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The Charming “Lithuanian Cary Grant”: Walter Matthau in Hopscotch on Criterion

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By Christopher Weedman.

Walter Matthau (1920-2000) was among Hollywood’s most charismatic stars of the late 1960s and 1970s. During this fascinating period where New Hollywood favorites such as Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and even Woody Allen were becoming sex symbols despite possessing unconventional looks, Matthau parlayed his “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar as the shyster lawyer “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, 1966) and his “Best Actor” Tony as the slovenly roommate Oscar Madison in the original Broadway stage production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (Mike Nichols, 1965; he reprised the role in the 1968 film by Gene Saks) to briefly become one of the era’s most unlikely romantic leading men. The notion of Matthau (who once labeled himself sarcastically in the 1997 documentary Walter Matthau: Diamond in the Rough as the “Lithuanian Cary Grant”) possessing sex appeal was played for laughs by film critic Judy Stone in her 1968 interview of the actor for The New York Times, the title of which invited the $64,000 question, “Matthau: A Sex Symbol or a Jewish Mother?” (D21).

Nevertheless, the seeds of this new persona for Matthau can be seen in Simon’s landmark farce The Odd Couple, where Oscar declares to his fussbudget friend and roommate Felix Unger (played by Art Carney on Broadway, and Jack Lemmon in the film) that “unless I get to touch something soft in the next two weeks, I’m in big trouble” (52). Despite being foiled in his attempted sexual conquest of the giggling Pigeon Sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) by the more sensitive Felix, Oscar boasts many of the qualities that would be the foundation of Matthau’s onscreen romantic persona: a curmudgeonly yet lovable cad, whose sardonic humor and irrepressible charm made up for a distinctive face that film critic John Simon once cruelly cited as looking like “a half-melted rubber bulldog” (290).

Hop 01After playing a series of actual (or, wannabe) Don Juans in popular Hollywood comedies such as A Guide for the Married Man (Gene Kelly, 1967), The Secret Life of an American Wife (George Axelrod, 1968), Cactus Flower (Gene Saks, 1969), Plaza Suite (Arthur Hiller, 1971), and Pete ‘n’ Tillie (Martin Ritt, 1971), Matthau found his ideal onscreen match in the Oscar-winning British actress Glenda Jackson. Their delightful “battle of the sexes” sparring in the intelligent comedies House Calls (Howard Zieff, 1978) and Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980) was a brief but welcome throwback to the celebrated film collaborations of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. In House Calls, in particular, Matthau and Jackson followed the Tracy-Hepburn mold by having Matthau’s “everyman” equally turned off by and attracted to Jackson’s refined “independent woman.” House Calls was issued on a no-frills DVD (boasting simply a clean-looking 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and the original theatrical trailer) from Universal Studios Home Entertainment in 2005, but Hopscotch fairs much better with a recent reissue from the Criterion Collection. Although previously released on DVD by the company in 2002, this release marks the first time that Hopscotch has been issued on Blu-ray. The film remains a charming testament to the excellent onscreen romantic chemistry of these two performers.

Hopscotch is a comedic reworking of Brian Garfield’s Edgar Award-winning espionage novel (adapted for the screen as vehicle for Matthau by the author himself), which was published in 1975 – a year after his most famous novel Death Wish was made into a controversial vigilante thriller starring Charles Bronson and directed by British director Michael Winner. Matthau delivers one of his most enjoyable performances as Miles Kendig, a veteran CIA field agent with a reputation for his intelligence and low tolerance for bureaucracy, which he feels is inhibiting men like himself from doing their jobs effectively. Kendig’s insubordinate attitude rankles his supervisor, Myerson (Ned Beatty), an incompetent and self-serving desk jockey with a penchant for riddling every sentence with expletives. When called into Myerson’s office to explain why he decided against arresting the head of the European arm of the KGB, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), who he caught red-handed trying to obtain microfilm from East German spies at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Kendig does not hesitate using their already tense meeting as an opportunity to get under the skin of his boss. “Hey, Myerson. I thought you were taller. I don’t remember you being short. How’d you get so short?” Kendig quips. “Up yours, Kendig,” Myerson retorts.

