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Foul Play – Marek Piwowski

"Przepraszam, czy tu biją?", reż. Marek Piwowski, 1976, nz. Zbigniew Buczkowski (pierwszy z lewej), Jerzy Kulej, Jan Szczepański, fot. Cezary Jaworski/Studio Filmowe Kadr/Filmoteka Narodowa
Zbigniew Buczkowski (first on the left-hand side), Jerzy Kulej and Jan Szczepański in Foul Play directed by Marek Piwowski, 1976, photo: Cezary Jaworski/Studio Filmowe Kadr/Filmoteka Narodowa

Foul Play is a 1976 action film by Marek Piwowski. The director of The Cruise proved once more that he is a master of creating immensely entertaining films.

In the time of communism, Polish film-makers didn’t really produce many good action films – the most popular ones, such as the series 07 Come In (1976-1987), do have an inevitable charm, but usually you need to take them with a pinch of salt. Against this backdrop, Foul Play is an exceptional work. The story about preparations of a robbery plot monitored by the police is a fine mixture of police cinema and the heist film genre. Piwowski makes the most of inspirations derived from American cinema, but at the same time excellently exploits the local Polish peculiarities.

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The Varsovian thief Belus (Zdzisław Rychter) doesn’t desire the gold of Fort Knox, but the contents of a cash register in Sezam, one of the few department stores in the communist era Warsaw. Before the theft, Belus has to find appropriate collaborators, who will remain cold-blooded in case of any complications. Belus recruits Małolat (Bogdan Kowalczyk), Bimber (Jerzy Górecki) and Szajba (Jan Musiał) for a fictional robbery of a jewelry store, and then anonymously informs the police. This way, the thief wants to check which of his comrades is going to nark, and which one is going to be loyal in the face of crisis. But Inspector Milde (Jerzy Kulej) won’t be fooled so easily – he starts to carefully observe the doings of the criminal. To this end, he uses an arrested student (Ryszard Faron), who wishes to avoid punishment for forging a high school diploma and alleged participation in mugging. Cooperation with the police may help him clean his criminal record. As it turns out, the unremarkable young man knows martial arts, which grants him Belus’s respect, as a result of which he becomes a member of the criminal group.
"Przepraszam, czy tu biją?", reż. Marek Piwowski, 1976, nz. Jerzy Kulej, Wiktoria Litwin, fot. Cezary Jaworski/Studio Filmowe Kadr/Filmoteka Narodowa
Jerzy Kulej and Wiktoria Litwin in Foul Play directed by Marek Piwowski, 1976, photo: Cezary Jaworski/Studio Filmowe Kadr/Filmoteka Narodowa

The film’s Polish title, which can be roughly translated as ‘Excuse me, do they beat people up here?’, is a question the scared student asked in the police station. It may suggest that the theme of Piwowski’s work will be the policemen’s abuse of power. It is not only the thief who doesn’t hesitate when it comes to breaking the law to achieve his aims. The policemen act very much the same. Inspector Milde, a master of psychological games and manipulation, gets people to cooperate with him by means of blackmail and deceit. The student, coerced into taking part in the whole case, doesn’t like these fraudulent methods – he begins to feel sympathy towards Belus and feels bad in the role of an informer. The Machiavellian inspector, who believes evil should be fought with lesser evil, replies to the man’s doubts by saying ‘there is no universal ethics’. Piwowski emphasizes the moral ambiguity of the policemen’s actions, but he doesn’t create a critical portrait of power in a socialist state. He avoids politics by giving the appearance of tackling a universal theme: after watching the film one may have the impression that the dishonest and morally ambiguous manoeuvres of Polish law enforcement officers aren’t much different from the methods of policemen from, for instance, New York. Foul Play undoubtedly emulates American action films from the 70s.

The exceptionality of Piwowski’s work doesn’t rely on neither the political courage nor the moral issues tackled, but his formal mastery and creativity in transplanting the schemes of the genre to Polish cinema. A well-thought out plot and skillful narration are elements which were usually missing in Polish action films. The structure of Foul Play is based on well-known motifs, but the director makes excellent use of local ‘attractions’. There’s no need to have a hypermarket, night clubs, and demonic gangsters to create a fascinating heist film – the department store ‘Sezam’, the bar ‘Maxim’ and rhe diversity of vivid Varsovian thieves (who don’t look particularly dangerous, but are capable of being quite ruthless) is enough. The cast adds to the authenticity of the film, as it is composed mostly of unprofessional actors. ‘Belus’ was convincingly performed by an untrained actor, Zdzisław Rychter, and the police inspectors were played by famous boxers, Jerzy Kulej and Jan Szczepański. The participation of professional sportsmen, brilliant dialogues and excellent usage of Warsaw’s scenery have made Foul Play an iconic work.

"Przepraszam, czy tu biją?", reż. Marek Piwowski, 1976, nz. Marek Matlak, Jerzy Górecki, fot. Cezary Jaworski/Studio Filmowe Kadr/Filmoteka Narodowa
Marek Matlak and Jerzy Górecki in Foul Play directed by Marek Piwowski, photo: Cezary Jaworski/Studio Filmowe Kadr/Filmoteka Narodowa

Foul Play, Poland, 1976. Directed by Marek Piwowski. Screenplay: Marek Piwowski. Cinematography: Witold Stok. Scenography: Bogdan Sölle, Borzysław Chimielewska. Cast: Zdzisław Rychter (Jerzy Kudelski ‘Belus’), Jerzy Kulej (inspector Jerzy Milde), Jan Szczepański (inspector Górny), Ryszard Faron (the student), Bogdan Kowalczyk (‘Małolat’), Jerzy Górecki (‘Bimber’), Jan Musiał (‘Szajba’), Jan Himilsbach (‘Niedźwiedź’ in the ZOO), and others.

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Produced by Zespół Filmowy Silesia. Colour, 82 minutes.
Author: Robert Birkholc, translated by NS, June 2016

Tags: marek piwowskipolish filmaction filmfoul playthe cruise

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