So dry that it’s barely a comedy, and yet so irreverent that it’s most definitely not a drama, the winning Hopscotch offers a wry depiction of Cold War-era spycraft. In fact, the most delightful aspect of the movie is the way it treats international espionage as a big business rife with the same sort of bureaucratic inefficiency, professional jealousy, and small-minded vendettas that plague every other industry. Walter Matthau, showcasing the loveable-scamp aspect of his screen persona instead of the rumpled-grouch aspect, plays Miles Kendig, a CIA operative whom we meet on the job in Europe. An old pro who sees all the angles and casually makes deals with his KGB counterpart, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), Kendig has become a relic from the era of gentleman spies. Returning to Washington, he’s belittled and demoted by his crude but politically connected superior, Myerson (Ned Beatty). The idea of taking a desk job doesn’t work for Kendig, however, so he discreetly shreds his personnel file, slips out of CIA headquarters, and returns to Europe so he can be with his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson), and plot his playful revenge against Myerson.
Kendig starts writing a tell-all book about his life as a secret agent, sending copies of early chapters to prominent figures in the global intelligence community. As intended, the book makes Kendig a wanted man, so he commences a merry chase around the globe with the goal of humiliating Myerson as utterly as possible. Employing arcane knowledge, fake passports, and old spy-community contacts, Kendig “hops” back and forth between various locations in America and Europe, leaving clues that mock Myerson and other agents for their inability to catch up with a seasoned veteran. Meanwhile, Kendig keeps sending chapters of the book, with new secrets revealed on each page and the threat of the explosive final chapter lingering over everyone involved.
Deftly written by Bryan Forbes and Bryan Garfield (based on a novel by Garfield), Hopscotch is the sort of lighthearted romp that’s designed to generate perpetual amusement, rather than laugh-out-loud hilarity, so viewers expecting slapstick or verbal fireworks will be disappointed. Similarly, anyone hoping for a replay of the bickering-lovers sparks that Jackson and Matthau struck in House Calls (1978) is due for a letdown, since the actors play characters who are cheerfully conjoined from the beginning of the story to the end. Yet within these diminished expectations, Hopscotch provides a thoroughly pleasurable viewing experience. Director Ronald Neame shoots locations beautifully, the story provides innumerable twists stemming from Kendig’s incredible resourcefulness, and the acting is terrific. Beatty strikes the right balance between buffoonery and competence, Jackson comes across as clever and worldly, Lom is appealingly urbane, Matthau is appropriately rascally, and costar Sam Waterston (as Kendig’s protégé/pursuer) lends a charming quality of conflicted compassion.