Walter Matthau Sings! (and Other Delights of Hopscotch)

In the 1966 film The Fortune Cookie, cowritten (with I. A. L. Diamond) and directed by Billy Wilder, Walter Matthau plays Willie Gingrich, a shyster lawyer who, when his TV cameraman brother-in-law is knocked out while covering a pro football game, sees the opportunity to paint his masterpiece, so to speak. The brother-in-law, Harry Hinkle, is a good-hearted schlemiel played, of course, by Matthau’s dear friend and frequent costar Jack Lemmon. Gingrich convinces Hinkle to fake a much more serious injury so both men can clean up in a lawsuit.

During the game of tort cat and mouse, which involves dirty tricks on both sides, Matthau plays Gingrich as tight-lipped, buttoned-up, and ever on the alert. (He stands as straight as a performer whose slouch seems built into his physiognomy can.) But near the end of the film, at the point when he believes he has achieved victory, Gingrich begins to almost dance around his unkempt office, humming and scat-singing an operatic air. It’s from the overture of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville. You know it when you hear it. It goes dat-dat-dat-DAH-dat, dat-dat-dat-DAH-dat, dat-dat-dat-DAH-dat, dat-dah-dat, dat-dah-dat, and so on. Bugs Bunny sings to it in “The Rabbit of Seville” when he’s massaging Elmer Fudd’s scalp. Gingrich adds his own lyrics: “I’m a genius! I’m a genius! Da da da dee dee, a genuine genius!”

And here, perhaps for the first time in what was even then a long cinematic career, Matthau was able to openly express a previously unrevealed aspect of himself: the Walter Matthau with a song in his heart. A genuine opera lover (and expert) in real life, he had not, in his prior roles, been given much opportunity to demonstrate his brio. In fact, The Fortune Cookie was arguably his first comedic leading role. His fifties and sixties filmography is dotted with parts as cynics and sleazebags and out-and-out heavies. He played a TV writer feeding material to the loathsome demagogue Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), a lecherous suburban butcher in Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet (1960), an espionage puppet master in Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), and a ruthless academic booster of nuclear realpolitik in Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964). His comedic roles were relatively few. Then came the one-two punch of The Fortune Cookie and, of course, The Odd Couple (1968), again with Lemmon.

Matthau did not give up serious roles after that. Indeed, his work as an exceptionally resourceful criminal in Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, as a glum cop putting together a seemingly impossible case in Stuart Rosenberg’s The Laughing Policeman, and as a transit police officer matching wits with an implacable terrorist robbery crew in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—pictures made pretty much one after the other in the early seventies—is uniformly inspired. But he had so established himself as a comedic maestro by this time that each of these performances was seen as playing against type.

Hopscotch, the 1980 Cold War espionage romp under consideration here, found Matthau back in full comic flower. The movie was directed by the versatile British filmmaker Ronald Neame on one of his not-infrequent forays into Hollywood (a previous one, several years before, had yielded the blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure). Neame liked to recount that he was semi-snookered by producer Ely Landau into taking on this project. And in the process of being semi-snookered, Neame found himself with Matthau as a star—what luck!—and then persuaded novelist Brian Garfield, from whose book the film had been adapted, to help rewrite the script into something better suited to Matthau’s comic strengths.

Garfield had written the novel Hopscotch, which is not a comedy, as a challenge: he wanted to see if he could craft an espionage thriller that could deliver the suspense goods without a single gunshot being fired. You can see why this self-dare would appeal to him: before Hopscotch, the novel for which he was best known was a little thing called Death Wish, published in 1972 and made into a film in 1975, both of which feature altogether ample quantities of shooting.

