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This article is about the 1978 film. For other uses of the term, see foul play.

Foul Play is a 1978 American comic mystery/thriller film written and directed by Colin Higgins. The screenplay focuses on a recently divorced librarian who is drawn into a plot to assassinate the Pope when a mysterious stranger secretes a roll of film in a pack of cigarettes he gives her for safekeeping.

The film inspired an ABC television series starring Barry Bostwick and Deborah Raffin that aired in early 1981 and was cancelled after six episodes.


Recent divorcée Gloria Mundy is a San Franciscomarker librarian who is encouraged by a friend to leave herself open to new experiences. Her advice prompts Gloria to pick up an attractive man named Bob Scott when she encounters him and his disabled car on Highway 1. She impulsively invites him to join her at the movies that evening, and before they part ways he asks her to take his pack of cigarettes in order to help him curb his smoking. Unbeknownst to her, he has secreted a roll of film in the pack.

That evening, a seriously wounded Bob meets Gloria in the theater and warns her to "beware of the dwarf" before dying. When his body mysteriously disappears while Gloria seeks help from the theater manager, she is unable to convince anyone of what has transpired.

At the end of the following work day, Gloria is attacked in the library by albino Whitey Jackson. She manages to escape and seeks refuge with Stanley Tibbets, a self-proclaimed ladies' man who attempts to seduce her. Shocked by his misunderstanding of the situation, she flees and returns to her apartment, where she is attacked by a man with a scar who demands the cigarette pack Bob had given her. When he attempts to strangle her with a scarf, Gloria stabs him in the stomach with a pair of knitting needles and calls the police for help. When her attacker tries to stop her, he is killed by Whitey through the kitchen window, and Gloria faints. When she awakens, all traces of what has happened have disappeared, and she is unable to convince detectives Tony Carlson and his partner Fergie or her landlord Mr. Hennessy she was attacked.

Gloria is abducted by the chauffeur of a limousine in which she earlier had seen Whitey riding, but she manages to subdue him with mace and brass knuckles Stella had given her. Tony takes her to his Sausalitomarker houseboat, where the two become involved romantically. Upon further investigation, Tony discovers a contract killer named Rupert Stiltskin and nicknamed the Dwarf was under investigation by Bob Scott, a detective who had been working undercover, and he is assigned to protect Gloria from her would-be killers.

When Tony and Fergie discover the limousine is registered to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, they visit the Archbishop, unaware the man they are interviewing actually is the Archbishop's twin brother, who is involved in a plot to assassinate the Pope during his upcoming visit to San Francisco and murdered his sibling in order to impersonate him. He and his assistant Gerda Casswell assure the detectives they will assist them in any way they can.

The following day, Rupert kidnaps Fergie and uses him to lure Gloria into a trap. She manages to hide in a massage parlor, where she encounters Stanley yet again, but then is found and abducted by Whitey and Rupert.

At Gloria's request, Stella has researched an organization known as the Tax the Churches League and discovered it is a radical fringe group that views organized religion as a corrupt and greedy sham involving powerful corporations. She gives her findings to Tony, who returns the Archbishop's residence with Mr. Hennessy. In the basement, Tony discovers the imprisoned Fergie, who informs him Rupert was hired to assassinate Pope Pius XIII during a performance of The Mikado at the San Francisco Opera Housemarker that evening. Tony is attacked by Rupert and kills him in self-defense, but then is held at gunpoint with Gloria by Gerda Casswell. Mr. Hennessy knocks out the fake Archbishop and defeats Gerda in a martial arts duel, and Tony and Gloria race to the opera house.

Backstage, Gloria is grabbed by Whitey, who kills the security guard pursuing them. Tony then shoots Whitey and thwarts the plan to kill the Pope, who thoroughly has enjoyed The Mikado - conducted by none other than Stanley.


Foul Play is an homage to director Alfred Hitchcock, several of whose films are subtly or blatantly referenced throughout the film. The premise of an innocent person becoming entangled in a web of intrigue is one common in Hitchcock films such as The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest and, most notably, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which inspired the opera house sequence in Foul Play. Other Hitchcock films which receive a nod from screenwriter/director Colin Higgins include Dial M for Murder, Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho. In addition, the plot includes a MacGuffin - an object that initially is the central focus of the film but declines in importance until it is forgotten and unexplained by the end - in the form of the roll of film concealed in the pack of cigarettes. Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin and used the technique in many of his films.

The name Gloria Mundy is a reference to "Sic transit gloria mundi," a Latin phrase meaning "Thus passes the glory of the world." It was included in the ritual of papal coronation ceremonies until 1963.

Higgins had written the role of Stanley Tibbets for Tim Conway, but when the actor turned it down he offered it to Dudley Moore instead. It was Moore's American film debut and led to his being cast in 10 by Blake Edwards the following year.

The film was shot in and around San Francisco, in locations including Noe Valleymarker, the Mission Districtmarker, Andrew S. Hallidie Plaza, Telegraph Hillmarker, Hayes Valley, Nob Hillmarker, Pacific Heights, Fort Masonmarker in the Golden Gate National Recreation Areamarker, the Marina Districtmarker, the Presidiomarker, Potrero Hillmarker, Japantownmarker, and the War Memorial Opera Housemarker. The Nuart Theater, in which Bob Scott dies early in the film, is an art house located on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

The film's theme song, "Ready to Take a Chance Again," was composed by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and performed by Barry Manilow. The soundtrack also includes "Copacabana" by Manilow, "I Feel the Earth Move" by Carole King, and "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees. The Mikado, conducted by Julius Rudel, is performed by members of the New York City Opera.

The film aroused some controversy in the albino community for contributing to the filmic cliché of albinos as villains.


Critical reception

Janet Maslin of the New York Times called the film "a slick, attractive, enjoyable movie with all the earmarks of a hit. But as House Calls did a few months ago, it starts out promising genuine wit and originality only to fall back on more familiar tactics after a half-hour or so. If either film had a less winning opening, perhaps it wouldn't leave a vague aftertaste of disappointment. Colin Higgins . . . has aimed for the same kind of thriller-comedy-romance hybrid he attempted in writing Silver Streak, and this time he's much more successful . . . Still, Mr. Higgins isn't a facile enough juggler to keep the film's diverse elements from colliding at times."

Variety observed, "Writer Colin Higgins makes a good directorial bow."

Time Out London stated, "Unsatisfactory as a whole, the film is hilarious and tense in bits" and noted "while writer/director Higgins uses almost every stock thriller device . . . he approaches this semi-parody with more zest and originality than is common."

Channel 4 called the film "a finely tuned and fast-paced offering which is chock-full of black comic twists and perfect casting."

Awards and nominations

Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song but lost to Paul Jabara for "Last Dance" from Thank God It's Friday.

The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy but lost to Heaven Can Wait. Other Globe nominations included Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Goldie Hawn), Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Chevy Chase), Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Dudley Moore), Best Screenplay, and Best Original Song (Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel).


  1. Brooks, Tim and Marsh Earle, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV shows 1946 - Present. New York: Ballantine Books 1988 (Fourth Edition). ISBN 0-345-35610-1, p. 275
  2. Foul Play at Turner Classic Movies
  3. Landmark Theatres website
  4. Albinism in films at
  5. New York Times review
  6. Variety review
  7. Time Out London review
  8. Channel 4 review

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