Wednesday, August 5, 2009
You Get What You Get
There are films in life that you love almost because you love the idea of that film, or even just the memory of seeing that film, more than the film itself. FOUL PLAY is definitely one of those for me, a movie that I have such a fondness for that its flaws don’t even really matter anymore and haven’t for years. I was taken to see it when I was a kid and to this day I still wish that there could be more movies like FOUL PLAY made that I could go see. Unfortunately, I think the time for that kind of comedy-thriller has passed and there certainly seems to be a hesitation out there to make a popcorn movie that even attempts to go for a type of style and wit. Now I’m not saying that it’s a perfect movie—to go with my rose-colored glasses take on it which may not be entirely accurate, my recollection of seeing the movie has snow on the ground at the time so it’s surprising to discover that the film was actually released in July of 1978. Now, I did see it at the late, lamented Scarsdale Plaza which at that point was a second-run house, but jeez, how long did this film play for? But FOUL PLAY is still, for me, trapped in time, just like those people at the pre-wedding party that opens the film. Where is this house? Who lives there? Has anybody reading this ever been to a pre-wedding party at a place with that view of the Golden Gate Bridge? But nothing could express my genuine sentimental attachment to this film any more than admitting that because of it I actually have a slight fondness for Barry Manilow. Not too long ago when I had a chance to see him do some performing in a private setting for a television show I showed up just kind of hoping that he’d do “Ready to Take a Chance Again.” He didn’t. Clearly, there’s something wrong with me. Lately I’ve found myself pondering certain possibilities in life, both good and bad, and it makes me think of a film like this which is in no way a great one but I love it as well as the fact that it exists anyway.
Recent divorcee Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) is content to spend her days working in the local library and going to see old movies when a chance encounter with a man named Bob Scott (Bruce Solomon) she picks up on the side of the road leads her into a world of danger when that night at the movies the man drops dead in front of her whispering "Beware of the dwarf!" But he's already passed her his pack of cigarettes which, unbeknownst to her, contain a microfilm that may lead to information on an upcoming political assassination. As it soon becomes clear that several mysterious characters are out to get her she receives help from San Francisco detective Tony Carlson (Chevy Chase) who in spite of being snubbed by her at a party that opened the movie is clearly smitten with Gloria and will doing anything he can to crack the case just as none other than the Pope is arriving in San Francisco for a visit.
FOUL PLAY was the directorial debut of screenwriter Colin Higgins, who, if his script for the earlier SILVER STREAK was an homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST then FOUL PLAY’s chief inspiration would have to be CHARADE (considering Solomon’s strong resemblance to Gene Wilder, this could almost be read as killing off the lead of the earlier film). It may be a bit of sacrilege to say but some of CHARADE is kind of dated these days but as much as saying anything against it might be heresy, not all of FOUL PLAY works flawlessly anymore either maybe because we’ve all seen this type of scenario before, maybe because the vibe of the thing feels so trapped back in another decade (“You’ve gotta drag yourself into the 70s,” Gloria’s best friend tells her) or maybe just another type of film than we’re used to in general. But the charm of FOUL PLAY remains present and it still works extremely well as a lightly enjoyable comedy thriller. The cheery San Francisco setting is part of that charm, but so is the snappy patter of the dialogue that has stayed with me for years ("Look out for the elf!") as well as the obvious chemistry that’s there between the two leads, which makes the overall film more emotionally satisfying after the non-starter romance of SILVER STREAK. The plot pretty much holds together. I think. I’m not sure it really matters. When Chase’s cop needs to learn details to piece together the case he’s pretty much just told everything he needs to know, followed by him explaining everything to Hawn. Certainly not elegant but it is coherent and it clearly tries to keep everything as simple as possible in h ow a few of the key bad guys (including longtime character actor Marc Lawrence) are visually distinctive yet kept almost completely silent all through the film (well, no dialogue for “The Albino”. Lawrence gets a few lines but nothing that you remember). But it still feels a little too constructed—the opening pre-wedding party seems kind of stuck in there, without even a lame excuse given why the male lead happens to be there. When the details of the “Tax The Churches League” are explained near the end, are you really paying attention? Even so, the design of the structure is sharp enough that I can imagine Hitchcock, if he saw actually saw it, nodding his head in approval at how the cigarette pack/microfilm McGuffin is finally discarded in a way that makes it totally inconsequential.
