The Blu-ray format arrived on June 20, 2006 — that’s a whopping 12 years ago for those of you who struggle with mental math — but there is still an abundance of films that have yet to see a release in that format. Ask a physical media collector which movies they’re hoping to see get the treatment and their list will probably begin with the likes of The Abyss (1989) and True Lies (1994), but my wish list is a bit less James Cameron-heavy. For me it’s all about After Hours (1985), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), and a pair of romantic comedies starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.
Seems Like Old Times (1980) is beloved by everyone who’s seen it, and for good reason. It’s sweet, energetic, propelled by stellar turns from Hawn, Chase, Charles Grodin, and Robert Guillaume, and it’s gifted with an incredible wit by writer Neil Simon. It’s so damn good that it doesn’t need me to defend it. Foul Play, though, from 1978, could use the boost.
Look, the ‘70s were a different world. This is the official IMDb plot synopsis, and it’s probably already clear why the film’s the far less respected of the two. Making this today would require swapping out the albino and the dwarf for a blonde vegan and a millennial. It’s every bit a product of its time, but while some of its elements are clearly dated, I’m here to suggest it’s actually a good time at the movies.
I’ll start my argument by pointing out that the film is the brainchild of writer/director Colin Higgins, and if his name doesn’t ring a bell I’m betting his filmography will. He only made five features, but they’re a memorable lot. Higgins wrote Harold & Maude (1971) and Silver Streak (1976), and he both wrote and directed 9 to 5 (1980) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Right?! That’s a fairly brilliant run of comedies, and Foul Play was released right in the middle as Higgins’ directorial debut.
The film is a rom-com at heart as evidenced by the title theme song by the legendary Barry Manilow, and we’re introduced right up front to our two hopeful lovebirds at a party in San Francisco. Gloria Mundy (Hawn) is a recently divorced librarian and Tony Carlson (Chase) is a recently suspended detective — why are they guests at the same party? No clue, but they make eye contact, Tony knocks over a bar’s worth of glasses and bottles to remind you that he’s played by Chevy Chase, and they’re off to the races. By races I of course mean murders, as Gloria witnesses a pair of killings and becomes a target herself of the aforementioned albino, a man with a scarred face, an assassin named Stiltskin, and a karate-chopping nun impersonator.
That should honestly be enough right there to sell you on Foul Play, but I’ll keep talking just in case.
Hawn and Chase are both quite good here with performances teasing their most recognizable comedic assets (at the time) — she’s slightly goofy and he’s only occasionally clumsy — and the supporting cast is equally entertaining, with fun turns from Don Calfa, Brian Dennehy, Chuck McCann, and Billy Barty. Dudley Moore makes his Hollywood debut as a sex-hungry putz who keeps accidentally crossing paths with Hawn’s distracted librarian, and while it’s a small role it was more than enough for Blake Edwards to notice and subsequently cast him as the lead in 10 (1979).
The standout, though, is a lively appearance by Burgess Meredith as Gloria’s landlord. He’s a spunky and spry old man cracking jokes and berating his pet python, but his shining moment comes when he faces off against a middle-aged female baddie named Gerda in a bare-knuckle brawl. It’s one of the screen’s greatest unsung fight scenes. I shit you not.
Film nerds will also enjoy realizing that Higgins packs the film with homages to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. They’re not broad, spoof-like nods like the ones in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1977), but are instead small references in themes, scenes, and locations. A killer tries to strangle Gloria with his scarf before she stabs him (Dial M for Murder, 1954). An assassination is planned to take place during an opera/concert (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). Gloria’s an innocent everywoman caught up in a deadly conspiracy, and no one believes her (just about every Hitchcock film, 1922-1976). Higgins even includes a MacGuffin in the form of a roll of film in a cigarette pack given to Gloria without her knowledge. It’s what the killers want, and Higgins gets so cheeky with it he has the detective ask aloud, “What have we overlooked?” before cutting to the cigarettes on the shelf with a loud music stinger.
I haven’t even mentioned the old ladies playing dirty word Scrabble, that the motivation behind the impending assassination is a belief that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be tax-exempt, or that an audience stunned into silence by the appearance of two dead bodies is spurred into applause by a classic “movie slow clap” from His Eminence the Pope. And the car chase! It’s not even a chase — our heroes are just trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible — but they change cars three times and leave a trail of carnage throughout San Francisco that would make Freebie and the Bean proud.
There’s no denying that Seems Like Old Times is the better of the Hawn/Chase collaborations, but here in the United States of America we don’t have to settle for one thing when we can have all the things. So come on Paramount, announce a Blu-ray release of Foul Play already! This month marks its 40th anniversary, and the people need to see Burgess Meredith kick some ass.