Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hopscotch (Neame 1980)

While I am not surprised to find that Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch (1980) is a deftly crafted comedy, what took me by complete surprise is just how relevant the film remains 30 years after its original release, and 19 years after the conclusion of the Cold War. While the political landscape of the film is clearly that of the late Cold War era, and hence draws upon those tensions for its story, the film in fact is an exploration of political ideology in the broad sense, and its role in the way we choose to live our lives and run as a society, framed in this film within a generation conflict.

The story of Hopscotch is that of CIA agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), a long time field agent who loves his job, only to be confronted with being tied to a desk by the young, incompetent Myerson (Ned Beatty), who cannot stand Kendig and his view of their work as being that of a game. Rather than taking this forced career change, Kendig bolts to Europe and begins to write out his memoirs, full of embarrassing secrets about the CIA, KGB and others organizations. Mailing out the first chapter to his former employers and the KGB, Kendig initiates a worldwide game of hopscotch as he tries to stay ahead of both the CIA and KGB, doing his best to embarrass both in the process.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert gave Hopscotch faint praise and more or less dismissed the film as a lightweight romp, surprising given that the film is anything but. Oh yes, the surface of the film, with its quirky banter between characters, loveable renegade protagonist and well executed series of set pieces might appear to be insubstantial as a film, serving as little more than an escapist fantasy. Yet beneath the surface, Hopscotch is something of an expose about the ideological underpinnings of war, contrasting the beliefs of those on the ground with that of the state.

Kendig is fascinating as a character because of his reasons for being a spy rather than his skills, impressive as they be. Unlike James Bond with his imperialist overtones, or the ever ethically conscious Jason Bourne of modern times, Kendig is totally uninterested in the supposed ideological reasoning for the conflict he and others like himself are caught up in: all he does is play a game, and it is a game he loves. When visiting a Russian counterpart, Kendig reveals that he is not able to act as a double agent for the Russians, not because of any loyalty to the US of A, but because he would be terrible at the “game.” Kendig simply respects players and their level of skill, and the stakes of the conflict only manage to peak his interest rather than acting as a motivator. By all accounts, Kendig could be considered a selfish monster, willing to play a part in any conflict as long as it provides him with the excitement and stimulation he craves.

That Kendig isn’t an out and out monster due almost entirely to that fact that he is honest about this, unlike Myerson. Myerson, like Kendig, is totally driven by selfish pursuits, in this case the desire to move up the ladder of power and maintain his comfortable lifestyle. Unlike Kendig however, Myerson, more likely unconsciously than consciously, tries to hide these drives behind the party line, believing wholeheartedly in the ideological basis for their conflict with the Soviet Union. Kendig’s mission in the film of exposing the hypocrisy, stupidity and emptiness of Myerson becomes one of exposing the hypocrisy, stupidity and emptiness of the supposed ideological nature of the conflict. Kendig knows that the conflict is just a case of showing off before other players, and the anything else reduces the purity of his beloved game.

However, while the filmmakers clearly wish the audience to root for Kendig, he is also not a figure whose interpretation of the world is to be taken without question. Kendig is flanked by two key supporting characters in the film, that of his love interest and reluctant partner in crime Isobel (Glenda Jackson) and Kendig’s replacement Cutter (Sam Waterson, whose appearance here shockingly reminds us that yes, at one time, Waterson was young), who understands Kendig while at the same time chasing him. Like Kendig, both characters share a dislike of stupidity, and a detachment from the supposed seriousness of the world they live in. Unlike Kendig however, they understand fully how dangerous such ideological beliefs can be when acted upon, and thus act as a reminder for the audience, if not for Kendig, that something very real is at stake, even if it is not what fools like Myerson believe it to be.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that Hopscotch is a political treatise, as the film without question is an incredibly fun romp. Gentle in pace and style, the film is a relaxed effort from director Ronald Neame that finds its humour in its characters and witnessing how clever they are in thought and action. Chief among the joys of this is star Matthau who, as ever, is endlessly entertaining to watch, unearthing a youthful cockiness for his role that more than overcomes his physical age and ever harried face. It is something of a shame that my generation will mostly know him as having been the star of Grumpy Old Men and Dennis the Menace, as his older work constantly reminds us that he was an actor that was on par with his frequent co-star of slightly higher acclaim, Jack Lemon, who turned out films of equal greatness late in his career, unlike Matthau.

More than matching Matthau is his co-stars Jackson and Waterson, carefully walking the tightrope of grounding their characters in a sense of realism while absurdly agreeing to go along with Kendig’s plans. Beatty as Myerson is given far less to work with, playing a character that is more of a caricature, but manages to keep his character from becoming too broad despite the easy traps to have fallen into.

Without question, Hopscotch is worth seeing when the opportunity arrives (and like Carnival of Souls, is available for online rental from the Criterion Collection). In fact, it is a shame that Matthau has passed on, as a sequel to this film featuring an even further aged Kendig matching wits with an overly politically conscious and serious spy ala Jason Bourne is ripe with possibilities to extend and expand the thematic framework of this film. Alas, we’ll just have to settle for doing this ourselves.

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