Skip to main content

Without my research, you're about as psychic as a dry salami.

Family Plot
(1976)

(SPOILERS) And so, the master takes his final bow. Family Plot seems consigned by consensus to the “Yeah, it’s okay” Hitchcock pile. Even I do that mentally, although when I do revisit it, I invariably conclude it’s bit more than that, that it’s actually pretty good. But it has several things working against a resoundingly positive assessment. One is that it’s a Hitchcock comedy (well, dramedy), and when he stepped on that peddle, the results were occasionally regrettable. Another is that, in terms of production values and general presentation, Family Plot might easily be mistaken for a TV movie (all that’s missing are yellow credits). Yet it also boasts a smart screenplay from Ernest Lehman and a main quartet of leading players who acquit themselves admirably. After a spell in the mid-to-late 1960s where Hitch appeared to have lost his mojo, his final two movies may not have attained the status of all-time classics, but they are both more than respectable.

The culprit for Family Plot’s rather dog-eared look is Leonard J South, formerly a camera guy for the director (as far back as Strangers on a Train) whose graduation to cinematographer would see him working mostly in television. As such, Hitch, who favoured surrounding himself with familiar crewmembers, only had himself to blame (it’s curious how he could be so specific in so many respects and yet egregiously sloppy in others: the ubiquitous process shots, for example, which duly make their appearance here during an extended runaway car sequence that manages to be involving in spite of itself).

Also failing to help matters any is the choice of composer. I’m sure the kneejerk response of many will be that any aspersions cast on John Williams’ output are wholly out of order. And it’s true that he is rightly lauded for half a dozen scores that represent cinema’s finest. However, he has a tendency at times to pile it on in whatever way is least advisable. The score for Family Plot is too larky, twinkly, knowing. It makes you think of Murder, She Wrote. Which is never a good thing.

On the credit side, though, this is probably the director’s best material since Psycho, a fairly loose adaptation of Victor Canning’s The Rainbow Pattern (the 1972 novel is set in England, it’s a straight thriller, and medium Blanche Tyler has genuine abilities). The distinctiveness of the premise, whereby Blanche (Barbara Harris) and boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) hunt down a wealthy widow’s potential heir, leading them to a trail of faked death and another criminal enterprise, albeit far more nefarious, is in Family Plot’s favour.

Undoubtedly, the schemes of heir Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and his accomplice Fran (Karen Black) are in the realm of the unlikely; it would surely be difficult to make a regular thing of kidnapping rich or influential people and ransoming them for gems. On that score, it was likely sensible of Hitch not to take the material too seriously. Family Plot also hinges on an unlikely coincidence whereby Blanche and George, already on Adamson’s radar, show up to interview the same bishop whom Adamson happens to be kidnapping (the man of the cloth who christened him). There’s also some typically clumsy exposition about fifty minutes, with Adamson and Lautner’s Maloney informing us who did what when it came to murdering the former’s adoptive parents. None of this really diminishes the plot’s plus points, though.

Geoff Andrew in Time Out was rapturous about the picture, rather disproportionately, although his enthusiasmis quite infectious. He suggests Hitch “ties together the complex strands in a delightful way” and esteems its “dense but extremely entertaining collection of symmetric patterns, doubles and rhymes”. Truffaut wasn’t as sold on this “gorgeously amoral wink”, but his peculiar target was Devane: “… once again, the weakness of the villain was responsible for the weakness of the picture”. Actually, Devane’s really good value here. But then, Truffaut also manages to mischaracterise the reason Hitchcock dispensed with Roy Thinnes’ services after a week; rather than Thinnes giving a sub-standard performance, Devane was his original choice, so when he became available, he simply gave Thinnes the heave ho. Not the most sensitive of decisions, but Thinnes paid him back subsequently in a restaurant confrontation, making the director feel extremely uncomfortable.

Devane is wolfishly malevolent but also charismatic, essential for a good Hitch villain. Black, as an accomplice increasingly unconvinced this is the path for her – such that we expect a change of heart that never materialises – makes much less impression. Devane has it that Hitch wasn’t overly impressed with Black and was intent on cutting her material down. The actor also recounts how he removed a piece of lint from a fellow actor’s jacket in one scene, something Hitch nixed as “It’s just not clear” (the actor was playing a cop). However, when the scene was remounted and Devane did it again, it seems Hitch let it pass or didn’t notice (I doubt he didn’t notice). It’s funny, because Hitch was right – the meaning is abstruse – but I can quite see why Devane says “It’s my favourite bit in the film”. Ed Lauter is memorable too as a seedy, weasely – is there any other Lauter part? – henchman of Adamson.

The greatest fun comes from the bickering brio of Dern and Harris, though. I’ve never really noted Harris in other roles, but she’s hugely accomplished and appealing here, only prone to overplaying during the runaway car sequence where she’s mugging frantically all over the place, sticking her feet in Dern’s face and making Cary Grant’s soused get away in North by Northwest appear as sober as a judge.

Bruce Dern is great value anecdotalising the movie – and in particular working with Hitchcock – and he’s also great value throughout. Like Donald Sutherland and villains, it’s a bit too easy to cast Dern as the loony and so all the more engaging and distinctive to have him playing the good-ish guy (he’d previously appeared for the director in Marnie’s crucial flashback scene). Hitch also considered Burt Reynolds and Jack Nicholson, apparently. Pacino (“Mr Packinow”) wanted too much money (he’d have been a terrible fit too). There’s a visible streak of family-friendly innuendo between the couple, with Harris always up for it and Dern dead-tired from taxiing to all hours.

The results feel contemporary, even if the fortune-teller conceit has the air of the hoary. Family Plot wasn’t a hit, though. That might have been for many reasons. It lacked star power and the director’s name was no longer a beacon to a new generation. I doubt the rather inert title helped matters much either; it’s an amusing enough pun, but it doesn’t have that “something” (Deceit, Lehman’s original, is much worse, though).

Nothing here is going to blow your socks off, but as light-hearted romps go, Family Plot is actually one of the director’s better ones. Fortunately, the approach to humour hews closer to Stage Fright or Mr. and Mrs. Smith – he was dismissive of the latter – than the overcooked quirk of The Trouble with Harry. Both his cameo (a silhouette behind a window) and Harris’ fourth-wall breaking wink to camera are likeable touches. Dern tells that he tried to persuade his director to do the same as Harris, and he’s right that, in retrospect, it would have made an appropriate send off to a glittering career (alas, Hitchcock announced his retirement due to ill health soon after, and the planned fifty-fourth film The Short Night was cancelled).


Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was