Ronald Neame is a much more important figure than he might at first appear. It’s true that much of his work as director has been efficient but anonymous and there are certainly a few turkeys in his CV - Meteor anyone? But Neame, who turned 97 in April, is one of the few significant figures still alive from the Golden Age of British cinema and, as such, deserves to be cherished and, perhaps, re-evaluated. He began as a cameraman, working uncredited on Hitchcock’s Blackmail and soon became a cinematographer. In the lush pastures of the British film industry of the inter-war years, he worked non-stop, turning his hand to anything from George Formby to Sir Francis Drake. His big break came at the beginning of the war when he fell in with Gabriel Pascal and shot Major Barbara and, subsequently, worked with Powell and Pressburger on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing and Lean on the gorgeous colour cinematography for This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit. His collaboration with Lean saw him produce the classic Dickens adaptations and it was only a row between the two men that led him to strike out on his own as a director. His films as a director were less distinguished than those he produced but he still managed to do excellent work on movies such as The Horse’s Mouth, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, The Chalk Garden and, my favourite, Tunes of Glory. Neame became known as a safe pair of hands who was versatile enough to move from farcical comedy to an Irwin Allen disaster movie via Hollywood musical.
Although his style is usually quite self-effacing, one of the constants of Neame’s work is his ability to get the best out of actors. He managed to wring great work out of Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing and worked fruitfully with Alec Guinness on four occasions. Even in the midst of The Poseidon Adventure - a job of work if ever there was one – his use of Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters made it one of the few disaster movies where you remember the people as well as the calamities.
It’s this skill with performers that distinguishes Hopscotch from a host of other spy comedies. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s sometimes clunky and always visually undistinguished. This is a common problem with Neame’s work, one which was evident right from his early films such as Golden Salamander and it stems from an apparent lack of interest in the way his work looks. He loves performance but you often get the impression that he’d be as happy putting the actors on a stage and just pointing the camera at them. Indeed, there are scenes in the big-budget musical Scrooge where the camera lolls about as if Neame can’t be bothered to direct his sets full of singers and dancers. Hopscotch is filmed in a lot of beautiful places – Salzburg, Munich, London, the Deep South of America – but you’d be better off getting some picture postcards if you want to appreciate what they look like because Arthur Ibbetson’s even, bland lighting makes them all look like airport lounges. Considering that the film is meant to be a comedy thriller, it lacks the visual energy and excitement which you need for a first class thriller – again, a Neame trait as you’ll see if you compare The Odessa File to the much more visually imaginative Day of the Jackal.
Luckily, Neame has assembled both a first rate cast and fine screenplay and, together, they supply the energy which the visuals lack. The film is based on a novel by Brian Garfield and he wrote the screenplay with veteran British filmmaker Bryan Forbes. They have kept the structure of the novel but a lot of work has been done on the dialogue which fairly crackles with unexpected wit. The lines are constantly funny and surprising, although some of the impact may well come from the fact that they are put in the mouths of some brilliant comic actors, none more brilliant than Walter Matthau. As Miles Kendig, a spy whose unceremonious sacking is the cue for an international game of cat and mouse, Matthau is consistently wonderful, whether singing along to opera as he crosses the Swiss border or exchanging wry barbs with Glenda Jackson – who is dumped in the thankless part of his girlfriend but manages to make something of it, particularly a nicely ambiguous introduction scenes. Time after time, Matthau makes a lot out of very little purely through a grimace or a bit of comic timing. The film depends on him to such an extent that it’s unthinkable without him. Backing him up is a fine collection of familiar faces including Sam Waterston, Herbert Lom and, best of all, Ned Beatty who is one of the few actors who can make gratuitous swearing funny – I have long treasured his definition of the FBI as “Fucking, Ball-Busting, Imbeciles!”
Hopscotch was released as a Criterion DVD in the States some years ago on a very pleasing disc. This new Second Sight disc looks and sounds about as good but the review copy had one major problem.
The image is framed at 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. There is some very noticeable print damage throughout, mostly in the form of white popping and minor scratching. But other than this, the colours are bright and vibrant and there’s plenty of detail to enjoy.
The English soundtrack is encoded as mono and sounds absolutely fine with dialogue coming across clearly. However, the soundtrack used for the review disc is that of the bowdlerised television version, hence the 12 certificate. Consequently, most of the swearing vanishes along with most of Ned Beatty’s best lines, including the one quoted above. The Criterion disc has both soundtracks for comparison. Although this alternative soundtrack makes the film more family friendly, it certainly impaired my enjoyment. I am however assured that the retail edition does contain the original soundtrack.
The only extra is a 20 minute chat with Brian Garfield and Ronald Neame. This is very enjoyable with Neame, in particular, coming across very well. They discuss the adaptation and the casting with both men demonstrating pride in their work.
There are no subtitles on the disc.
Hopscotch is an ingenious and likeable comedy-thriller which is very relaxing to watch and leaves you with a big smile on your face. Some of the twists and turns of the plot are unlikely at best but the best moments are priceless - I love the subplot involving Ned Beatty's holiday home. Second Sight's DVD is more than acceptable in technical terms but the pivotal factor will be whether the retail copy includes the original soundtrack.