Foul Play

Foul Play

While most films can be conveniently boxed up into a single genre, the very best – the most enduring and endearing – are those that seem to combine the very best of many. An “E Pluribus Unum” sort of storytelling philosophy, if you will. The 1978 movie Foul Play fit the criteria of not-quite-fitting-in perfectly.

The film would become a favorite not for originating any grand technique or cultural icon, but for doing every little thing so well. By combining the Hitchcockian elements of intrigue (specifically modeled on The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much) with the slapstick comedy particular to the 1970s and a timeless romance, the movie became a master of the seemingly mundane.

Divorced and depressed, Gloria takes the advice of a coworker to “take a chance” by picking up a mysterious hitch-hiker, Scottie (Bruce Solomon). But the chance turns into risk when Scottie arrives for their date with a fatal knife wound, a microfilm cassette, and a warning to “beware of the dwarf.” The chaos begins in earnest as Gloria attempts to evade the unknown dwarf, a sinister albino, and (it almost goes without mentioning) the Catholic Church.

Into the fray comes Carlson as the Frisco detective caught between his attraction for Gloria and questioning the plausibility of her fanciful stories. For as the bodies pile up around Gloria, they disappear just as soon as she leads the police to the scene. Eventually, the pair unravel a conspiracy to assassinate the Pope while he attends an opera, and there are only mere moments to spare if they to stop the unthinkable from happening.

Foul Play marked the significant big-screen breakout of Saturday Night Live alum Chevy Chase as the clumsy but charismatic Detective Tony Carlson. An all-star cast fleshed out the film’s every scene: Burgess Meredith, Rachel Roberts, Eugene Roche, Marilyn Sokol, Brian Dennehy, and undersized but overachieving Billy Barty. The film also marked the U.S. screen debut of show-stealer Dudley Moore, as the kinky composer Stanley Tibbits. And of course, most notable is the performance of the leading lady, Goldie Hawn (in a role turned down by Mia Farrow), whose Gloria Mundy walked the razor’s edge of comedy and thriller for the length of the film.

But plot aside (and how many times do we say that and mean it?), the fun of the film is found in the details. Two old spinsters quietly play Scrabble with profane expletives. Bible salesman Barty getting thrashed by Gloria who’s convinced that he’s the dwarf. And of course, Dudley Moore’s hysterical dancing to “Staying Alive,” long before the song had been overused in countless other films. It’s more than just attention to detail. It’s the love of it. A love that makes Foul Play fair game and worthy of viewing if you haven’t had the pleasure.

If you are a fan of this quirky 70s comedy-thriller, we’d love to hear all of your thoughts on Foul Play in our comments section below.

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