Hoe 03In a miscalculated attempt to put him out to pasture prematurely, Myerson demotes Kendig to a desk position. However, instead of accepting his new role, Kendig shreds his own personnel file and decides to humiliate his former supervisor by publishing a tell-all memoir about the behind-the-scenes incompetence and devious practices undertaken by the CIA. After penning the initial chapter, Kendig informs Myerson that he plans to write and disseminate additional chapters to both the allies and enemies of the CIA, before sending the entire manuscript to a publisher. This act of mischievous showmanship instigates an international game of cat and mouse across the United States, Britain, and Continental Europe as Kendig humorously outwits Myerson and his friend and former partner Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston), who are determined to silence him by any means necessary.

Hopscotch is a perfect demonstration of Matthau’s aptitude for both sardonic comedy and action drama, the latter displayed in his gritty world-weary performances in the excellent crime thrillers Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973), The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974). Interestingly, Kendig mirrors the actor’s “last of the independents” character from Charley Varrick: both middle-aged men who see the future of their vocation (espionage/bank robbery) threatened by middle men doing the bidding of larger institutional forces (the CIA/the Mafia). However, as illustrated by Kendig’s love of both Mozart and loudly singing opera off key at every opportunity, he is a man who refuses to live by the rules of others. Among the few to whom he listens is his former associate and lover, Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson), who aids him in his scheme to seek revenge on Myerson. Jackson brings a strength to what could have been a thankless “girl friday” role. In their scenes arguing and sparring with witticisms, one understands that their attraction is just as much intellectual as it is physical. Among their more tender moments is a brief kiss they share as they pass by each other in separate cars, which recalls the car kiss exchanged by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in the French Nouvelle Vague classic Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965).

Hopscotch_TOPThe frantic interactions between Matthau and Beatty deliver some of Hopscotch’s funniest moments, particularly in the scene where Kendig rents the Georgia home of Myerson’s wife (Ann Haney). In an inspired visual gag that film critic Glenn Kenny highlights in his essay that accompanies this Criterion release, Neame shows a recurring image of a framed photo of Myerson in the house. As time passes, Myerson’s facial expression in the photo keeps subtly changing to show his character’s increasing frustration about not being able to find Kendig, who, unbeknownst to him, is living in his wife’s house. Myerson’s comedic outbursts of exasperation recall those of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) in A Shot in the Dark (Blake Edwards, 1964) and the subsequent installments of the original Pink Panther comedy series (1974-93). Admittedly, Kendig boasts an intellectual mischievousness that Dreyfus’ inept subordinate, Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers), lacked, but one can see how the interplay between Kendig and Myerson might have continued in a similar vein if sequels to Hopscotch had been considered. Myerson may have been eventually driven to madness like Dreyfus, who, by the end of The Return of the Pink Panther (Edwards, 1975), found himself in a straightjacket using a crayon through his toes to write “Kill Clouseau” on the walls of a padded room. Coincidentally, the actor who famously portrayed Dreyfus, the Czech-born British star Herbert Lom, turns up in Hopscotch and brings his usual gravitas to his supporting performance as Yaskov, who possesses a reluctant admiration of his former adversary Kendig.

This Blu-ray/DVD release of Hopscotch boasts a new 2K digitally restored print from the film’s 35mm internegative. The print is superior to Criterion’s prior DVD release from 2002 and further draws out the texture of the naturalistic cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson, who also lensed British director Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960). Those who have followed Criterion’s releases over the years may remember the furor over Hopscotch’s prior release. The objections were from a select yet emphatic few who insisted that the company’s self-description as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” should exclude releasing what they unjustly perceived to be a pedestrian Hollywood effort. This initial response conveyed an underlying elitist attitude that Criterion should not waste its efforts on any film not bearing the artistic signature of an art-house master such as Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau. Personally, at the time, I felt that anyone familiar with Criterion’s beginnings on laserdisc should understand that the company possessed a track record of complimenting their more prestigious releases with respected popular titles such as The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963), Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964), and Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), all of which have never reappeared on the Criterion label. The company has continued this policy, as their recent releases of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963), The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979), and Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) demonstrate. This range of releases is admirable, since it subtly reinforces Raymond Williams’ declaration years ago that “culture is ordinary.”

