch is a very good case that some of Neame’s directorial work should perhaps have been more closely scrutinized by the Academy. *** ½