Family Plot (1976)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When two con artists try to track down a missing heir, they come into contact with a pair of kidnappers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, released when he was 76 years old, is a comedy thriller. Neither taking itself too seriously nor ever becoming too silly, it’s an entertaining couple of hours.  A lot of the enjoyment comes from watching omnisciently as two seemingly separate storylines slowly start to intertwine.

As we start, fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is conning an elderly woman (Cathleen Nesbitt) with a cod séance routine. When the OAP mentions a long-lost nephew who would inherit a fortune, Blanche and boyfriend George offer to find him for a fee of $10,000. Meanwhile, another pair of criminals – Fran (played by the top-billed Karen Black) and her boyfriend, Arthur (William Devane) – are kidnapping VIPs and ransoming them for jewels.

The two sets of characters literally cross paths early on, when George nearly runs Fran over, but are otherwise discrete until the 45-minute mark… George has been following clues like a detective, trying to find the long-missing nephew. He talks to someone who knew him, then we see this old friend show up at Arthur’s office to tell him people are looking for him. That’s right: Arthur is the heir, but because he’s also a criminal he assumes Blanche and George asking questions about him must be bad news. The cat and mouse game is on.

Alfred Hitchcock was born just four years after the Lumière brothers invented the medium of cinema, and had been a film director for half a century when he made Family Plot. But here’s a movie that’s startlingly of the 1970s: the fashions, of course, and the cars and the also the style of filmmaking. Or rather not *film*making. The master’s final movie is surprisingly televisual. It’s very talky. There are studio sets and California locations. To be honest, it often looks and feels uncannily like an episode of Columbo. Also, being his 70s and suffering from poor health, Hitch was unable to travel too far from the San Francisco production base so an action scene as a car with no brakes careers down a mountain road is done with second-unit POV shots, an under-cranked camera and some very unconvincing process shots of Dern and Harris in a studio.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least the four central performances. Bruce Dern is a loose, pipe-smoking charmer (Al Pacino was considered for the role but was too expensive). William Devane is terrifically icy cool and sinister (they actually starting shooting with Roy Thinnes, but then he was ungraciously dumped when first choice Devane became available). Barbara Harris is adorable and funny. And Karen Black has real star quality (she’s also the focus of a self-aware gag from Hitch: when we first see her character, she’s a classic, enigmatic Hitchcock blonde… then she takes her wig off to reveal brunette hair).

There’s also a grandstanding cameo from Nicholas Colasanto (later Coach in sitcom Cheers) as a kidnap victim; Katherine Helmond (later Jessica in sitcom Soap) playing Basil Exposition and telling George the necessary plot information at just the right time; and decent incidental music by John Williams, then hot from Jaws (1975).

Eight silhouettes out of 10

 

 

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