by Michael Liss
We all have our "desert island" videos. Send me with a couple of John Ford Westerns, perhaps Fort Apache and My Darling Clementine. Download to my notebook the first Godfather and the first Star Wars, and add something serious like The Sorrow and the Pity, Z, or the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Make me laugh with The Philadelphia Story or Young Frankenstein or The Producers. Do that, and I can play quietly by myself for a while without disturbing the adults.
Yet, I belong to a secret order, The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics, and would insist on having that movie in my go bag. It's got everything: The CIA, FBI, MI-6, the Russians. Chases in trucks, cars, and airplanes. Gadgets. Appealing women with foreign accents. Exotic disguises. Even some gun-play. And music—fantastic music. It's the kind of film you could watch 20 times (or more, but who's counting?) and you would still be finding things to make you smile.
The storyline is fairly simple. A CIA field agent (Miles Kendig), who, admittedly, is a bit of an antique, is pushed into a desk job by his boss, the quintessentially boorish (and short) Meyerson. Kendig doesn't want to be benched. He shreds his file (literally, as there are apparently no electronic copies in the late 1970's) and walks out. He decides to write a book, Hopscotch, documenting some of the Agency's less glorious moments (and featuring Meyerson) and begins sending juicy chapters to interested, and sometimes horrified, readers. Kendig goes off in search of a publisher and to reunite with Isobel, his old girlfriend. Meyerson goes off (with murderous intent) in search of Kendig, dragging Kendig's protégé, Joe Cutter, and a couple of hapless CIA guys, along for the ride. We have stops in Savannah, London, Bermuda and Salzburg, plus various border-crossings and other points East and West, and do some serious damage to reputations, houses, and ears.
The cast is terrific. Walter Matthau is Kendig, and while he may seem anything but the suave international spy, he's far smarter than anyone chasing him. Beneath that Oscar Madison exterior is someone quite creative with electronic and mechanical equipment, firecrackers, and paperclips.
Glenda Jackson plays Isobel, now retired from the Agency to "marry some old Nazi" who has since departed this mortal coil, leaving her with a very useful "Von" in her last name, an Austrian passport, and sufficient means to join forces with Kendig. This is the second movie the pair co-starred in, and the very offbeat, very adult chemistry they share is not unlike a good glass of wine…complex, but cuts grease. One could say it takes a great actress to make a sex symbol out of Matthau, but she likes the guy, for all his exasperating behavior. If Glenda Jackson likes you, you must be OK.
Rounding out the featured spies, Ned Beatty is Meyerson. He's thoroughly execrable, but doesn't turn the character into a cartoon. Sam Waterston sets intellectual women's hearts aflutter as Cutter (even Eleanor Roosevelt would have liked him), and Herbert Lom is a sly Yaskov, the KGB agent (you will love his omnipresent Boris Badanov hat, trench coat and mustache).
The film has some extraordinary assets beyond its leads.
It was a very smart choice to hire Ronald Neame to direct. Neame brings a continental perspective to the contest between the two Americans. Meyerson is a stand-in for everything the Europeans disliked (and still dislike) about American power. He's a bully, he's unsophisticated, and, worst of all, he lacks manners. No one wants to play with Meyerson (he's one of the few characters who aren't even given a first name). But Hopscotch isn't political as much as it is a little subversive. Kendig (and Isobel, and Isobel's dog) take on stupid, ham-fisted bureaucrats who just happen to work for the CIA. If there's a Deep State, Meyerson is definitely part of it.
Neame does so many things right. There are dozens of small touches. The minor roles are brilliantly cast. Kendig rents a summer house, and the Southern Belle "Mr. Kendig-Honey" real estate agent checks first to make sure he's not a Democrat, and then shows an in-depth knowledge of prostate problems. Kendig's English publisher gets to deliver the classic putdown: "From my reading of the manuscript, you must be Meyerson." When the aristocratic head of British intelligence learns that Meyerson and crew are staying in London at The Hilton, you can almost hear his eyes roll along with his dry "Yes…of course." And the crooks are, quite cheerfully, crooks. There's the riverboat fixer with very quick hands and a keen ear for really bad Southern accents. And a terrific bit between Kendig and a French counterfeiter who provides him with fake passports, driver's licenses, and credit cards. When Kendig protests the price, the man reels with injured Gallic dignity, "Ohhhhh, impossible….Am I not reliable? Do I not deserve some consideration?"
I could go on (about draahvwaays and Jim-Bobs), but the hidden jewel, the thing that ties the whole thing together, is the incredible, witty soundtrack, arranged by the British composer Ian Fraser. Without being obtrusive, and without giving any of the characters an individual motif, Fraser matches mood and action precisely.
Mozart, with his special blend of youthful energy and sophistication, provides most of the superstruture, with the backbone of the score his "Rondo in D," KV 382, It's introduced early, as Kendig is typing his first chapter at Isobel's house in Salzburg, and then recurs strategically throughout the movie, moving back and forth between the bounce of the orchestra and the introspection of the piano solo. Fraser creates a little bit of magic—even though the entire Rondo is only about ten minutes running time when performed straight through you feel like it's always in your ear.
There's more than just the Rondo in D. There's also a bit of Mozart's "Sonata in A," KV 331, to put you in a "Salzburg" mood. And a sprinkling of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" for some romance or contemplation. Add a touch of his Symphony #40 KV 550, and parts of the First Movement of his "Post Horn Serenade," KV 320 to accompany three chase sequences. All great, all perfectly placed.
Perhaps you prefer opera? Done. Try "Largo al factotum" (from Rossini's "Barber of Seville"), as Kendig is stopped by a border guard as he drives into Switzerland. Suffice to say that that, as an opera singer, Matthau was no threat to Bryn Terfel. Then, "Un Bel di Vedremo" (from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly"), as the CIA and the FBI surround (and shoot up) the summer house Kendig rented. In the best tradition of Butterfly, there's a lot of pain inflicted here—to the house, and Meyerson's state of mind. Finally, there's Mozart's mocking "Non Piu Andrai" from "Marriage of Figaro", which accompanies the concluding "dogfight" (if you can call it that) between Kendig's biplane, and a helicopter containing a pistol-packing and pistol-firing Meyerson.
I don't want to spoil the finale for you. Watch that biplane, because eventually, all good things have to come to an end. I would only reassure that, regardless of whatever ridiculous charades Kendig pulls (and in whatever dumb disguises and awful accents), the movie is much more than half as good as I say it is. And Meyerson is still short.
So, I urge you to join our group, and share in our secret passion. We are already amongst you as your spouses and partners, your parents, your children, and your friends. This piece was aided by a granulated breakdown of the soundtrack I received from a friend, who got it from his daughter's middle school music teacher, who got turned on to Hopscotch because it was his parents' favorite movie. See for yourself, with others, or just in a private viewing. And if a desert island venue doesn't seem appealing, you could take it to the South of France for two weeks. Just make sure you check on Joe Cutter before you leave. He's tied to a chair in his room.