People are complicated. We contain multitudes! This is why I reject stuff like the Myers-Briggs test, or even those goddamn BuzzFeed-style “which character are you” quizzes. The answer I give you right now may not be my answer tomorrow, so what’s the point? Just accept that everyone is an individual made up of often conflicting thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns.
I think we’ve all accepted this principle to some extent, but when it comes to the way we view our favorite artists, it can be very different. As soon as someone becomes famous for making a particular type of music, film, book, whatever, people tend to want to see them make more of that, even at the expense of growth and evolution in any other direction. There’s often a tension between the way the audience and/or industry sees an artist and who that artist really wants to be, which is why, as soon as a creative type earns enough capital to do whatever the hell they really want to do, they often spend it on a project that roundly challenges expectations. I call this the Razor’s Edge Principle, so named in honor of Bill Murray, who followed up his SNL tenure and the historic smash Ghostbusters with a thoughtful drama titled The Razor’s Edge (which no one wanted to see).
It’s natural, in other words, to want to prove to people that you’re more than one thing, even if they really, really love that one thing. And conversely, I think it takes a certain type of inner strength to accept your own typecasting and even lean into it — to devote an entire career to the pursuit of perfecting the one thing your audience really wants from you. There are numerous examples of this — Jim Varney, who played Ernest P. Worrell across ten films and a television show, fits the description — but I’m only here today to talk about one in particular: Walter Matthau.
Matthau was many things, both onscreen and off — a decorated World War II veteran, a Tony-winning stage actor, a director, a producer, an Oscar-winning star — but what he’s mostly remembered for is his ability to play lovably cantankerous old grumps. He was so good at it, in fact, that even though he got off to a bit of a late start in movies — his first film appearance, in 1955’s The Kentuckian, was released the year he turned 35 — he sometimes played older than he actually was, as he did in 1975’s The Sunshine Boys, playing a vaudeville veteran feuding with his former partner (played by George Burns). The overall effect made him appear aged yet ageless, the type of guy you always expected to see puttering around and mumbling whether he was playing a thief or a baseball coach or a retiree. He turned typecasting into a virtue, making the most of his pigeonhole by using his character type to play a sneakily wide variety of roles.
This sort of versatility in service of predictability is fully, delightfully on display in 1980’s Hopscotch, in which Matthau plays Miles Kendig, a veteran CIA agent whose rather chummy approach to achieving the agency’s goals puts him at loggerheads with his boss Myerson (Ned Beatty). After Kendig allows his KBG counterpart Yaskov (Pink Panther vet Herbert Lom) walk free following a successful sting operation, Myerson takes him out of the field and puts him on filing duty — even though, as Kendig calmly points out, if he got rid of Yaskov, they’d just have to waste resources on developing a relationship with his replacement. Understandably incensed, Kendig uses his new position to obtain access to his own file, which he destroys after swapping it out for a different agent’s, then heads off to Europe.
Kendig ends up in Austria, where he reconnects with his old flame Isobel (Glenda Jackson), then meets up with Yaskov, who listens to his plight and jokingly suggests he while away retirement by writing his memoirs. Inspired, Kendig decides to get his revenge on the agency — and Myerson specifically — by airing all the dirty laundry he’s collected over the years. Although she’s understandably concerned for Kendig’s safety, Isobel agrees to help, starting by mailing copies of his first chapter to a list of intelligence bureaus around the world. Myerson finds out, goes ballistic, and sends Kendig’s protege Cutter (Sam Waterston) after him — and with that, Kendig’s game of hopscotch is afoot.
Although “secret agent” probably isn’t the first role you’d think of for Walter Matthau, he’s absolutely brilliant as Kendig. The stooped body language and cranky demeanor that were his signatures make it easy to believe he’s been in the field for a long time and seen it all, while Matthau’s deft comic touch and flawless timing help further the impression that Miles is never not the smartest guy in the room. He isn’t the type of spy you see scaling buildings and getting in fistfights, but that’s because he doesn’t have to — he uses his wits to run circles around his pursuers, and it’s a deep pleasure to watch. Around it all, he creates a character whose sharp, fizzy banter is almost but not quite enough to disguise his feelings for Isobel and his rage toward Myerson and the intelligence community in general.
Like Matthau’s portrayal of Kendig, Hopscotch is several different things at once. It’s largely a comedy — the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Death Wish writer Brian Garfield, underwent significant rewrites in order to accommodate Matthau — but there are also elements of action, satire, and bleakly dark social commentary at play. Kendig’s initially motivated by bruised pride, but he’s quickly consumed by disgust for an intelligence apparatus that will go to murderous lengths for no other reason than to preserve the status quo. He’s ready to burn it all down, but not merely out of petulance. He’s been radicalized in a way that tacitly reflects the bruised cynicism of the post-Watergate era, and it’s made all the more meaningful because this is a guy who’s getting close to retirement age anyway — he’s no clueless idealist, he’s just had his sense of right and wrong jarred back into focus. It adds the extra layer of incentive Hopscotch needs to keep things moving after Myerson stops wanting Kendig thrown in jail and starts wanting him dead.
Nixon jokes aside, you don’t really need to care about this era of American politics to understand or appreciate Hopscotch. Its real value lies in its ability to provide a forum for Matthau to do what he did best, and on that level, it’s damn near flawless. I’m not sure he and Jackson are really all that believable as love interests, but that’s an exceedingly minor quibble, as her character is basically Kendig’s man in the chair for most of the movie, and their repartee is deliciously sharp during the scenes they share. Waterston is also excellent as a younger agent whose admiration for Kendig doesn’t keep him from seeing his wily mentor more clearly than everyone else at the agency, Lom is reliably superb, and of course Beatty is an outstanding foil, playing Myerson with a combination of puffed-up bravado and impotent fury.
Unfortunately, Hopscotch was more or less the end of an era for Matthau, who’d spend much of the rest of his career in films that weren’t quite worthy of him, and after awhile, seemed to be content to cash checks in exchange for opportunities to hang out with his frequent co-star Jack Lemmon despite the diminishing critical and commercial returns. He’d more than earned the right to do whatever he wanted at that point, however, and like I said before, his screen persona was both aged and ageless — you can watch any one of Matthau’s best films today and they’ll be just about as fresh as they ever were. Hopscotch belongs on that list. I give it four Scheiders out of five.