Foul Play is a 1978 American comic mystery/thriller film written and directed by Colin Higgins. In it, a recently divorced librarian is drawn into a mystery when a stranger hides a roll of film in a pack of cigarettes and gives it to her for safekeeping.
The film inspired an ABC television series starring Barry Bostwick and Deborah Raffin that aired in early 1981 and was cancelled after six episodes.
Recent divorcée Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) is a San Francisco librarian. While attending a party, she is encouraged by a friend to leave herself open to new experiences. On the way home, Gloria picks up an attractive man named Bob "Scotty" Scott (Bruce Solomon) when she encounters him and his disabled car on Highway 1. She impulsively invites him to join her at the movies that evening, and before they part ways he asks her to take his pack of cigarettes in order to help him curb his smoking. Unbeknownst to her, Scotty has secreted a roll of film in the pack. That evening, a seriously wounded Scotty meets Gloria in the theater and warns her to "beware of the dwarf" before dying. When his body mysteriously disappears while Gloria seeks help from the theater manager, she is unable to convince anyone of what has transpired.
At the end of the following work day, Gloria is attacked in the library by albino Whitey Jackson (William Frankfather). She manages to escape and seeks refuge with Stanley Tibbets (Dudley Moore), a would-be ladies' man who assumes she is picking him up to have sex. Shocked by his misunderstanding, she flees and returns to her apartment, where she is attacked by a man with a scar who demands the cigarette pack Bob had given her. When he attempts to strangle her with a scarf, Gloria stabs him in the stomach with a pair of knitting needles and calls the police for help. When her attacker tries to stop her, he is killed by Whitey through the kitchen window, and Gloria faints. When she awakens, all traces of what has happened have disappeared, and she is unable to convince San Francisco Police detectives Tony Carlson (Chevy Chase) and his partner Inspector "Fergie" Ferguson (Brian Dennehy) or even her landlord Mr. Hennessy (Burgess Meredith) that she was attacked.
Gloria is abducted by Turk Farnum (Ion Tedorescu), the chauffeur of a limousine in which she earlier had seen Whitey riding, but she manages to subdue him with Mace and brass knuckles given to her by her friend and fellow library employee, Stella (Marilyn Sokol). Later, Tony takes her to his Sausalito houseboat, where the two become involved romantically. Upon further investigation, Tony discovers that a contract killer named Rupert Stiltskin (alias "the Dwarf") was under investigation by an undercover detective named Bob "Scotty" Scott, who had received a tip that a major assassination would take place in the city on a certain night. Lt. Carlson is now assigned to protect Gloria from her would-be killers.
When Tony and Fergie discover that the limousine is registered to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, they visit the office of Archbishop Thorncrest (Eugene Roche), unaware that the man they're interviewing is in fact the Archbishop's twin brother Charlie, who is involved in a plot to assassinate Pope Pius XIII (played by prominent San Francisco businessman Cyril Magnin) during his upcoming visit to San Francisco. Charlie has murdered his twin in order to impersonate him. The following day, Rupert kidnaps Fergie and uses him to lure Gloria into a trap. She manages to hide in a massage parlor, where she encounters Stanley yet again, but then is found and abducted by Jackson and Stiltskin.
At Gloria's request, Stella has researched an organization known as the Tax the Churches League, and discovered that the League is a radical fringe group, founded by one Delia Darrow and her husband. For the Darrows, organized religion is a corrupt, greedy sham involving powerful billion-dollar corporations. Stella gives the results of her findings to Tony, who returns to the Archbishop's residence with Mr. Hennessy. Sneaking into the basement, Tony discovers the imprisoned Fergie, who informs him that Stiltskin was hired by the Darrows to assassinate the Pope during a performance of The Mikado at the San Francisco Opera House that evening. Tony is attacked by Rupert and kills him in self-defense, but then is held at gunpoint along with Gloria by the fake archbishop's assistant Gerda Caswell (Rachel Roberts) — who is really Delia Darrow.
Goldie Hawn as Gloria Mundy
Chevy Chase as Detective Tony Carlson
Burgess Meredith as Mr. Hennessey
Brian Dennehy as Detective Ferguson
Dudley Moore as Stanley Tibbets
Rachel Roberts as Gerda Casswell/Delia Darrow
Eugene Roche as Archbishop Thorncrest/Charlie Thorncrest
William Frankfather as Whitey Jackson
Marc Lawrence as Rupert Stiltskin, "The Dwarf"
Marilyn Sokol as Stella
Billy Barty as J.J. MacKuen
Bruce Solomon as Bob "Scotty" Scott
Don Calfa as Scarface
Cyril Magnin as Pope Pius XIII
Chuck McCann as Nuart theatre manager
Foul Play is an homage to director Alfred Hitchcock, several of whose films are referenced during the film. The premise of an innocent person becoming entangled in a web of intrigue is one common in Hitchcock films such as The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest and, most notably, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which inspired the opera house sequence in Foul Play. When Gloria is attacked in her home, she reaches inside her knitting basket and almost chooses a pair of scissors to defend herself -- a reference to Dial M for Murder. Other Hitchcock films which receive a nod from screenwriter/director Colin Higgins include, Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho. In addition, the plot includes a MacGuffin - an object that initially is the central focus of the film but declines in importance until it is forgotten and unexplained by the end - in the form of the roll of film concealed in the pack of cigarettes. Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin and used the technique in many of his films.
The name Gloria Mundy is a reference to "Sic transit gloria mundi," a Latin phrase meaning "Thus passes the glory of the world." It was included in the ritual of papal coronation ceremonies until 1963.
Higgins had written the role of Stanley Tibbets for Tim Conway, but when the actor turned it down he offered it to Dudley Moore instead. It was Moore's American film debut and led to his being cast in 10 by Blake Edwards the following year.
The film was shot in and around San Francisco, in locations including Noe Valley, the Mission District, Andrew S. Hallidie Plaza, Telegraph Hill, Hayes Valley, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, Fort Mason in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Marina District, the Presidio, Potrero Hill, Japantown, and the War Memorial Opera House. The Nuart Theater, in which Bob Scott dies early in the film, is an art house located on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. The houseboat, "Galatea," located at 15 Yellow Ferry Harbor in Sausalito.
The film's theme song, "Ready to Take a Chance Again," was composed by Charles Fox, with lyrics by Fox's writing partner, Norman Gimbel and performed by Barry Manilow, who conceived and supervised the song's recording in partnership with Ron Dante. The soundtrack also includes "Copacabana" written by Manilow, Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, and performed by Manilow; "I Feel the Earth Move" by Carole King, and "Stayin' Alive," written and performed by the Bee Gees. Excerpts from Act I of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, conducted by Julius Rudel, are performed by members of the New York City Opera.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times called the film "a slick, attractive, enjoyable movie with all the earmarks of a hit. But as House Calls did a few months ago, it starts out promising genuine wit and originality only to fall back on more familiar tactics after a half-hour or so. If either film had a less winning opening, perhaps it wouldn't leave a vague aftertaste of disappointment. Colin Higgins . . . has aimed for the same kind of thriller-comedy-romance hybrid he attempted in writing Silver Streak, and this time he's much more successful . . . Still, Mr. Higgins isn't a facile enough juggler to keep the film's diverse elements from colliding at times."
Awards and nominations
Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song but lost to Paul Jabara for "Last Dance" from Thank God It's Friday.
The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy but lost to Heaven Can Wait. Other Globe nominations included Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Goldie Hawn), Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Chevy Chase), Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Dudley Moore), Best Screenplay, and Best Original Song (Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel).