Sunday, March 25, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock, 1976
Starring: Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black

Like all of Hitchcock's final films, Family Plot has polarized critics and audiences, in no small part because it is Hitchcock's last work. This fun, if occasionally silly black comedy is a major departure from the violent, misanthropic serial killer film Frenzy, which directly precedes it, and bears little relation to Hitchcock's other works except for The Trouble with Harry or maybe North by Northwest.

Blanche, a fake medium, has been hired to find the missing nephew of a wealthy older woman. Julia Rainbird forced her sister to give up the child when he was an infant and has no knowledge of his current name or appearance. She will pay Blanche $10,000 to find him and restore him as the proper heir. Blanche gets her actor/taxi driver/con artist boyfriend George to pose as a private detective and help. A second couple, Arthur Adamson and his girlfriend Fran, are successful jewel thieves, kidnapping various high ranking men in exchange for gemstones. It turns out that Arthur is actually the Rainbird heir, though long ago he killed his adoptive parents and assumed a new identity. When Blanche and George begin to track him down, he assumes the worst and things take a dangerous turn.

Family Plot marks another collaboration between Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman, who also penned North by Northwest. The film is based on Victor Canning's novel The Rainbird Pattern. Allegedly Hitchcock and Lehman argued over the script, because Lehman wanted a darker film and Hitchcock steered him towards the comic elements he did so well with in North by Northwest. The two films both revolve around a case of confused identity and have the protagonists in a major car accident. Both of the resulting scripts have dark moments, but are also lighthearted and witty. Family Plot is certainly not without its flaws. There are some plodding moments in the film and this is the closest Hitchcock comes to campiness. The elegant atmosphere of his best-loved films is missed and the inclusion of many B-level actors is jarring. Some critics were outraged at the use of profanity and blatant sexual innuendo in the film.

There are also some wonderful things about Family Plot. The film is absolutely dripping with whimsy. Hitchcock takes an almost needlessly complicated plot and spins an entertaining yarn out of it, weaving all the threads together by the meta-theatrical conclusion where Blanche winks knowingly at the camera. This is the only time Hitchcock collaborated with John Williams, who gives him a near perfect score that emphasizes the danger and humor in equal measures. Hitchcock is also up to his usual thematic complexities. The film is largely concerned with doubling, disguise, and the fluid nature of identity. The two couples mirror one another and act as foils for each other. While Blanche and George have a crystal ball, Arthur and Fran have a large diamond. Both are fakes concerned with conning their way into wealth.

In a certain sense, this is also a return to form for Hitchcock, because it is a return to his beloved mystery/thriller formula. Unlike Frenzy, Torn Curtain, Topaz, or Marnie, we are concerned with a singular mystery that drives the plot forward and provides us with a good deal of suspense along the way. Will Arthur be reunited with the Rainbirds? Why did he kill his foster parents? Will he mistakenly kill Blanche and George before they can give him the good news?

The acting is a mixed bag. Harris is quite good in a charming, eccentric performance, one that distantly echoes Shirley MacLaine in The Trouble with Harry. At times she is serious, even petulant with George, and others she is comical and dramatic. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance. Bruce Dern is capable and funny as the bumbling George. He had already worked with Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and had a cameo in Marnie. William Devane is perfect as the slimy, mustachioed Arthur, the greed obsessed villain of the film. I usually find Karen Black annoying, but here she is great as Fran, a thief and a kidnapper, but a considerate one.

I'm not sure whether to recommend Family Plot, but it deserves at least two or three viewings if you're going to watch it at all, as everyone seems unnerved by it first time around. Overall it feels like a warm farewell from one of the world's greatest directors. This whimsical little film is his fifty-third feature and though it was not intended to be the last, Blanche's final wink at the camera makes it seem appropriate in some way. It is funny, oddly charming and still hits some of the beats of his outright thriller. There's a single disc from Universal and it is also included in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection box set, which I am reviewing. Included is a 45-minute documentary, Plotting Family Plot, which is full of pleasant interviews with cast and crew members, most of whom seemed to have had a good time on set and share their fond memories of Hitchcock.

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