As for Neame, who after years as a cinematographer and a producer (most crucially alongside David Lean) made a name for himself as a director with such classics as 1958’s The Horse’s Mouth and 1960’s Tunes of Glory, he was well versed in genre pictures with a comic touch—see his midsixties hits A Man Could Get Killed and Gambit. Hence, the reconcep­tualizing was well within one of his many comfort zones. (Although he did have under his belt an entirely serious quasi spy thriller, 1974’s The Odessa File, with Jon Voight as a young German reporter uncovering a sixties Nazi group.) In any event, for Hopscotch, Neame and Garfield rose to the occasion, and to their star.

The movie even begins with Matthau singing. Trench-coated and characteristically slouchy, he enters a large tent housing a temporary beer hall; he’s in Munich, and it’s Oktoberfest. Climbing up to a wooden balcony from which he can observe the action on the benches below, he oompah-pahs along to a generic German drinking song. Finding the people he’s looking for, he gets out his camera, takes a few shots, and makes his way out of the hall, singing as he goes. Soon he confronts another middle-aged fellow, in a leather coat. This is the Soviet agent Yaskov, played with typically dry sangfroid by Herbert Lom. The two chat—Matthau’s character, CIA fieldman Miles Kendig, has caught Yaskov doing something he ought not, Yaskov knows that the U.S. guy’s got him dead to rights, they exchange what needs to be exchanged, and off they go. No wonder Matthau’s character sings while he works: he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Kendig is nobody’s idea of a superspy, though. He’s not slick. He’s not even smooth. What he is is the smartest guy in almost every room he puts himself in. Intelligence is a key component of the Matthau persona. His incarnation of The Odd Couple überslob Oscar Madison is the only one that makes you believe the character really could be a newspaper writer. In The Fortune Cookie, his due-for-a-comeuppance shyster is a little too smart for his own good. And so on.

Miles Kendig, it turns out, is too smart for his new agency boss, a potty-mouthed functionary named Myerson. “How’d you get so short?” are Kendig’s first words to him, pretty much, on being ushered into the guy’s office after the Munich job. Just as he was able to puff himself up into a Mephistopheles of the globalization gospel in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Network, here Ned Beatty shrinks into the role of a petty bureaucrat. In a sense, Hopscotch is a comedic coda to such paranoid thrillers of the seventies as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor; in another sense, it’s a prophecy of the soon-to-begin Reagan era. Reagan’s own “folksy charm” notwithstanding, 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. Throughout, Hopscotch replaces implacable, steely-eyed Cold Warriors with tired workingmen playing out their roles; without being pretentious about it, the film underscores how the pawns in such supposedly lofty ideological battles are always all too human, far removed from flag-waving grandiosity. Myerson seems more of a groveling yes-man to unseen superiors than any kind of patriotic visionary. And not to harp on Looney Tunes, but watching Kendig and Yaskov chatting amiably reminds me of Chuck Jones’s Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, supposed natural enemies who are shown punching a time clock in their Warner Bros. cartoons.

In their meeting, Myerson dresses Kendig down, rudely accepts a call from his wife to argue about a property concern, and then returns to the conversation to inform Kendig of a demotion. Kendig doesn’t have a fit. No, he calmly goes to the file room where he’s been told he’s going to spend the rest of his CIA life, switches his own file for another man’s, shreds his, and flies to Salzburg. The game of hopscotch is engaged.

But Kendig, having left behind the smart young agent he has mentored, Sam Waterston’s Cutter, needs a new ally. She, a formidably handsome woman and clearly Kendig’s equal in every respect, turns up on the patio of a Salzburg restaurant, giving Kendig advice on a lunch wine; their exchange is strangely formal, always teetering on the edge of double entendre. Neame’s deft direction does not show its hand in this drily insouciant exchange, which was scripted by Matthau himself. (In his delightful autobiography, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, Neame recalls Matthau’s contributions to the screenwriting: “Occasionally . . . he came in with material he had written which wasn’t very good. Brian and I would tell him so, and he’d just say, ‘Okay,’ crumple up the pages, and toss them in the wastebin. There was never an ego problem. But when his material was good, he was his own best writer.”) The two eventually stop the role-playing and greet each other as aging former lovers will, with Isobel, the woman, fondly calling Kendig an “old goat.”

