The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Hitchcock Review: “Family Plot” (1976)

Posted by therebelprince on January 10, 2014

Barbara Harris in "Family Plot"

Barbara Harris in “Family Plot”

Well, dear readers, it’s been a two-year journey to watch (or rewatch) all of the films of the Master of Suspense. For the most part, my project has been quite minimal, really just a capsule idea of each film, but I hope they’ve conveyed a sense of just why we film buffs still love Hitch 90 years after his first film was released. Today, I’m capping off the project with a (much delayed) investigation into his comedic final work. Stick around.

“I told you about danger, didn’t I? First it makes you sick. Then, when you get through it, it makes you very, very loving.”

— Arthur Adamson, Family Plot

Family Plot (1976)

written by Ernest Lehman, from Victor Canning’s novel.

A sham psychic (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) attempt to track down a missing heir, unaware they are going up against a pair of vicious thieves (Karen Black, William Devane).

Near the start of Family Plot, the jewel thieves hide their most recent acquisition in a gaudy chandelier in their foyer. William Devane’s Arthur Adamson gives Karen Black’s Fran a glinting smile: after all, they’re hiding the wages of their crimes in plain sight. And, really, isn’t that a great summary of Hitchcock’s entire body of work? Family Plot is far from critically derided, but it’s generally seen as a lesser work of a director (now 77) no longer in complete control of his abilities. While I have a lot of affection for this movie, watching it for the third time for this review has convinced me of that argument somewhat moreso. I’ll try and document my thoughts in something like a rational order.

Karen Black in "Family Plot"

Karen Black in “Family Plot”

It’s probably easiest to look first at the obvious assets the film boasts, namely the four leading performers. Casting issues in Marnie and Torn Curtain had given way to a kind of lucky-dip casting approach in Topaz, and the director was openly happy to have a team of young but malleable performers in his troupe. (So happy, in fact, that when Devane was suddenly available after turning down the role, Roy Thinnes was unceremoniously dumped, and his scenes reshot!) All four of the leads give vigorous performances, not least Devane, who is a wonderfully naturalistic villain. Hitchcock never really warmed to method actors, but Family Plot is – for the most part – gratefully naturalistic, with Devane and Black being down-to-earth criminals. At one point, they openly discuss cleaning out the toilet in their hostage chamber – a far cry from when Psycho caused a fuss merely by showing a lavatory! Devane’s best scene comes when he has to deal with the police: as a career con man, he’s very adept at handling them; at the same time, he’s just a touch too oily. We get the sense that at some point, a canny police officer is going to come investigating a little closer. Black doesn’t quite get such a moment (which we’ll discuss below) but she has the perfect look for the role, and must’ve been a casting coup for Hitchcock, coming as this was during the middle of her brief period of success.

What Family Plot particularly relishes is having such low stakes. It’s been a while since we’ve had a film almost entirely devoid of death. Fran and Adamson kidnap millionaires, certainly, but they always give them back. And while they continue on their spree, the other half of the film’s plot focuses on people with pettier aims. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern are undoubtedly the heart of Family Plot (really, outside of Cathleen Nesbitt as the lonely Julia Rainbird, there are only four characters of note in the film) and they both bring their A-Game. Toothy Dern – at the start of a long and prosperous career – effortlessly captures the taxi driver George Lumley, gradually impatient at waiting for the fruits of his girlfriend’s crimes, but unable to get out of this world entirely. The relationship of George and Blanche is particularly interesting: he’s more than a little jealous, she’s often quite taunting, and they’re both naturally prickly people. Speaking of Harris, she’s the light of the film, parlaying her famously bonkers persona into a tailor-made role as a wacky woman who pretends to be even wackier than she is for profit. A highly acclaimed theatre actress in the ’60s, Harris tackles the divination sequences with aplomb, changing voices and writhing around the room with full conviction. (The moment when she sneaks away from a session to argue with Dern, while occasionally making loud moans to assuage her client, is great fun.) In fact, both couples have wonderful chemistry that really sells their relationships.

