Who would win in a fight between Burgess Meredith and Rachel Roberts, if they only had plants to hit each other with? That’s just one of the urgent issues under discussion in writer/director Colin Higgins’ lightweight confection, a sub-Hitchockian thriller that doesn’t get too bogged down in reality. In a very 1978 anything-goes mode, it’s got pet snakes, dope-smoking cops, an assassination attempt on the pope, two songs from Barry Manilow, Dudley Moore dancing to the Bee Gees; it’s a time capsule of past times.
Foul Play has an ideal couple of leads; Goldie Hawn is the damsel in distress, who inadvertently receives a secret film contained in a cigarette box, left by a hitch-hiker who was on the run. Hawn is chased by a number of shadowy figures, and seeks help from a cop (Chevy Chase) who realises that she’s got information that pertains to the proposed assassination of the Pope who is in San Francisco for a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Misunderstandings, car-chases and all sorts of shenanigans ensue, a cosy kind of thriller with time for romance and comedy.
Although he’d been in films for over a decade, this was a break-through movie for Dudley Moore with an American audience, and there’s certainly no amount of embarrassment that he’s prepared to endue for laughs; it’s a running joke that his sexual predilections are accidentally exposed. Hawn is well-suited to her goofy character, and Chase road-tests his wise-guy cop pre-Fletch, always quick to light up a spliff and with a house-boat and dog that does tricks; it wasn’t hard to locate the sweet spot for audiences circa 1978.
Foul Play does suffer from some strange lapses of tone, and the thriller elements don’t always sit right with the broad comedy. But with support from Brian Dennehy and Billy Barty, plus a plethora of Hitchcock devices, from the easy-to-spot McGuffin to the knitting needle-reach-back, this is the kind of Hitchcock-ing North by Northwest thriller that the master didn’t seem to want to make by the 1970’s, and so Higgins’s tribute will do as a cute time-passer.