Tuesday, August 29, 2017

HOPSCOTCH: Blu-ray (Avco Embassy 1980) Criterion Collection

There is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose; as Ned Beatty’s baboonish CIA director, Myerson is about to find out when he prematurely retires his number one operative, Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) to a desk job, merely over their personality conflict. Director, Ronald Neame’s cheeky would-be spy thriller/comedy caper, Hopscotch (1980) is regrettably more snooze than sleeper; intermittently charming, but oft idiotic; redeemed only by the presence of Matthau in comedy genius mode, and the inimitable and delicious Glenda Jackson who, despite appearing only sporadically for a total of 25 minutes throughout, nevertheless manages to permeate the ennui of this lumbering ‘chase flick’ with her sultry smarts as Isobel von Schoenberg – a retired MI6 field agent, living obscurely in the Tyrolean countryside. I suspect the chief problem with Hopscotch is it’s left author, Brian Garfield’s shrewdly written and deadly serious spy novel to molder in the dollar ninety-nine book bin (despite Garfield’s involvement in co-authoring the screenplay with Bryan Forbes); trading literary stealth for a tastefully executed, though leaden twist and pursuit of hyperactively tragic comedy vignettes.
The novel’s Kendig was disenfranchised, sullen and vengeful, redirecting his formidable dexterity to outfox and unsettle the CIA’s best efforts to silence him. Matthau’s reincarnation devolves Kendig into just some good-time Charlie out on a lark and a spree, belting his favorite operatic arias off key with a ‘take this job and shove it’ attitude towards his former employers whom he thoroughly delights in taunting.  In hindsight, it’s the audacity of Kendig’s actions that lead to whatever minor chuckles are to be gleaned from his globe-trotting romp; the chutzpah in conning Jacquelyn Hyde’s thimble-headed local realtor and Myerson’s own dipsy wife (Anne Haney) into renting the couple’s summer home, simply to lure Myerson to its location and subversively force his overzealous yahoos to shoot it up. Yet, deprived of these cleverly strung together vignettes, Hopscotch has very little to whet the appetite or effectively maintain either its’ high stakes cloak and dagger antagonistic byplay between Myerson and Kendig or the charmingly obtuse, if highly cerebral love affair between Miles and Isobel.
The thimble of a plot is set into motion when Kendig defies direct orders while on assignment in Munich during Oktoberfest, letting KGB operative, Yuri Yaskov (Herbert Lom) off the hook in a bit of espionage involving a bait and switch of some nondescript microfilm from an East German spy. Yaskov and Kendig regard one another in the highest esteem. Indeed, they are two sides of the same Janus-faced coin; men of integrity, just doing their job for their respective government spy agencies. Too bad for Kendig, Myerson does not see it that way. Withdrawing Kendig from the field, Myerson delights in reassigning him to a desk job; seemingly destined to remain chair bound until Myerson can figure out another way to force Kendig to permanently retire. Kendig’s replacement is Joe Cutter (Sam Waterson); a middling agent who, nevertheless, admires Kendig’s prowess as exactly the sort of seasoned agent he could never hope to become. Kendig wastes no time shredding his personnel files before flying to Salzburg. There, he and Isobel rekindle a former flame. A bit of badinage ensues under the watchful eye of Isobel’s devoted Doberman and blundering CIA agent, Follet (Douglas Dirkson). Yaskov resurfaces for a clandestine meeting with Kendig, offering him a job with the KGB. It’s tempting, though hardly lucrative. Besides, despite Myerson being a royal pain in the backside, Kendig could never be disloyal to the good ole U.S.A.  And so, on Yaskov’s thinly veiled suggestion, Kendig instead elects to write his memoirs, exposing nearly thirty years of dirty work, tricks of the trade and general incompetence within the CIA. Surely, such an exposé will become a best seller. Just as assuredly, publishing one will sign Kendig’s death warrant.
Isobel thinks Kendig utterly mad. Nevertheless, she agrees to mail his completed chapters, one at a time, around the world to various spy agencies in the U.S., Russia, China, France, Italy, and Great Britain; in effect, giving them a ‘heads up’ on the truckload of manure about to hit the proverbial fan. Myerson is outraged, as his blunders and misfires feature prominently in Kendig’s manuscript. At the same time, Kendig approaches publisher, Parker Westlake (George Baker) with the ‘exclusive’ rights. As Kendig predicts, Myerson sets up a not so covert operation to have him assassinated before he can mail out his final chapter, forcing Kendig to go into hiding. Kendig, however, is supremely amused. Myerson has fallen for his bait. Hiring expert forger, Leroy Maddox (Severn Darden) to create a complete dossier of three fake I.D.’s, Kendig assumes the personas of James Butler, Mr. Hanaway and, in his most brazen incarnation, Leonard Ross (the field agent closest to Myerson) to engage them in a globe-trotting game of ‘hopscotch’ – using his alternate identities to travel freely back home; perversely setting up his temporary base of operations inside Myerson’s unoccupied Georgian summer retreat. Deliberately leaking his address, Kendig delights in the firestorm he manages to bring down on Myerson’s home, using time-delayed firecrackers to simulate gunfire and force the CIA operatives to retaliate in kind with bullets and teargas.
Momentarily taking field agent, Leonard Ross (David Matthau) as his prisoner – another defensive maneuver - Kendig next charters a plane to Bermuda. Eventually, he turns up in London to offer Westlake the last chapter and first dibs on publishing his memoir. Fearing the book will equally incriminate him, Yaskov and Cutter exchange information in the hopes of isolating Kendig. But the wily Kendig is already three steps ahead of his competition. Using Ross’ I.D., he purchases a small biplane, outfitting it with a remote control for his final plan of action. In the meantime, Myerson bursts into Westlake’s offices, threatening an injunction to stop the publication of Kendig’s book. Westlake is un-phased by Myerson’s coercion, countermanding it with his own bullying tactics. That evening, as Myerson, Cutter and Ross begrudgingly retire to their hotel rooms to cogitate Kendig ambushes Cutter in his room; binding and gagging his old pal as he quietly reveals the chase is nearly over for all concerned. He also reveals his plans to fly out from a small airfield across the English Channel. This too is a master stroke of misdirection. Meanwhile, Isobel gives Follet the slip and hurries across the Channel by hovercraft for her prearranged rendezvous with Kendig. Regrettably, on the way, to the airfield, Kendig suffers a flat tire and is momentarily incarcerated by the local authorities, who have in their possession a bulletin attesting to his stature as an internationally ‘wanted man’.  
Offering the police officers (Christopher Driscoll and Michael Cronin) Ross’ fake I.D. as proof he is not the man they are looking for, Kendig makes a daring escape by short-circuiting an electrical socket and then stealing one of their police cars. Arriving at the airfield, Kendig is just in time to witness Myerson, Cutter, Ross and Yaskov descending in a helicopter. Hurriedly, he pretends to board his biplane and take off. Myerson takes dead aim and hits Kendig’s plane in the gas tank as it sails over the cliff-side in its attempt to cross the Channel. The tiny aircraft explodes into a million pieces; fiery wreckage strewn into the rolling surf far below. Stunned by what Myerson can only consider his ‘good fortune’, Cutter is more circumspect as he grumbles, “He better stay dead” – an acknowledgement of Kendig’s endgame plans to escape custody. Indeed, Cutter’s assessment is right on the money; Kendig, resurfacing from a nearby abandoned watch tower to destroy the remote control he used to operate his unmanned biplane. Meeting up with Isobel shortly thereafter, the couple departs for the south of France. Months later, Kendig’s explosive memoir hits the stands – a best seller by any barometer.  In Sikh disguise, Kendig amusingly goads a local book seller, plying her with information about the author.   Isobel hurriedly pulls him aside, admonishing his fitful intrigues. Kendig and Isobel depart the shop with a copy of his memoirs tucked underarm for posterity.
Hopscotch is desperately mediocre; a genuine shame since poster art for its general release borrows quite heavily on Bob Peak’s memorable design for Roger Moore’s Bond outing; The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), right down to the hand-drawn profiles of Walter Matthau (in a tuxedo he never wears in the actual movie) and Glenda Jackson, legs similarly splayed in a form-fitting gown a la Barbara Bach’s Agent Triple X. This is where any and all similarities to that iconic Bond flick end. Hopscotch is very second rate even as a comedy caper. Trying to imagine Walter Matthau as the CIA’s equivalent to Bond is next to impossible. He’s more Inspector Clouseau than Bond, if never entirely shaken or stirred from his ‘matter-of-fact’ complacency about leading central intelligence ‘superiors’ (in name only) half way around the world and back again on a wild goose chase; on the whole, very puerile and not altogether entertaining. Matthau and Jackson have good ‘on screen’ chemistry. But she is utterly wasted in this ‘His Girl Friday’ part. Ditto for Ned Beatty, reduced to a clumsy and cloddish lump of nothing. Exactly how he became a director of the CIA remains an even bigger mystery than the one exposed in Hopscotch’s enfeebled plot.  
I am not entirely certain how Hopscotch rates inclusion into what the Criterion Collection calls its “continuing series of ‘important’ classic and contemporary films” since Hopscotch neither started a trend or helped to re-establish an old one. Nevertheless, this Avco Embassy Production has found its way to their Blu-ray catalog in a not altogether satisfying 1080p transfer; advertised as sourced from a new 2K transfer with literally hundreds of age-related dirt, scratches, etc. removed during the clean-up process. Despite the remastering effort, Hopscotch looks quite thick and grainy on Blu-ray. Colors are never natural. The main title opticals are disappointing soft and blurry with very muddy colors. Afterward, the palette favors some vibrant greens and the occasional smatter of red. But flesh tones frequently appear ruddy orange or piggy pink. Whites are never white, but suffer from a slight blue tint. Outdoor sequences are better resolved. But Arthur Ibbetson  and Brian W. Roy’s cinematography always appears wan and wanting for better resolved grain and fine details. Grain is not only thick, but on occasion, almost adopting a slightly digitized appearance. I get it. Hopscotch was not a high key-lit, studio-bound production. Even so, its overall visual presentation here is mediocre at best. Audio is PCM mono – adequate for this movie, if unremarkable by most any standard. Extras: Criterion is getting decidedly thin on the goodies again. We get an excerpt from an interview Walter Matthau gave on The Dick Cavett Show, and a brief – though informative – interview piece with Ronald Neame and Brian Garfield. Curiously, we also get the TV broadcast audio version of this movie; sans profanity to preserve the virgin ears of impressionable kiddies and those Puritanical pundits past puberty who refuse to acknowledge four letter words do exist; though exactly why either should be watching Hopscotch in the first place is beyond me. Bottom line: Hopscotch is disposable and dull. Having seen it once I do not expect to ever revisit it again. Criterion’s Blu-ray is as close to bare bones as the company has dared in a long while. Not impressed. Not by a long shot.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS

2.5

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