Diverting in a fleeting, underwhelming way, the new caper movie "Hopscotch" asks us to relish the revenge of Walter Matthau.
Cast as a veteran CIA station chief headquartered in Munich when the story begins, Matthau is ordered back to Washington, insulted and demoted by a pompous superior, Ned Beatty, who dislikes his maverick methods and murses several old grudges.
Placed in charge of the filing section at Langley, Matthau begins to formulate plans for what becomes an elaborate, globe-trotting cat-and-mouse game designed to humiliate the loathsome Beatty. He quietly purloins his own file and leaves the agency, taking up refuge in Salzburg, where he enjoys the hospitality and assistance of Glenda Jackson, a former agent and lover of Matthau's who has inherited the considerable property of her late spouse.
Using his file as a primary souce, Matthau begins writing a sensational memoir, sending off cliffhanging chapters one at a time to all the major intelligence services as well as prospective publisher. Fearing that Matthau has become an opportunistic renegade and intends to discredit the agency, Beatty resolves to stop him at any cost. Once Beatty has taken the bait, Matthau leads him on a fitfully clever chase, the most satisfying gambit being his decision to rent Beatty's country house in Georgia, where he serenely completes a few chapters of the scandalous memoir while arranging the next leg of the chase.
The well-defined personalities and skills of Matthau and Beatty make this rivalry amusing enough to contemplate, although it's never as ingenious, rousing or suspenseful as one might hope. Essentially, it's also an exercise in dueling snobberies, with Matthau as the more likable self-righteous snob.
After the Matthau-Jackson success as a co-starring team in "House Calls," it seems regrettable that Jackson should be confined to an essentially minor, token role in "Hopscotch." Although the film is obviously a vehicle for Matthau, you may find your rooting interest undergoing a curious shift as the plot is spun out. It's fascinating -- and gratifying -- to observe how Sam Waterston, cast as the bemused, level-headed young CIA official who has learned the ropes from Matthau and inherited his post, emerges as the most attractive presence in the movie by simply remaining calm and circumspect. Fond of Matthau but also loyal to Beatty, the Waterston character attempts to mediate between these obsessed, devious mentors.
The more outrageous the older men become in their efforts to deceive and entrap one another, the more you tend to value Waterston's presence as a haven of sanity. His behavior is utterly relaxed. He makes no effort to make a big impression, but his performance is a modest picture-stealer.
Neither Brian Garfield nor Bryan Forbes, who wrote the screenplay from Garfield's novel, will be long remembered for sparkling dialogue and brilliant plotting. Indeed, the whole tangled web unravels rather shabbily at the denouement. Ronald Neame has directed in a straightforward, mildly stodgy fashion that is not likely to reawaken memories of "North By Northwest" or "Charade," but it represents a slight, refreshing improvement on his leaden supervision of "The Odessa File" and "Meteor." While far from a master commercial chef, Neame doesn't make a shambles of the artificial ingredients that go into a concoction like "Hopscotch."