Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. Every day Monday-Friday I’ll be reviewing a film I haven’t seen before. Each film will be connected in some way to the film before it, be it by actor, director, writer, etc. It’s a great time to be a film explorer, with TCM’s amazing programming, Netflix Watch Instant’s large library and studios starting up boutique burn-on-demand DVD services for their more obscure vault titles. So, I’m going exploring and I hope you guys will join me on my cinematic expedition.]
Today’s film is Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau! But first it’s time for our Buster Keaton short film, The Goat, which can be found on Kino’s super awesome Buster Keaton Short Films Collections Blu-Ray.
Keaton’s in trouble with the law again. This time he happened to look through the wrong barred window at the wrong time. A murderer named Dead Shot Dan was being photographed and was able to sneakily have Keaton’s face in frame instead of his own. Of course Dead Shot Dan makes good his escape shortly thereafter and Keaton becomes one of the most feared men in the area due to the above photo being plastered on every street corner and on the front page of every paper.
He doesn’t help himself by accidentally throwing a horseshoe at a cop’s face. This one is almost start to finish chase scene leading into chase scene. First Keaton is running from the poor horseshoe cop, hopping onto trains, cars and trolleys that somehow always leave him behind.
But the craziness really starts when you think he’s finally gotten away from everybody. That’s when his photo is printed and everybody runs screaming from this supposedly deadly killer. Keaton plays this gag perfectly, a puzzled look on his features and a worried glance in a mirror to make sure there’s nothing wrong with his face.
I really like it when these shorts go cartoony and this one has a great gag involving an elevator that Keaton commands by manipulating which floor number the arrow above the doors is pointing to. So, if he’s on floor 4 and the elevator arrow is on 7, he steps up onto a chair, drags the arrow to 4 and suddenly the elevator is there.
This magic cartoon logic proves handy as he’s running from the rotund Police Chief, played by Keaton regular Joe Roberts.
Also of note is we see Keaton riding the front of a locomotive train that speeds right up to a stationary camera. This was still years before he made The General.
Highly enjoyable short and a good primer for our big movie of the day:
In the first minute of Hopscotch we see Walter Matthau wandering around Oktoberfest wearing a trench coat, an old man’s smile and a Nikon hanging from around his neck. Even though I’m not one to try to figure out where a movie is going as I’m watching, a scenerio opened up in front of me. “An older American tourist gets wrapped up in a European crime/spy thriller, a Hitchcockian Wrong Man, perhaps,” was went through my mind.
Part of that impression was due to the fact that it was a Criterion disc I was watching. Naturally that meant I was in for some serious cinema, right?
Turns out Hopscotch is as far from a serious, heavy film as you can get. Instead what I found was a light, fun movie about a great spy getting fed up with the bureaucracy and deciding to go AWOL as a means to fuck over his dickhead boss.
Matthau wasn’t a tourist, he’s a spy named Miles Kendig and he was photographing a KGB operation, led by the late, great Herbert Lom. But it’s not a James Bond life or death deal. Matthau confronts Lom in a “I got you this time, my friend” way and I got an immediate sense of their long history together. They were just two tired old agents that have oddly grown to respect and like each other over the course of their duties.
Ned Beatty plays Matthau’s high strung boss at the CIA. Naturally these two don’t get along, so Beatty tries to saddle Kendig behind a desk. This sets off this whole silly movie as Matthau goes on a grand, globetrotting adventure with the ultimate purpose of being a huge pain in the ass of his asshole boss.
That was the big pleasant surprise of the movie. Despite how elaborate everything gets, at the end of the day it’s simply Walter Matthau saying “Fuck you” over and over and over to Beatty.
The biggest source of this “Fuck You” is the promised tell-all book Matthau is writing, revealing all the dirty secrets of the CIA, KGB and all other spy agencies around the world. This makes him a hunted man, but being the best spook around he’s always gleefully one step ahead.
Along for the ride is Kendig’s foreign honey played by Glenda Jackson. She’s also in intelligence and I get the impression that she’s kind of the Honey Rider to Matthau’s Bond. They go way back and have kept it up off and on for years. Now they’re older and he’s playing with fire. She’s at once protective and supportive, knowing he’s never in over his head.
Also of note is a very young Sam Waterston as Matthau’s replacement, a young up and coming agent that is exactly what I imagine Kendig was as a young man. There’s a gleam to his eye as he watches Beatty get more and more furious. He’s enjoying this almost as much as Matthau is.
Ned Beatty’s such a good actor. He’s so easy to hate in this movie and I always respect actors that can play that range. He’s so sympathetic in Deliverance and goofy in Superman (I like Otis, gimme a break) and then here you revel as you watch his blood pressure rise higher and higher as Matthau puts the screws to him.
If I had paid closer attention to the credits I wouldn’t have been so surprised at the light and fun tone of the movie. Ronald Neame directed the film. Neame also directed one of my favorite heist flicks, the Michael Caine/Shirley MacLaine vehicle Gambit. We have a few Neame films coming up and I’m psyched to dig further into his filmography.
Final Thoughts: This surprisingly funny rogue agent tale is a perfect vehicle for Walter Matthau and I can see it ending up on regular rotation every few years. Super enjoyable and populated with a great cast that just feels like they’re having the time of their lives.
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)
TUNES OF GLORY (1960)
HITLER: THE LAST 10 DAYS (1973)
YOUNG WINSTON (1972)
A REFLECTION OF FEAR (1973)
Tomorrow we follow director Ronald Neame over to THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, starring Maggie Smith!
Previous A Movie A Day (2013) Titles: