Starring Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Burgess Meredith, Rachel Roberts, and Dudley Moore
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Suspenseful and perennially funny mystery-comedy classic.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the mystery-comedy flourished, and Foul Play stands as one of the best of the genre. In the film, mild-mannered librarian Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) unknowingly stumbles onto an assassination plot when she picks up a hitchhiker. She finds herself the target of vicious killers and doesn’t know why. And, as people drop dead around her, she has difficulty convincing others of the danger because the bodies keep disappearing.
Much of the humor in the film derives from the increasing absurdity of the situations Gloria finds herself in. Because the humor is not based on a set-up/punchline formula, which loses its punch with familiarity, even when the viewer knows the film by heart, it is still funny.
Gloria resembles greatly the kooky blondes that Hawn usually plays, but Hawn performs that role very well. There’s an interesting contrast between Gloria’s superficial flakiness and her underlying ingenuity. She manages to save herself over and over again, showing intelligence, bravery, and resourcefulness. The film displays an interesting undercurrent of feminism. When the police refuse to believe her tale, the script makes it clear that part of the reason Gloria isn’t taken seriously is because she’s a woman. Unable to depend on the police, Gloria must rescue herself. Even when the police finally take over the investigation, she provides the necessary action in defeating the bad guy.
The mystery in the film brings to mind classic Hitchcock films. Here, we have an ordinary person caught up in an extraordinary situation, unable to get the police to believe her. There’s a cigarette pack that acts as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Even the opening shots of San Francisco during the credits recall Vertigo. While Hitchcock’s films were not devoid of humor, Foul Play heightens the potential for humor in the protagonist’s conundrum. However, it also provides a great deal of suspense. The movie features more than a few heart-pounding moments.
If there’s a weakness in the movie, it’s Chevy Chase’s performance as police lieutenant Tony Carlson. Tony, I think, is intended to be raffish and charming. But, as Chase plays him, he’s a smug, irritating jerk, and I can’t help thinking that an intelligent, independent woman like Gloria would have little use for such a puerile boor. Luckily for the film, Hawn and Chase have great chemistry, which balances out the flaws in Chase’s performance.
Hawn, however, gets strong support from Burgess Meredith, as her kind and surprisingly agile landlord; Rachel Roberts; and Dudley Moore. Moore’s role as an unfortunate man who misunderstands Gloria’s request for aid as a come-on may seem superfluous to the plot, but his scenes liven up the proceedings when the suspense threatens to overwhelm the film.
If I were to nitpick, I could point out that the climatic chase through the streets of San Francisco would be totally unnecessary if Tony were to delegate responsibility for apprehending the bad guy. But only an ill-spirited curmudgeon would do something like that. Foul Play is a movie that compels its viewers with its energy and charm to suspend disbelief and rewards them with a rousing, entertaining experience.