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 (Goldie Hawn) is a San Francisco librarian. While attending a party, she is encouraged by a friend to leave herself open to new experiences. On the way home, Gloria picks up an attractive man named Bob "Scotty" Scott (Bruce Solomon) when she encounters him and his disabled car on Highway 1. She impulsively accepts Scotty's invitation to join him 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, Scotty has secreted a roll of film in the pack. That evening, a seriously wounded Scotty 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 (William Frankfather). She manages to escape and seeks refuge with Stanley Tibbets (Dudley Moore), a would-be ladies' man who assumes she is picking him up to have sex. Shocked by his misunderstanding, she flees and returns to her apartment, where she is attacked by a man with a scar who demands the cigarette pack Scotty 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 two San Francisco policemen, Lt. Tony Carlson (Chevy Chase) and his partner Inspector "Fergie" Ferguson (Brian Dennehy), or even her landlord Mr. Hennessy (Burgess Meredith) that she was attacked.
Gloria is abducted by Turk Farnum (Ion Tedorescu), the chauffeur of a limousine in which she earlier had seen Whitey riding, but she manages to subdue him with Mace and brass knuckles given to her by her friend and fellow library employee, Stella (Marilyn Sokol). Later, Tony takes her to his Sausalito houseboat, where the two become involved romantically. Upon further investigation, Tony discovers that a contract killer named Rupert Stiltskin (alias "the Dwarf") was under investigation by an undercover detective named Bob "Scotty" Scott, who had received a tip that a major assassination would take place in the city on a certain night. Tony is now assigned to protect Gloria from her would-be killers. Tony and Gloria fall in love and they sleep together at Tony's houseboat.
When Tony and Fergie discover that the limousine is registered to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, they visit the office of Archbishop Thorncrest (Eugene Roche), unaware that the man they're interviewing is in fact the Archbishop's twin brother Charlie, who is involved in a plot to assassinate Pope Pius XIII (played by prominent San Francisco businessman Cyril Magnin) during his upcoming visit to San Francisco. Charlie has murdered his twin in order to impersonate him. 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 Jackson and Stiltskin.
At Gloria's request, Stella has researched an organization known as the Tax the Churches League, and discovered that the League is a radical fringe group, founded by one Delia Darrow and her husband. For the Darrows, organized religion is a corrupt, greedy sham involving powerful billion-dollar corporations. Stella gives the results of her findings to Tony, who returns to the Archbishop's residence with Mr. Hennessy. Sneaking into the wine cellar, Tony discovers the imprisoned Fergie, who informs him that Stiltskin was hired by the Darrows to assassinate the Pope during a performance of The Mikado at the San Francisco Opera House that evening. Tony is attacked by Rupert and kills him in self-defense by toppling shelves of wine upon him, but then is held at gunpoint along with Gloria by the fake archbishop's assistant Gerda Caswell (Rachel Roberts), who is really Delia Darrow.
