Warning: Huge spoilers for the movie “Hopscotch.” It’s a forgotten classic. Please watch it and then come back to this article if you haven’t seen the movie already.
Hopscotch is a movie of its time and consequently a bit old fashioned. Released in 1980, Hopscotch received bad reviews and flopped at the box office.
Part of the reason for the movie’s failure was its terrible tagline: “He’s about to expose the CIA, the FBI, the KGB… and himself!” It was a dumb, gross joke that completely mis-marketed one of the most intelligent movies of the decade. National Lampoon’s Animal House, released two years earlier, had suddenly redefined comedy into a cruder, more obscene format and the early eighties already had Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and a whole bunch of grosser stuff waiting in the wings. The creators of Hopscotch, an intelligent espionage comedy full of older actors and a complicated international plot, made the mistake of trying to cater to the National Lampoon crowd. They saddled the film with a salacious tagline and an “R” rating (purely for language. Glenda Jackson’s bare shoulder is all we get for nudity)…. and nobody came.
Hopscotch, in a nutshell, is a movie about taking revenge on your boss. The starts out with CIA agent Miles Kendig (played by Walter Matthau being peak Walter Matthau) hanging out at German beer halls and genially intercepting a Russian intelligence agent named Yaskov (Herbert Lom.) Kendig shakes down Yaskov for some microfilm and the two men part ways with no apparent hard feelings. They’re both old spies set in their ways, driven more by their love of routine than their love of country.
Alas trouble is brewing for Kendig. A younger man named Myerson (Ned Beatty) has been promoted to Kendig’s supervisor and Myerson is a complete prick. When renting out his summer house, Myerson specifies to the realter “No kids, no pets, no Democrats.”
Myerson, irritated by Kendig’s complete inability to be intimidated by him, angrily demotes Kendig to a desk job. Kendig refuses to take the demotion lying down and instead shreds his personnel file, quits the CIA and goes dark.
That was apparently easy to do in 1980.
Myerson is furious. He immediately sets forth plans to find Kendig and eliminate him. Kendig’s CIA protegee Joe Cutter (played by a young Sam Waterston pre Law & Order) is more amused than angered by Kendig’s stunt. Cutter, nevertheless, has to follow Myerson’s directives.
The rest of the movie is basically Kendig playing a cat-and-mouse game with the CIA while in the process humiliating Myerson to the utmost degree.
In the end Kendig does not appear to escape the long arm of the CIA. Kendig tries to fly away in a vintage WWII biplane but is shot down by Myerson. We never see Kendig’s body, just the faces of Myerson, Cutter and Yaskov as they see the smoldering remains of Kendig’s plane floating in the sea.
“Sonuvabitch is dead finally,” Myerson says, turning away from the sea and heading back towards the CIA helicopter.
“Sonuvabitch better STAY dead!” Cutter says.
“Pity,” Yaskov replies, walking towards Cutter, “I shall miss him.”
And here’s where things get interesting.
My family and I absolutely love the movie Hopscotch. We have watched it together ever since we first got a TV and a VCR. The videotape of Hopscotch we rented from the video store put the movie in TV format with both ends of the screen chopped off. It was no big loss for most of the film. Missing the full majesty of late seventies fake wood decor and box TVs was hardly a tragedy for cinematic history.
The TV format, however, becomes a huge problem during the climax of the film when Yaskov and Cutter are looking at Kendig’s plane. We are meant to see both Yaskov and Cutter in that moment. Yaskov and Cutter know Kendig well and at that moment they both believe Kendig is dead. In the TV format, however, we only see Yaskov.
Cutter’s expression when he yells “Sunovabitch better STAY dead!” is absolutely necessary for his character arc. He’s yelling because maybe he wants to be heard above the helicopter rotor blades, but it may also be because he is in shock that his friend Kendig is now dead…. and Cutter actively participated in Kendig’s death. We can’t exactly tell what Cutter is feeling in the TV format because the power of the moment is muted. We can’t see Cutter’s face.
Fortunately Youtube has provided a fully — restored cinematic version of Hopscotch that anyone can watch for free. In that version we see the entire screen as it was originally shot…. including the moment when Yaskov and Cutter stare at the wreckage of Kendig’s plane. Yaskov fully believes Kendig is dead and his expression is of resigned melancholy. Pity that Kendig is dead but he- like Yaskov- did not work in a career where there was a high likelihood of a peaceful retirement. They both knew the risks.
Cutter, however, looks like he is about to laugh.
Cutter, with the exception of Glenda Jackson’s character who plays Kendig’s girlfriend, knew Kendig the best. Cutter knows that Kendig would never paint himself into a corner or get himself into a situation that he would not be able to get out of in the end. It’s a game for Kendig. It’s as simple as hopscotch, whether it be grabbing a suspicious pack of cigarettes in Germany or faking his own death over the white cliffs of Dover.
“Sonuvabitch better stay dead!” Cutter yells. Well-played Kendig, he’s thinking, well played…. but stay down. Stay down. Cutter’s expression in that moment oscillates between him wanting to cry and him wanting to laugh. Cutter knows that Kendig isn’t dead, but he also knows that he will never see his old friend again. Old CIA spooks who fake their deaths don’t usually reappear.
You won’t see Hopscotch except on Youtube or possibly the Turner Classic Movie channel. And if you have reached this paragraph I hope you truly have already watched Hopscotch before starting my spoilerific essay. If you haven’t, however, you are in for a treat. I have deliberately not mentioned some amazing scenes.
But make sure you are watching the cinematic version of Hopscotch and not the TV VHS version.