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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).


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