After Chevy Chase left Saturday Night Live, his first big project was the film Foul Play, written and directed by Colin Higgins as an homage to the comic suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock often discussed a feature of his films, the MacGuffin, a device of no importance in itself that moves the plot along. In a lecture at Columbia University, he cited this joke as the origin of the idea of the MacGuffin:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” and the other answers “Oh that’s the MacGuffin.” The first one asks “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.
In Foul Play the MacGuffin is a pack of cigarettes with hidden microfilm containing IMPORTANT INFORMATION. Goldie Hawn plays an ingénue named Gloria who is given the pack by an undercover policeman shortly before he is murdered. This sets the bad guys on her trail, making attempts on her life, bringing Officer Tony Carlson (Chase) of the San Francisco Police to her aid. The proof of the “MacGuffin” nature of the pack of cigarettes is shown when ultimately it's casually tossed in a fireplace and burned without the information inside ever being examined or used.
But there is another MacGuffin in the film. That other MacGuffin is the reason I’m writing about the film. It's the Roman Catholic Church.
The film opens with the murder of an Archbishop. We see the clergyman leaving his chauffeured limousine and entering a mansion, apparently his home. A servant asks how his evening went, and he responds, “The opera gala will be a triumph!” He thinks he is alone in his study as he puts a record (The Mikado) on his stereo, but he isn’t. An unseen assailant draws a knife and kills him.
Then we see Gloria and listen as she describes her dating woes to a friend at a party. Her friend urges her to take chances. She takes a chance and picks up a hitchhiker on her way home from the party, who happens to be the undercover policeman mentioned above, and the plot is in motion.
Throughout the film we hear TV and radio news stories about Pope Pius XIII visiting the United States. We hear about his address to the UN where he is warmly welcomed for his message on world peace. We hear of his meeting the President and congressional leaders and sharing a message of brotherly love. We also learn from newscasts that he will be visiting San Francisco, the film’s location.
Eventually, sleuthing leads to the name of the organization that murdered the Archbishop and has made numerous attempts on Gloria's life: The Tax Churches League. This is a rather unique twist for a Hollywood film. Usually the twist is that some mucky-muck or other in the church is the guilty party, but we learn that the bad guys are attacking the church, plotting to assassinate the Pope. (Years earlier, we learn, they had unsuccessfully tried to kidnap Billy Graham.)
Eventually, when the villains have Goldie and Chevy tied up, they explain their plans, doing the monologuing that movie scoundrels so love. “The Pope is a symbol of the vast wealth and corporate power of the world’s churches. The sham of organized religion is robbing true spirituality of its life. We tried years ago to organize a peaceful campaign to tax these corporations, but we were attacked and laughed at and finally imprisoned. We decided to pursue the historically proven path of violence.”
I don’t think you’ll mind too much if I let you know Ms. Hawn and Mr. Chase escape and foil the plan to shoot the Pope at the opera. But when one sees the Pope luxuriating in the prime seats of the theater, and his rather dim response to the violence that eventually erupts to save his life, one can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers share the sympathies of the Tax the Churches League.
But ultimately the silliness of the whole enterprise keeps one from thinking the film has anything serious to say about the state of the church. Still, the Pope in the film is in favor of world peace (quite the bold stand), so we’re giving the Movie Church of the film Two Steeples.
(There is another religious figure in the film. Billy Barty plays a Bible salesman hawking the New American Bible, which happens to be the Catholic translation. But Goldie isn’t in the market.)