The plot is pretty much discarded in the end anyway in favor of the ‘wacky’ race across town down long San Francisco hilly streets (“Come on, we gotta get to the opera house!” shouts Chase from offscreen, maybe looped in there in case the eight year-olds like myself weren’t following things) in a fairly energetic attempt to combine 70s car-crash hijinks with the more Hitchcockian flair of a large audience watching THE MIKADO with the Pope in attendance. Each time I see it that finale never seems quite as complexly laid out as I think it’s going to be…but I still enjoy it. Granted, all of the comedy throughout doesn’t seem quite as hysterical as maybe it once was and that includes the old ladies playing scrabble, the entire Billy Barty sequence (not that I don't enjoy seeing Billy Barty), “Far Out!” and “Kojak, Bang Bang!” so some of the crasser elements of SILVER STREAK are still present this time around—that said, Colin Higgins (who sadly died of AIDS in 1988) also wrote HAROLD AND MAUDE so he gets a pass until the end of time for pretty much anything.
And there is the added bonus of Dudley Moore as Stanley Tibbets, a character who turns out not to be the strait-laced type he seems at first. The part feels designed to steal the movie (I can remember not being aw are of Dudley Moore’s existence before his first appearance here and the joke still works) and the running gag of his appearances totally succeeds right up to his very last moment near the end of the film. Unlike Richard Pryor’s midfilm entrance in SILVER STREAK, Moore is kept on the outskirts of the plot as strict comic relief so as to never muck up the romance, which comes off as an attempt to fix the one element that never worked about the earlier film. In fact, he’s kept on the outskirts just enough that you could cut together a version of FOUL PLAY that removes his character (and Billy Barty, among other things) and it would still make sense (I think I may have seen a version like this on WPIX in New York decades ago). Even if it’s not perfect, FOUL PLAY for the most part remains hugely enjoyable and when the instrumental version of “Ready To Take A Chance” swells as Chevy & Goldie are out on that houseboat, I pretty much get goosebumps as I remember not only seeing this film long ago but think that it wouldn’t be so terrible to have that music play when I kiss a certain girl. I guess I’m just a softie.
Nearing the end of her 70s run which seems considerably different from her post-PRIVATE BENJAMIN career, this is easily one of Hawn’s best starring roles and a terrific display of her talents. Chase, likable as he is in his first starring role, doesn’t seem quite sure how to always behave in front of the camera just yet (note his brief glance towards us just before the scene cuts away from him to the opening credits) and maybe this is one of the reasons why he never seemed particularly jazzed about the film later on in interviews. The film compensates for any of his insecurities with the actors backing him up in his scenes, particularly Hawn and they do have genuine chemistry. The terrific character actors in supporting roles also include the great Burgess Meredith as landlord Mr. Henessy (his brawl with Rachel Roberts is broad, but still pretty funny), Brian Dennehy as Tony’s partner Fergie (maybe more than anyone else here, doing something with nothing), Don Calfa as Scarface (by my count, there are three actors here who are also in “10”) Chuck McCann as the manager of the Nuart and Marilyn Sokol as Stella who looks so familiar watching this is surprising to see that she hasn’t actually been in more films (looks like she’s mostly worked on the stage). It really is a terrific San Francisco film with the exception of the Nuart, where Gloria attends the film festival near the beginning (showing the nonexistent THIS GUN IS MINE using footage from an actual film) which is of course a well known theater here in L.A. That must have been one very long walk home for Gloria. The layout of the lobby actually still pretty much looked the way it does here up until just a few years ago. The score by Charles Fox is much broader than the elegance Henry Mancini brought to SILVER STREAK but the honest truth is that I’ve seen this film so many times that I don’t think I’d want a note of the music to be any different.
My response to FOUL PLAY these days is admittedly a personal one in terms of how seeing just a few minutes of it brings me back to a more innocent time in life. The film isn’t flawless and maybe it wouldn’t play nearly as well for someone just seeing it for the first time. But it has a comfort level that I can’t deny and I suppose it says something that all these years later as I watch Gloria and Tony take their bows at the end, I honestly find myself hoping that things worked out for them. If the high of that final moment reminds us of anything it’s that sometimes in life, you really do get what you get when you go for it.