Glenda Jackson had played opposite Matthau in the comedy House Calls a couple of years prior to this picture. That middle-aged romance also found Matthau singing a great deal, most memorably a Rossini aria in the shower, blissfully unaware that Jackson’s character, finally fed up with his resistance to romantic commitment, has stowed his clothes in her freezer. They had remarkable chemistry, and apparently had a blast working together, so she was eager to team with him again, despite the fact that her character, another veteran of the espionage racket, has only about twenty-five minutes of screen time. For all that, the regard the characters have for each other is the glue that holds the movie together. And their banter—with Jackson’s tart briskness of delivery a perfect foil for Matthau’s immaculately timed drawlings—is mostly choice. (The only sour notes the movie hits, almost forty years after its release, are the patronizing slurs Kendig and Isobel use when discussing one of their agency tormentors, an ineffectual dolt who also happens to be in the closet.)

Neame’s touch is brisk and bouncy as Kendig goes globe-trotting, tapping out an incendiary memoir on a portable typewriter and needling Myerson to the point that the aspiring tyrant orders Cutter to kill his former partner. He relishes the comedy but also makes the viewer aware of the danger of what Kendig is doing. Once back in the States, Kendig commits what seems the ultimate indiscretion: he travels to Savannah to rent the very property about which Myerson was arguing with his wife on the phone. Here is a man, obviously, on whom nothing is lost. And Neame, sufficiently appreciative of Kendig’s cheekiness here, takes the movie into a more fanciful realm. Setting himself up for a spell of writing—of course he has put some Mozart on the house hi-fi, and of course he hums and scats and trills along with it—Kendig finds a framed photo of Myerson and places it next to his typewriter, for inspiration. In the photo, Myerson has a tight-lipped smile, an approximation of agreeability. But as the episode continues into some literally incendiary territory, keep watching Myerson’s face.

Neame was not what one would call an auteur. He was born into the business, in a sense—his father a photographer and sometime cinematographer, his mother a silent film actor. His autobiography is not long on the pursuit of personal visions, but it is packed with anecdotes of a lifetime filled with meaningful work. And one whole chapter of it is devoted to Walter Matthau—after this film, they worked together on First Monday in October, an underrated comedy about the U.S. Supreme Court, costarring Jill Clayburgh as the first female justice in that body (the movie was hurried into release in August of 1981, because Reagan had spoiled its novelty value by appointing Sandra Day O’Connor to the real-life court a month before).

Neame’s best films, though, do arguably have a theme in common: the life force. Neame is for it. The Horse’s Mouth, adapted from Joyce Cary’s novel, celebrates it in its hero, Gulley Jimson, played by Alec Guinness (who also scripted the film; the part was, Guinness fans know, of great importance to him) as an outsize and perpetually inconvenient incarnation of anarchic humanity. Tunes of Glory is a terse examination of how military regimentation squashes that spirit. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from 1969, explores similar tensions in a girls’ school at a time of enormous political and social foment. And of course, Neame’s best-known American film, the 1972 disaster picture The Poseidon Adventure, is a survival story that hinges on a paradoxical sacrifice.

Kendig and Isobel, old goats though they may be, assert their devotion to the life force by making a mockery out of Myerson’s ever more desperate attempts to, in Isobel’s word, “obliterate” Kendig. Raging over Kendig’s memoir, Myerson fumes, “It’s his fucking suicide note. The bastard wants to go down in flames, and he wants us to put him out of his misery.” He never realizes that what is happening is just the opposite. Myerson is ever an apocalyptic thinker, while Kendig and Isobel are interested only in finding a place where they can, in the words of Ford Madox Ford, “take their ease in shadows and in coolness.” One, of course, where they can get a good lunch wine as well. That these characters get their wishes fulfilled (sort of) is perhaps the most enduring delight of the film. Apart from the singing, that is.

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