Darrow then details her "contingency plan" to eliminate the Pope: If His Holiness is not yet terminated at the end of Act I, Whitey Jackson will open fire from one of the auditorium's two organ bays ("He will also open fire should the Pope unexpectedly leave his seat, or if the police arrive in the auditorium," Darrow explains). Mr. Hennessy knocks out Charlie and defeats Delia in a martial arts duel, and Tony and Gloria race to the Opera House, having some unusual problems along the way (such as crashing into an Italian restaurant and commandeering a limo carrying a pair of Japanese emigres). After making it backstage, Gloria is grabbed by Jackson, who kills one of several security guards who have joined the pursuit. An enraged Gloria attempts to attack Jackson, who simply shoves her to the floor. This gives Tony the room he needs to shoot the albino, thus thwarting the plan to kill the Pope. As the performance ends, Gloria and Tony are revealed onstage along with the now-dead bodies of Jackson and the guard, but the Pope, who seems not to have noticed anything unusual, leads the audience in applause for the cast, the orchestra, and the conductor - Stanley Tibbets.Goldie Hawn as Gloria Mundy
Chevy Chase as Lieutenant Tony Carlson
Burgess Meredith as Mr. Hennessey
Brian Dennehy as Inspector "Fergie" Ferguson
Dudley Moore as Stanley Tibbets
Rachel Roberts as Gerda Casswell/Delia Darrow
Eugene Roche as Archbishop Thorncrest/Charlie Thorncrest
William Frankfather as Whitey Jackson
Marc Lawrence as Rupert Stiltskin, "The Dwarf"
Marilyn Sokol as Stella
Billy Barty as J.J. MacKuen
Bruce Solomon as Bob "Scotty" Scott
Don Calfa as Scarface
Cyril Magnin as Pope Pius XIII
Chuck McCann as Nuart theatre manager
Foul Play is an homage to director Alfred Hitchcock, several of whose films are referenced during 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. When Gloria is attacked in her home by a man attempting to strangle her with a scarf and she defends herself with a household object, both are references to Dial M for Murder. Other Hitchcock films which receive a nod from screenwriter/director Colin Higgins include 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.
"Audiences love to be scared and at the same time they love to laugh," said Higgins. "It is tongue in cheek realism. The audience is in on the joke but the actors must carry on as if they were unaware."
The script was originally written under the name Killing Lydia with Goldie Hawn in mind for the lead. Higgins had met Hawn through their mutual friend, Hal Ashby. However the project did not take off. After Silver Streak came out Higgins rewrote the script. He and the producers took the project to Paramount who hoped to star Farrah Fawcett. However Fawcett was in the middle of a legal battle with the producers of Charlie's Angels so in the end it was decided to go with Hawn.
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.
Higgins says when he sold the script he wanted to direct it so badly he did not care who was going to play the lead roles. He met with Farrah Fawcett to play the female lead before going with Goldie Hawn. His first choice for the male lead was Harrison Ford (who had been Higgins' carpenter) who turned it down. Steve Martin was also offered the role but did not end up playing it. Higgins says he offered the part to another actor who wanted to play the cop and Stanley Tibbets. Eventually Chevy Chase was cast.
The film was shot in and around San Francisco, in locations including Noe Valley, the Mission District, Hallidie Plaza, Telegraph Hill, Hayes Valley, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, Fort Mason in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Marina District, the Presidio, Potrero Hill, Japantown, and the War Memorial Opera House. The lobby scenes of the Opera House were filmed in the rotunda of the City Hall across the street. 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 houseboat, "Galatea", was located at 15 Yellow Ferry Harbor in Sausalito.
The film's theme song, "Ready to Take a Chance Again", was composed by Charles Fox, with lyrics by Fox's writing partner, Norman Gimbel and performed by Barry Manilow, who conceived and supervised the song's recording in partnership with Ron Dante. The soundtrack also includes "Copacabana" written by Manilow, Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, and performed by Manilow; "I Feel the Earth Move" by Carole King, and "Stayin' Alive," written and performed by the Bee Gees. Excerpts from Act I of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, conducted by Julius Rudel, are performed by members of the New York City Opera. Arista Records issued the album on LP and cassette, with Intrada Records reissuing it on compact disc in 2009. Varese Sarabande released it in 2016, with Charles Fox's theme for the television series as a bonus track.
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."
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). The film tied Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Godfather Part III for most nominations without a win at the Globes.
In Sweden, the connection to The Man Who Knew Too Much led to the movie being called Tjejen som visste för mycket ("The girl who knew too much"). After that, the Swedish editions of several movies starring Goldie Hawn were given titles starting with "Tjejen som..." ("The girl who...") as a kind of trademark, e.g., Private Benjamin: Tjejen som gjorde lumpen ("The girl who joined the army") and Overboard: Tjejen som föll överbord ("The girl who fell overboard").