Hopscotch

Ronald Neame worked as a cinematographer for Michael Powell and David Lean, directed adventure blockbusters like Gambit and The Poseidon Adventure, and from time to time developed a specific kind of quirky comedy, built around strong actors playing bitter-but-playful old cranks. He broke through in 1958 with the artist-in-crisis oddity The Horse's Mouth, starring a gravel-voiced Alec Guinness as an impoverished, half-crazed painter scamming rich folks for beer money. Tapping into the British gift for dry absurdity and the renewed post-Beat interest in romantic bohemian archetypes, Neame spun The Horse's Mouth into a sizable art-house hit. In 1980, coming off the disaster of Meteor, Neame helmed the spy-in-crisis comedy Hopscotch, with Walter Matthau as an exhausted CIA operative who decides to write a tell-all memoir to embarrass his fatheaded, frequently apoplectic boss Ned Beatty. Softer in manner than The Horse's Mouth–a weakness made plainer by the twisting story demands of the espionage genre–Hopscotch doesn't enjoy its predecessor's reputation, though it's clearly of a piece with The Horse's Mouth and a handful of other entries in the spotty Neame filmography. Now that both The Horse's Mouth and Hopscotch are getting near-simultaneous special-edition DVD treatment, an all-but-forgotten mainstay of the British film industry will receive a little due. Neame isn't the deftest stager in the world, but he's unafraid of eccentricity. Both these films are low-key, with plots almost incidental to scenes of singular characters engaging in verbal jousting. Guinness' scruffy artist paints compulsively, maintaining an irrational momentum as he moves from his shanty-like houseboat to the elegant apartments owned by his genuinely admiring (albeit confused) patrons. Hopscotch gets its name from Matthau's constant leaping from one picturesque locale to the next, staying ahead of his former employers while leaving them enough clues to catch up with him and keep the game alive. Neither movie is fall-down hilarious, but each humorously balances the stinging, the genial, and the poignant. The DVDs add short, enlightening interviews with the wizened Neame, and Hopscotch also includes a few words from Brian Garfield, who authored the original novel and co-wrote the screenplay. But The Horse's Mouth sports the most thoughtful bonus feature: a crisp transfer of D.A. Pennebaker's abstract musical short "Daybreak Express." The jazzy, Duke Ellington-fueled impression of life on a New York elevated train screened before The Horse's Mouth during its original New York run, and also mimics the nature of the quintessential Neame protagonist: logic-defying, dizzying, and in perpetual motion.

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