The first third of the movie takes its time to set up the plot strands (there are only four scenes in the first 25 minutes), yet never feels languid. We emerge knowing only that Devane and Black are getting increasingly risky in their capers, and that Harris and Dern are now on the trail of a missing heir with whom they have scant clues. It’s a clever setup by Lehman (and Hitchcock, who continued his long-time interest in the scripting process) which nevertheless is always willing to play with silence. Throughout the film – although rarely when “Madame” Blanche is around – silence pervades. It’s an unusual marriage of styles, in many ways. There’s a good deal of naturalism, such as when Blanche and George sit around arguing while they eat; we can’t always understand what Blanche is saying and, at one point, Bruce Dern loses a bit of food, picks it out of his lap, and eats it again. Yet Hitchcock’s direction certainly feels stagnant for the late ’70s when Robert Altman’s roaming camera was coming into fashion, and John Williams(!) gives us a quirky musical score that is perfectly in keeping with the film’s tone but nonetheless very “cute”.

Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern in "Family Plot"

Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern in “Family Plot”

Let’s step back a little, then, and try and explain why this film isn’t loved. What Family Plot lacks, for all its frivolity, is a sense of particularly prominent direction. For the most part, the film’s camera is quite happy just capturing what’s going on. There’s only one extravagant sequence (a car chase) and even then, while Hitch cleverly prohibits us from seeing outside the car to create a dizzying vibe, it’s still not particularly distinguished. (While the scene is clearly spoofing chases of the era, it’s a moment where the comedy with Harris falls a bit flat.) The director uses an impressive palette of colours, from the greens of the cemetery to increasingly direct whites and greys during a very funny montage sequence, but nowhere is there the kind of light and immaculate framing that characterised vaguely similar films like The Trouble with Harry or Shadow of a Doubt. It’s notable that Lehman and Hitchcock reportedly disagreed about the nature of the film: Lehman saw it as being dark like the book, whereas Hitchcock – like many creatives in their twilight years – kept seeing the lighter side of life. Lehman’s dialogue is rarely catchy or startling either. In fact, while some critics wrongly see Frenzy as an excessive screw-you to the censors, I have always argued that the tone of that film is in keeping with the themes. Here, rather, some of the unpleasant exchanges between George and Blanche seem to exist for solely that reason.

There are certainly elements that don’t work – the film’s sole death in a car crash comes across as arbitrary, complete with a stock screaming sound effect – but what I see here is a film where script and director are working in harmony (for the most part) with a bunch of game actors. If there is a problem, it’s exactly what I suggested at the start: Family Plot can’t be a great film because its director is no longer the flippant master craftsman he was for so many decades. A scene that stands out for me is at the midpoint of the film, when Blanche and George journey to an out-of-the-way diner to meet with their one connection to the missing Edward Shoebridge, a criminal named Moloney (played by the reliable, ever-employed character actor Ed Lauter). In truth, Moloney (a mechanic) is out the back dicing their car’s brakes, but the pair wait inside a Hitchcockian space where every passer-by has their won story to tell. The waitress possibly owns the place, and she’s not very keen on the pair for some reason. Meanwhile, a young priest arrives with a group of children, buying them all a thickshake… which we realise is an excuse for him to meet a bodacious young babe. While the slow pace of the scene creates a worrying sense in our mind of what will happen to our heroes, it feels nowhere near as manic as a similar scene would’ve in the director’s glory days. (The priest’s lechery, however, is at least thematically appropriate.)

Still, I’m hammering on about things that don’t matter. Family Plot may not be the (pardon the pun) jewel in Hitchcock’s crown, but it’s a film I rank quite highly amongst his works. Like all of the director’s late classics – Vertigo, The Birds, Marnie, Frenzy – it’s thematically tight. From the opening (yet another self-consciously grand credit sequence, as flashes of curtains reveal Madame Blanche’s head inside a crystal ball), we’re plunged into a world of falsity – Hitchcock’s head appeared on the film’s poster, winking inside a crystal ball – and this idea of false identities parades through the film, especially in Karen Black’s self-referential blonde wig, surely a callback to Marnie and the quintessential Hitchcock blonde.

Family PlotPerhaps some of the issues with Hitchcock as director are that he seemed to approach much of this film as a writer. The opening scene is just great overall, with Harris and Nesbitt perfectly on-form, ethereal music that’s just demanding not to be taken seriously, and a smart capturing of both characters.  There are lots of neat little character touches such as the handkerchief perpetually clutched by the elderly Mrs. Rainbird, or the moment when George stumbles over a grave and then instinctively apologises to it. Cary Grant would never have apologised to a grave – but then again, he would always have had the gentlemanly foresight to step around it. There’s also plenty of fun comedy; aside from Harris, the key scenes that spring to mind are the moment when Fran and Adamson kidnap a priest (William Prince) in broad daylight, and his later polite responses as a hostage: “Don’t worry about me!”

