My grandmother loved RKO Radio Pictures. I don’t know why she liked that studio above all others, but she did. She used to say that, if she saw that flashing pylon before a movie, she relaxed because she knew she was in for a good show. I have always felt that way about Walter Matthau. The mere sight of his name in the opening titles of a picture fills me with happiness.
While Matthau’s cinematic soul-mate was undoubtedly Jack Lemmon, his co-star in several of the finest comedies of the later 20th century, Glenda Jackson may well be his ideal leading lady. Although they only made two films together (this and House Calls two years earlier), they were the perfect foil for each other. This was a couple, like Hepburn and Tracy, who existed as well-matched equals, going toe-to-toe and swapping insults like a couple of seasoned verbal prizefighters.
Here, Matthau plays CIA agent Miles Kendig while Jackson is his aristocratic girlfriend, and a former agent herself, Isabella von Schonenberg. When Kendig, one of the best field agents in Agency history, finds out that he’s being sidelined to his desk by despotic new section chief, Myerson (Beatty), he refuses to take it lying down.
Instead, he decides go on the run (aided by Jackson) and to publish a book exposing all the mistakes and cover-ups he’s been involved in over the years. In true vengeful style, he pays particular attention to all exploits involving Myerson, but he includes enough dirt on the Russians and the Americans to have both of them chasing him. Whereas Brian Garfield’s original source novel was a standard spy potboiler, screenwriter and some-time director Bryan Forbes has turned the basic story into a sprightly comedy-thriller which sends us criss-crossing the globe as Kendig leads his erstwhile employers on a merry dance. There’s a lot to like in a script which ensures that the main protagonist and his pursuer/protegé (a nicely underplayed turn from Sam Waterston), both spies, have an avowed distaste for guns and violence.
Director Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure) pitches the film as a caper movie, which is exactly where it should be. If you’ve ever wanted to get revenge on your boss for all the petty slights and humiliations you face every day, then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of an inventive set-piece involving Myerson’s house.
Whether it’s the classical music score, inspired by Matthau’s own love of opera, the direction, the script or just the cast, there’s a feeling of understated class about this movie that you don’t seem to experience at the cinema any more. The fact that it runs out of ideas towards the end doesn’t really matter. The fun is all in the going, not the getting there. Matthau rightly won a Best Actor Golden Globe for this film.
On a trivia note, David Matthau, Walter’s son, appears as Leonard Ross, one of the agents chasing Kendig. As a WWII US serviceman (serving in the Airforce, under James Stewart) who lost family in the concentration camps, Matthau refused to travel to Germany to film the opening scenes with Herbert Lom. He only relented when a part was written for his son. The character is named after director Herbert Ross, with whom Matthau had just wrapped California Suite.
British viewers might also recognise one of the policemen near the end as Michael Cronin, who played Mr Baxter the PE teacher in Grange Hill, back when Tucker Jenkins was driving Mrs McCluskey wild.