The best thing about the internet is that some amazing recommendations can come from the unlikeliest places, including random message boards. For instance, I recently found out that long before they made RED, which stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous in the 2010 movie of the graphic novel starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Brian Cox as a quintet of international intelligence old-timers who take on a high-level conspiracy that threatens their lives, there was Hopscotch (1980).
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, Hopscotch is about CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) who is REP – Retired Extremely Pissed.
It all starts in Berlin, where Kendig, one of those older men in grey whom nobody notices, walks into a beer garden and laconically points out young spies to West German intelligence officers while conducting what appears to be an aria in his head. He leaves the main man alone – that is Yaskov (Herbert Lom), head of the KGB, well-known to Kendig for the past 20 years – so he can confront him alone in the street, remind him gently of West Germany’s great dislike of Soviet spies, and retrieve the sensitive information before sending him on his way.
Yaskov tells Kendig that he could make a run for it. As the thought of the two of them chasing each other all over Berlin comes to Kendig’s mind, he shakes his head: “We’d look like Laurel and Hardy!” he says in disgust. Yaskov agrees, hands it over and lives to fight another day.
Unfortunately for Kendig, things don’t go over as smoothly Stateside where his new boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) is the result of a regrettable internal promotion from the “Department of Dirty Tricks”. Clearly, they frowned at showing civility to a Soviet agent at the DDT, because Myerson turns Kendig into a glorified file clerk awaiting retirement for letting Yaskov go instead of bringing him in.
Or rather, Myerson tries. Kendig walks out of Myerson’s office, proudly decorated with photos of him doing manly things like shoot and fish as well shaking hands with Nixon, and coolly destroys his CIA file, hops on a flight to Salzburg, and arrives just in time to take part in a mysterious, extended conversation about the intricacies of wine with a foreign lady. This is Isobel (Glenda Jackson), a sort-of-former lover and definitely-former agent who quit to marry well and is now a well-off widow with a fearsome German Shepherd for a companion.
Isobel knows Kendig’s unexpected visit can’t be a good sign. But even she’s surprised when she finds out Meyerson, a little man with an unpleasant expression who decorates his office with pictures of him shaking hands with Nixon, catching fish, and shooting the camera while cautioning his wife against renting their vacation home out to filthy Democrats, is now his boss:
“See-you-next-Tuesday Meyerson?” she asks.
Kendig isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do now that he’s out of a job (other than listen to all the opera he wants) but a visit of commiseration from Yaskov gives him an idea – he’s going to write his memoirs! Detailing every last, horrifying, gut-wrenching, underhanded operation he’s been involved with over the past 20 years. Of course, this comes with a side effect of possible assassination as Isobel points out (which leads him to make this face), so he decides to send it out, one chapter at a time, to all the major intelligence agencies of the world.
Myerson is incensed enough to launch a manhunt. Especially since the book is mainly interested in exposing his shortcomings, in more ways than one. “Hello, you short person,” Kendig says cheerfully to a photo of Meyerson before he starts on another chapter. “Pay attention, shorty!”
As the CIA and the KGB (Kendig is spilling quite a bit about them as well and Yaskov is naturally interested in the CIA material, recognizing a valuable source of information if only he can get his hands on him) search for him, much to the amusement of the rest of the world, Kendig has found a nice little hideaway in Myerson’s Democrat-free vacation home. One hilarious (seriously!) bout of bad Southern accents later, the local chapter of the FBI is trying to shoot him out.
“I now know what the FBI stands for,” Myerson says bitterly as his beautiful, expensive house goes up in smoke along with his quarry. “Fucking Ballbusting Imbeciles!”
With Matthau singing The Barber of Seville at the Spanish border, a re-engineered Belgian Tiger Moth that glides in a graceful ballet around an infuriated Myerson, dumb sidekicks, loyal attack dogs, and the always-delightful Sam Waterston as Kendig’s protege-cum-replacement, it’s leagues removed from the kind of spy movies we see today. Myerson clearly won the war as far as pop culture is concerned.
But it’s also the reason why Hopscotch is absolutely ageless. And now available on Criterion. So you really have no excuse.