Sunday, March 8, 2009
Every couple of years or so I find myself pulling out my copy of Colin Higgins film Foul Play. One of 1978's biggest hits, the film remains a real winner despite some minor problems and it never fails to bring a smile to my face when I revisit it.
The much-missed Higgins, who passed away in 1988, has sadly just a handful of credits to his name. He’s probably still best known for his incredibly winning screenplay to Hal Ashby’s wonderful Harold and Maude (1971), but certainly his script for the infectiously funny Silver Streak (1976) and especially his direction and writing on the groundbreaking Nine to Five (1980) shouldn’t be overlooked. Higgins was a talented guy and it’s a shame that he only has three films to his credit as director, with Foul Play being the first.
Foul Play was a pretty big hit when it hit theaters in the Summer of 78 and it solidified the big screen American careers of both Chevy Chase and Dudley Moore, two of the most gifted comedians of their time. It also continued a terrific winning streak for the adorable Goldie Hawn, who is seen here just a couple of years past Ashby’s stunning Shampoo (1975) and a couple of years before her role in Private Benjamin (1980) when she would become one of the most bankable stars on the planet.
Shot on location in San Francisco brilliantly by talented David M. Walsh (if nothing else Foul Play is one of THE San Francisco films), the Higgins scripted film concerns Gloria Mundy, a lovable and lonely librarian whose life is turned upside down when she becomes an accidental player in a plot to kill the pope. Along the way she meets and falls in love with Tony Carlson, a smooth and ultra cool detective played with show-stopping charm by Chase, who seems to know this was the pivotal role for him after Saturday Night Live.
There is much to love about Foul Play and it has moments of genius (the chemistry between Hawn and Chase, a karate fighting Burgess Meredith, Dudley Moore’s scene stealing turn and Charles Fox’s lovely score) but it’s overlong at nearly two hours and at times it feels like Higgin’s is in a bit over his head technically as a director. While it might finally play out as a romantic comedy, there is something downright ambitious about the way that Higgins is trying to meld a chase film, broad slapstick and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and finally perhaps it was a bit too much for the first time director, but God bless him for trying.
It’s funny but I found myself watching Foul Play differently this time and I found it to be a more bittersweet experience than ever before. I really miss Dudley Moore and images from his career swept through my head as I watched him run off with everyone of his scenes in the film. I also miss seeing Chevy Chase in quality productions like this. Chase is so handsome, charming and funny here and it really is one of his key roles. I also found myself thinking a lot about Kate Hudson and how I wished she was around in a time where she could get good films like her mom, as the Almost Famous co-star deserves them. To say that I am leery of the proposed remake of Foul Play pairing Hudson with Matthew McConaughey is putting it mildly.
Foul Play may be over-long and too ambitious for its own good and it might show a director still learning the ropes, but damn I love the film. There’s a moment with Chase and Hawn a little more than halfway through the film where Fox’s romantic theme kicks in (a really wonderful French horn driven take on Barry Manilow’s very winning theme song ”Ready to Take a Chance Again”) that gives me more pleasure than most ‘great films’ could ever hope to, and gives me little doubt that I will continue returning to Foul Play again and again.
Along with making some serious bank in 78 nearly all of Foul Play’s main players in front of and behind the camera were nominated for Golden Globes that year but they all came away empty handed. The film was ignored at Oscar time though (what a shock for the Academy to ignore a romantic comedy) save for Fox and lyricist Norman Gimbel for their Manilow penned theme, which also lost.
Hawn and Chase would work together again on the winning Neil Simon scripted Seems Like Old Times two years after Foul Play, and honestly I wish they would have made a few more as they were dynamite on screen partners. Moore would become an eve bigger legend with both 10 (1979) and Arthur (1981) and there really hasn’t been anyone who can match him since. Higgins would score big with his next film Nine to Five but would slip with his final production, 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. His final credit before his untimely death came with a co-writing job with Shirley MacLaine on 1987’s Out on a Limb.
Foul Play is deserving of a special edition DVD but since it is distributed by the notoriously uncaring Paramount this will probably never happen. The current DVD does feature a nice widescreen transfer but nothing else, not even a trailer…a sad state for one of the late seventies most winning comedies.