This Criterion reissue will be of particular interest to those who did not purchase the 2002 DVD. However, aside from the improved print, there are, sadly, not enough additional supplements to likely entice others to upgrade. The only new supplement is a 20-minute excerpt from an April 21, 1980 interview with Matthau on The Dick Cavett Show to promote the release of the third remake of the comedy Little Miss Marker (Walter Bernstein, 1980). Those who have seen Matthau’s interviews with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show from the 1970s and 1980s (today seen in nightly reruns on Antenna TV) know that he is an unreliable storyteller with a tendency to embellish his stories with his eccentric humor. His discussion with Cavett is no different. Interspersed with remembrances of growing up on New York’s tough Lower East side in the “Dead End” district (immortalized by Sidney Kingsley in his 1935 play, which was filmed two years later by director William Wyler) are sarcastic comments about having been sheltered by his mother, who was the reason why, in his words, “I didn’t know what a pimp was until I was 38.” Consequently, the Cavett interview is very amusing, but should be taken with a pound (rather than a grain) of salt. It possesses no anecdotes about Hopscotch – except for a humorous anecdote about Jackson calling him out on his profession to be a championship speller (a talent that I recall him once displaying to Carson on The Tonight Show) by asking him to spell “fuchsia.” The actor replied, “f-u-c-k…um, no…f-u-c-h-s-i-a.”

Hop 05In addition, this release carries over the supplements from the previous disc, most notably an informative interview with Garfield and Neame, who, sadly, passed away in 2010 at the age of ninety-nine. Garfield discusses Hopscotch’s evolution from page to screen, particularly in how the film was one of the few times that he was happy with how a novel of his was adapted. Although Garfield does not mention Death Wish explicitly by name, it is well-known how he was displeased with the way the anti-vigilantism viewpoint of his 1972 novel was problematized by Winner and the film’s screenwriter Wendell Mayes. The resulting film disturbed him so much that he penned the follow-up novel Death Sentence in 1975.

The previously-mentioned essay by Kenny does an effective job of contextualizing Matthau’s performance in relationship to his shift from a serious character actor to a comedic star with his roles in The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple. Kenny also extends upon an admittance by Garfield that Hopscotch was inspired by Watergate by arguing that the film is “a comedic coda to such paranoid thrillers of the seventies as The Parallax View [(Alan J. Pakula, 1974)] and Three Days of the Condor [(Sydney Pollack, 1975)]…” More provocatively, Kenny sees the film as foreshadowing future President Ronald Reagan’s political administration, particularly in “how his actual governing and law-enforcement apparatuses were packed with sniveling, spiteful, rearview-mirror-gazing white men with big and little axes to grind, and Myerson is their archetype.”

Lastly, Criterion’s release contains the theatrical and teaser trailers for Hopscotch and, for the most ardent completists, an alternate audio track for the film’s airing on network television. Presumably prepared for the R-rated film’s network television premiere on NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies on October 4, 1982, this alternate track eliminates the profanity-laced tirades of Beatty’s character. Criterion aptly points out that its inclusion will be of particular “interest to those curious about broadcast standards at the time of the film’s release.” Although additional supplements would have helped greater distinguish this new release from the one that Criterion released previously, the film of Hopscotch remains highly recommended.

References

Edelman, Rob and Audrey Kupferberg (2002), Matthau: A Life, Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Simon, John (1967/1971), Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties, New York: Berkley Publishing.

Simon, Neil (1966/1984), The Odd Couple, New York: Samuel French.

Stone, Judy (1968), “Matthau: A Sex Symbol or a Jewish Mother?,” The New York Times 8 Sept., pp. D12.

Williams, Raymond (1959), “Culture is Ordinary,” Conviction, edited by Norman Mackenzie. London: MacGibbon, pp. 74-92.

Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor of Film and Pop Culture Studies in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University. His scholarship and criticism has appeared in Cinema Retro, Film International, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His forthcoming article “A Dark Exilic Vision of Sixties Britain: Gothic Horror and Film Noir Pervading Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s The Servant” has been accepted for publication in a future issue of Cinema Journal.

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