by Nathan Sacks
Family Plot is both Alfred Hitchcock’s last film and one of the master’s most atypical works. It’s true that Hitchcock, more than most directors, tended to stick to horror/suspense—a genre he had defined and purveyed for five decades—but his works outside those confines are often forgotten. Films outside that aegis included Mr. & Mrs. Smith (screwball comedy), The Paradine Case (courtroom drama), Under Capricorn (gothic romance), and The Trouble With Harry (recently reviewed here, a black comedy). These films tend to get mentioned least in discussions of Hitchcock, and Family Plot, unfortunately, is not an exception. Hitchcock was not a Howard Hawks-style master of many genres, but these exercises outside of his comfort zone are usually worthy entertainments in their own right.
Monday, May 19
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman, Victor Canning (novel)
Cinematography: Leonard J. South
Editing: J. Terry Williams
Music: John Williams
Cast: Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barvara Harris, William Devane, Ed Lauter, Cathleen Nesbitt, Katherine Helmond
Genre: Comedy / Thriller
US Theatrical Release: April 9, 1976
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Like a lot of final works by older directors, Family Plot does not find the master at the top of his game. This is an audacious and entertaining film with some classic sequences, but in a crowded filmography of masterpieces that include Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, etc., Family Plot is only second-tier Hitch (top-level for any other director).
There are traditional elements of suspense, crime, and murder in Family Plot, but the film is more a dark comedy/caper. Not exactly It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but closer than one may think. It begins bewilderingly, on the face of Madame Blanche (Barbara Harris), a fortune teller in the midst of a “séance,” channeling the voices of an elder woman’s dead relatives. For a while, Hitchcock’s camera stays fixed on Harris’s face. Through a series of dialogue exchanges, it is revealed that the old woman once gave away her dead sister’s baby boy. She now feels regret and wants to find the boy, who would now be in his 40s. The old woman is so wracked with guilt that she offers Blanche $10,000 to find him. Blanche is considerably interested by this offer, and leaves.
She is picked up by her live-in boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern), a taxi driver who researches and feeds her information on clients, thus bolstering her “psychic” abilities. They immediately hatch a scheme to make that $10,000. Lumley is so excited that he barely sees a blonde woman (Karen Black) in the way of his vehicle. Hitchcock’s camera starts following that woman, as she walks into a diamond exchange and silently takes a diamond from a group of men waiting for her. She leaves information about a man she is holding for ransom. At her instructions, a helicopter takes her to safety and the pilot recovers the girl’s hostage, just as she gets in a car with another jewel thief (William Devane) and they make a clean getaway with the diamond.
The viewer is left asking: what in the world does a fortune teller and her grifter cabbie boyfriend have to do with a pair of international jewel thieves and kidnappers? To tell any more would ruin the fun. What makes Family Plot so enjoyable is watching these two pairs inadvertently get in each other’s way despite completely misunderstanding each other’s motivations. This is a comedy about two hustling duos who are completely unaware of each other’s motivations, and become antagonists purely by accident.
Family Plot was one of only two films Hitchcock made in the 1970s. The other was Frenzy, in 1972. It is interesting to see how Hitchcock operates in 1976 in the midst of the guerilla cinema movement and innovators like Coppola, Spielberg, and Altman. There are moments you would never imagine seeing in a Hitchcock film, such as casual swearing. Hitchcock depicts Lumley and Blanche as a happy unmarried couple living together with a healthy sex life (which would have seemed unimaginable to portray even 10 years earlier). In his classic work, Hitch always seemed more comfortable with metaphorical intimations of sex than the act itself (a disposition that seemed less a result of the Hays code and more a reflection of his uncomfortable personal relationship with sex). When Bruce Dern talks about how much he likes Harris’ ass, you can see that Hitchcock is uncomfortable going this far, and this is still much tamer than the era’s Nashville, Taxi Driver, Shampoo, etc.
The major way in which this film reflects its era is in the type of acting. From as far back as I Confess in 1953, Hitchcock had problems working with method actors. Particularly in that era, he tended to favor casting superstars like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, or Henry Fonda, since these actors were so famous and charismatic that backstory was unnecessary. One generally thinks not of Roger O. Thornhill, but rather Cary Grant with the crop duster. Grant and Stewart did not worry about the motivations behind the characters, or how to inhabit them properly, because Grant and Stewart were expected by Hitchcock to inhabit versions of themselves.
So watching Hitchcock deal with a class of actor like Bruce Dern or Barbara Harris is interesting. Dern was hardly a conventional handsome leading man, and came from the Roger Corman school of acting. He brings a fussiness and hyperactive energy to the role that seems out of place in a Hitchcock setting. The real star of this film is Harris, who captivates the screen with a very eccentric, put-on performance as Madame Blanche. Hitchcock loved the way she captured the flightiness and hidden intelligence of this character, which may explain why the film both begins and ends with her looking at the camera. Harris, then most recently in Robert Altman’s Nashville, came from the Broadway rather than Dern’s method acting training, and it is fascinating watching Dern’s flatness play against Harris’ affectedness. What stands out in this regard is a dialogue between the two conducted entirely while they have their mouths full of hamburgers. Again, it is hard to imagine Hitchcock doing this type of thing with Cary Grant, even though Family Plot was written by North By Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman.
William Devane and Karen Black are also good as the jewel thieves, although Black’s character’s sudden bouts of conscience never seem to go anywhere. That is about the biggest flaw of the film overall. Elsewhere, Family Plot is exciting and brisk at two hours, and has at least a few classic Hitchcock shots, particularly in a scene where a gravedigger lifts himself out of a grave and walks towards Dern’s character without him realizing. The other centerpiece of the film is a runaway car sequence where Hitchcock excitingly mixes POV shots with shots of Harris and Dern falling over each other, Harris in particular relishing the physical comedy.
Hitchcock continued working after Family Plot but his health had been deteriorating for a while. His next planned project was a CIA thriller, The Short Night, which had been in development since the late 60s. Unfortunately, he died in the midst of its production. Universal Studios, knowing wisely that no one could come close to reproducing the Master’s style, chose to shutter the film rather than find a new director.
Is Family Plot a worthy capper to the Hitchcock legacy? It certainly isn’t an embarrassment. Like Kurosawa with Madadayo and Fellini with Intervista, the most interesting aspect of the film, more than its relative qualities, is watching a great talent in its twilight. But Family Plot is a fun movie even knowing nothing of Hitchcock. It is a fitting and entertaining ending to a legacy so incredible that it never required one.