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Family Plot (1976)

October 28th, 2007 · 5 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Clairvoyant Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) conducts a sham séance for a wealthy widow who’s plagued with regret for forcing her late sister to orphan an illegitimate son. The widow believes if her long lost nephew can be located and assume his place as heir to her fortune, she’ll rest in peace. The widow offers Blanche $10,000 to use her “powers” to find him. This task falls on Blanche’s obnoxious cab driver boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern).

A jeweler and master criminal named Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and his flame (Karen Black) orchestrate the perfect kidnapping of a businessman. Their ransom is a priceless diamond. Meanwhile, George’s sleuthing produces a name for the missing heir and a funeral plot where he’s buried, but the cabbie is skeptical that the man he’s looking for is dead. A shifty mechanic (Ed Lauter) appears to be covering something up.

The mechanic notifies Adamson that some amateur is looking for him. Busy plotting his next kidnapping, Adamson leaves it up to the mechanic to handle it. He cuts the brakes on Blanche’s car and sends the couple barreling down a mountain road. They survive, but the mechanic isn’t so lucky. George gets his widow to reveal the name of the missing heir. Oblivious that the man she’s been searching for is an arch criminal, Blanche pays him and his dame a visit as they tidy up their latest kidnapping.

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Production history 
Director Alfred Hitchcock was having lunch on the Universal lot in 1972 with screenwriters William Link and Richard Levinson, who had written for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The director mentioned he was looking for material, so the writers sent him a 1972 novel by Victor Canning they thought he might like. Titled The Rainbird Pattern, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville read it and recommended it to her husband.

The novel was a black comedy set in England, involving a kidnapping of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The police mistake a psychic and her boyfriend for the culprits. Hitchcock asked Anthony Shaffer to adapt a script, but after reading the book, the playwright wasn’t interested. Fifteen years after writing North By Northwest, Ernest Lehman agreed to reunite with Hitchcock for what the director was calling Deceit.

Lehman started work in September 1973 and by April 1974, completed a first draft. Hitchcock was intrigued by the possibility of casting Jack Nicholson as the boyfriend, but the star wasn’t available. Bruce Dern became the logical backup. Universal suggested Liza Minnelli for the female lead. Hitchcock rejected that idea, preferring Barbara Harris from Nashville. Shooting for Hitchcock’s 53rd film commenced in May 1975.

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The release of Family Plot in April 1976 was a media event. Journalists from around the world were eager to be regaled by Hitchcock – a living legend – one more time. Reaction to the film divided among critics who were respectful (Vincent Canby), critics who were vocal in their distaste (Jay Cocks), and Hitchcock scholars who loved it. The director maintained that the film would not be his last, but on April 29, 1980, Alfred Hitchcock succumbed to renal failure and died in his home in Los Angeles.

Hitchcock’s final film has developed the reputation of a slapstick romp and did not conclude the master of suspense’s career on a high note. While Family Plot was at least another draft and maybe another writer away from being great, what made it to the screen is clever, darkly witty and a good deal of fun. It’s revealing that with creative freedom to finally make a thriller chock full of sex and violence, Hitchcock chose instead to make a droll, PG-rated black comedy.

Anything in the movie that strikes me as lame is offset by something else that I really liked. Barbara Harris is out of her element, but Karen Black is radiant. Bruce Dern plays another one of his patented assholes, while William Devane is terrific as the bad guy. The film’s visual palette isn’t interesting in the least, but John Williams provided a musical score that’s sensational. The big climax is carried off with glee – Hitchcock always saved his best for last – and in the end, the director acquits himself nicely.

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Jeremy Heilman at says, “Approached as a standard Hitchcockian thriller, it might come up a bit short, but once you tap into the film’s gentle satire of its characters and genre, the strengths of Family Plot become apparent.”

“Though there are some things in Family Plot that haven’t aged well, overall this is something that all film buffs should see just for the sake of history,” writes Patrick Naugle at DVD Verdict.

Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “On its own, this is a little more than an average comedy-thriller, but as a reference-filled closing chapter to a brilliant directorial career, it’s much more meaningful. While it’s certainly not up to the standard of Hitchcock’s great films, Family Plot is still good fun.”

“Cemeteries make my bones rattle. Let us leave these losers and find a winner.” View the 1976 theatrical trailer, with Hitchcock telling us about his new movie Family Plot.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Dreams and visions · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justine // Oct 29, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Family Plot is actually the only Hitchcock film I’ve seen that I outright hate. None of it felt right for me, and it was painful to sit through. A damn shame.

  • 2 Damian // Oct 29, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    I love this movie. I stumbled across it on AMC a few years ago (knowing absolutely nothing about it aside from the fact that it was Hitch’s last movie and it was more of a comedy). I was just thoroughly delighted by it. I thought it was funny, charming and, at times, even a little suspenseful. The cast was great (how can you not love Bruce Dern and William Devane?), John Williams’ score was wonderful and I adore that last wink at the camera (to my knowledge, the only time the director knowingly and deliberately breaks the fourth wall). While certainly not one of Hitch’s best films, for a swansong, he could do a lot worse.

  • 3 Megan // Oct 30, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Another one I have not seen yet but is now on the list! Can’t believe October is almost over. (Sniff.)

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Oct 30, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Justine: I think we critique movies in similar ways. However, I found Family Plot to be witty and droll. When you compare it to a Brian DePalma movie like Wise Guys, it practically feels like a classic.

    Damian: Terrific capsule review! This was another movie that I lowered my expectations for and that I ended up enjoying. You’re right about Dern. He cannot be taken seriously and I felt he was a good fit for what the director was doing. The final shot certainly feels as if Hitchcock designed it to be his last, even though that was not his intention.

    Megan: Keep Justine’s comments in mind. Don’t expect a masterwork of suspense and I think you may get a kick out of this little film. And don’t be sad about the passage of October. After all, you can start Christmas shopping on November 1. Whee!

  • 5 Justine // Oct 31, 2007 at 9:40 am

    I actually have only ever finished on De Palma film (Blow Out) and hated it! I might have to rewatch this someday, as it’s been two years maybe since I’ve seen it. I’m not hurrying though.

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