What makes me like this film as much as its spiritual Hitchcockian counterparts, such as To Catch a Thief or – inversely – North by Northwest is that it’s decidedly modern. Lehman’s script – for all its dialogue-related flaws – carefully constructs a world in which each pair of leads is operating independent of the other yet keep on colliding (Adamson’s growing disbelief that Blanche must be some kind of spy is very amusing). There’s a charisma and freedom at the heart of all four performances which is made all the more enjoyable by how at-odds the characters’ aims are. And it’s perfectly in keeping with Hitchcock’s aims, after all, to have a pair of ordinary schmucks who have no idea what kind of threat they are under. There’s a freedom to the structure that explains why Hitchcock instructed Lehman not to go in the direction of the book – where the truth about Shoebridge is only revealed near the end and many of the characters die. If I have one peeve, it would be that I think a confrontation between Fran and Adamson would be great, given how much mileage the film gets out their growing disconnect. They’re ultimately brought down in such a simplistic manner that – given it involves acting – is still in keeping with the theme, but deprives Fran of any agency throughout the film.

I said just now that one of the film’s greatest strengths is its modernism. At the same time, it’s fascinating to note the second scene of the film, when Karen Black takes a ride in a helicopter. When Hitchcock was born in 1899, film was still a medium for capturing brief moments. When he came of age on the British film studios of the 1920s, he was there to witness every moment of the transition from sound to talkies. Now, he was in an age of sexploitation films and Woodstock and… helicopters! I mentioned in the last couple of reviews how Hitchcock the man gradually fell out of step with younger mainstream taste, even as his taste for film as an artform developed. Family Plot is an old-fashioned plot in many ways, and I think it would’ve been very interesting had Hitch lived long enough to complete his next planned work, a spy drama named The Short Night.

So what, ultimately, does Family Plot have to offer Hitchcock viewers? It is neither his funniest film nor his most suspenseful, nor does it boast of the most tightly-controlled or exhilarating direction. Still, Hitch was always happiest working with a script and a cast he found up to his standards, and this was such a case. It’s a fun little jaunt packing in numerous inversions or approaches to the director’s usual fare – disguise, espionage, fakery, a wrong man (or in this case, a right man), human pettiness, and laughter in moments of terror – that comes complete with a final wink to camera. It may not have been the director’s intended swan song, but it sure does the job.

Hitchcock in Family PlotHitch cameo: a silhouette at the office of births, deaths, and marriages.

Stray observations:

  • The climax is plausible although I would’ve expected someone as canny as Arthur Adamson would have had a carefully disguised escape route inside the dungeon for just that reason.
  • I respect that Arthur and Fran have made a good living off of constantly kidnapping people and asking for jewels (kind of) but have they ever considered diversifying? Seems like it would be a good move at some point.
  • And where do they get all their costume supplies?
  • Roy Thinnes isn’t the only old-school Hollywood name to pop up in relation to Family Plot. Potential actors for the lead roles included Faye Dunaway as Fran, Jack Nicholson as George, and Burt Reynolds as Adamson. The role of Blanche was unsurprisingly the most sought-after, with Goldie Hawn, Cybil Shepherd, Liza Minnelli and – unusually – then-retired queen of bel canto opera, Beverly Sills, among those considered.
  • Actors appearing in minor roles include Katherine Helmond (apparently always a middle-aged minx) as the widow Moloney, Cheers’ Nicholas Colasanto as a bitter former hostage, Edith Atwater – an old-school beauty – as a jewellery store assistant, and Charles Tyner as the world’s weirdest stone carver.
  • Shoebridge’s grave falls apart a bit when Mrs. Moloney kicks it, which – while I recognise it was fake – still doesn’t seem entirely deliberate.
  • Speaking of, Mrs. Moloney is an interesting figure. She clearly knows more about her husband’s past then most grieving widows, and it almost feels like she has another scene missing from the film given her apparent history with George.
  • And speaking of that: who are all those people at Moloney’s funeral? I mean, I get it that it’s a Hitchcockian irony to have an amoral bastard loved by the public but also… WHO ARE ALL THOSE PEOPLE?

5 Responses to “Hitchcock Review: “Family Plot” (1976)”

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