Friday, November 11, 2005

HOPSCOTCH (1980) & THE ODESSA FILE (1974) - Ronald Neame

I didn’t realize I had two Ronald Neame movies on my spy movie viewing list until popping in the first last night. For those who don’t know, Neame is a British director who started out as a cinematographer for greats like Hitchcock and David Lean before coming into his own as a director. He directed the fantastic little gem of a caper film Gambit with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine as well as the star-studded disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure.

Thus, I decided to group Neame’s two flicks together. True, they are both spy related. But they couldn’t be any more different if they tried. One is a light-on-its-feet spy comedy that can only be described as “supremely deee-lightful.” The other is a leaden, slow-as-molasses attempt to make a topical thriller about Nazi bad guys returned from the grave to pursue old SS agendas. I bet you can’t guess which is which.

The Odessa File is, surprise, the Nazi spy thriller. Jon Voight plays a German journalist with a wavering Bavarian accent who literally stumbles onto a conspiracy that pulls everything from supposedly-deceased Nazis to Simon Weisenthal out of the woodwork in order to try to build some topical intrigue. It doesn’t. It’s just embarrassing. From the solemn, self-righteous tone undercut by its jazzy '70s soundtrack to the fourth quarter attempt at twist that just leaves you thinking: “Gee, that might have made me actually care about this movie if you would have just told me that up front.”

I guess in the ‘70s every major actor needed their conspiracy film about a regular guy who gets caught in a web of intrigue. Redford had Three Days of the Condor. Beatty had The Parallax View. Hoffman had Marathon Man. All great films, to say the least. Unfortunately for Voight, a great actor in league with all those guys, he chose the steaming mound that is Odessa Pile. Don’t even bother checking it out. For an infinitely better exhumed Nazi conspiracy thriller, sprint directly to Marathon Man.

Or better yet, to Hopscotch. Sure, it’s more of a spy comedy, but there’s more intrigue in one minute of this tightly-wound comic mousetrap than all 130 minutes of Odessa Pile. The intrigue in question…how is Walter Matthau going to screw with the C.I.A. next?

Matthau plays one of his classic characters here, on par with the crusty curmudgeons in Pelham 1-2-3, Bad News Bears, and Charlie Varrick, but smarter than all combined. He’s CIA veteran Miles Kendig (aka lots of other names) who’s informed after a successful mission by acting chief Ned Beatty that it’s time for him to step down. But Kendig doesn’t take to enforced retirement lightly -- he decides to get even. He rips up his own CIA profile, disappears off the map, hooks up with old flame Glenda Jackson, and starts writing a comprehensive set of memoirs chronicling his time at the CIA and, more precisely, all the fuck-ups that he’s been witness to for the past 40-odd years. To top it off, he mails the memoir chapter by chapter to the CIA and every other intelligence agency around the world.

This brazen move sets off a globe-trotting cat and mouse game wherein the CIA has to find Kendig and shut him down before he completes the book’s final chapter and gets it published. But Kendig’s way ahead of them, finding new and amusing ways at each turn to disappear and infuriate his pursuers even more.

Director Neame’s on much surer footing here with the playful comic tone, the great Mozart selections played throughout, and most importantly…Matthau as his lead. After seeing Gambit and now Hopscotch, I pine for more caper comedies from this man.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Hopscotch -- one of my favorite movies growing up as a kid. One of the first things I taped off of ABC Sunday Night Movie and watched over and over on VHS.

Ronald Neame -- if you like the wise-ass iconoclast stuff, check out his two brilliant gems with Alec Guinness. In "The Horse's Mouth" he plays an abstract expressionist painter living on a housebout -- in "Tunes of Glory" he plays a Scottish Military Bagpipe instructor. Both are Criterion Collection DVDs.