Many fans of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock are quick to point to the classic Psycho and perhaps also The Birds as the director’s last great films, while more well-versed admirers bestow that very title on the flawless Frenzy. However only the most die-hard (not to mention slightly fanatic, some might say) of fans would point to Family Plot, the director’s final effort, as the entry most deserving of such a prize. Almost immediately upon release, the light comedy/mystery Family Plot has so often been unfairly cast aside after being branded second-rate Hitchcock. But looking at the film again, it shows not only how the director was able to so seamlessly fit into the new and exciting era of filmmaking that was the 1970s, but also how at the same time, he delivered a film which was so purely and undoubtedly Hitchcock.
Set in a Northern California city, Family Plot centers on two separate and distinct couples, both with very particular agendas. The first couple, phony medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her actor/cab driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), have struck gold after continuously cheating rich women by holding fake seances when wealthy socialite Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) has hired them to find her dead sister’s long-lost child. At the same time, respected jeweler Arthur (William Devane) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) engage in the act of kidnapping prominent individuals and holding them for ransom in exchange for rare and precious diamonds. As the film progresses, the two couples find themselves inevitably linked to each other in a story which involves murder and deceit as the question arises: Who is buried in the family plot?
One problem most filmmakers face as they get older is how to stay relevant within the changing times in relation to their profession. Some continue making films that feel totally out of touch with current filmmaking trends, oftentimes resembling a mere shell of their former glory. Hitchcock cunningly avoided such a trapping and crafted Family Plot as a film very in keeping with the bold and revolutionary style of cinema which defined the ’70s. For a start, he abandoned the use of traditional movie stars, turning down the likes of Al Pacino, Faye Dunaway, Burt Reynolds, Goldie Hawn, Jack Nicholson, and Liza Minnelli for the main roles, opting instead for character actors who, although they weren’t marquee value, had come to help represent the kind of screen performer so often seen through the decade.
Moreover, Hitchcock’s choice of having two couples proudly living in sin and sharing the same home was certainly a far cry from the days when Grace Kelly brought over dinner to Jimmy Stewart’s apartment. If that weren’t enough, the dialogue of Family Plot is loaded with racy innuendos which boldly pushed the envelope, yet fit perfectly into the type of limitless mentality that was running rampant among filmmakers of the day. “I’m sick and tired of having you hang me by the crystal balls,” George says to Blanche at one point. Trying to ease his mind, Blanche remarks that George shouldn’t fret, insisting that “fretting will ruin a performance,” referring to his acting background and the sex they’ll inevitably have later on. “You don’t have to worry about my performance tonight honey,” he states proudly. “As a matter of fact, on this very evening, you’re going to get a standing ovation,” he adds. Many claim that Hitchcock was a true formalist through and through, yet no one can ever say that the showman himself wasn’t able to move with the changing times.
While the movie feels right at home with the decade it’s set in, at the same time there’s never any question whatsoever that Family Plot is anything other than a Hitchcock offering. There’s his penchant for frequent collaborators (in this case North by Northwest writer Ernest Lehman, who wrote the screenplay) as well as the use of a few of the director’s favorite filmmaking techniques which by that point had become his trademark. There’s the great overhead shot as the camera elegantly watches George trailing the elusive Mrs. Maloney (Katherine Helmond) through a cemetery which is cleverly set up like a maze, and the film’s greatest set piece, the runaway car sequence in which the brakes of Blanche’s car have been tampered with, leading to a thrilling and hilarious roller coaster-like experience along a winding California highway. Beyond this, a number of themes from other Hitchcock movies show up here, including the use of disguises (Blanche pretending to be a psychic, Fran wearing glasses and a blonde wig, George constantly lying about his profession) and the influence of the dead on the living.
One of the greatest strengths of Family Plot is how it so skillfully blends the genres of both mystery and comedy in ways which only a Hitchcock film could. The air of suspense and curiosity surrounding Fran decked out in a blonde wig and glasses (by far the film’s most iconic image) as we watch her slickly collect a ransom is matched by the hilarity of seeing her and Arthur drug and kidnap the bishop in front of an entire congregation, who are left scratching their heads as the three swiftly depart. But the film’s genres extend beyond such stand-out sequences, reaching to the two central couples whose individual personalities expertly fit the tone of their respective storylines. Blanche and George’s bickering and sexual chemistry leads to solid moments of comedy, while intrigue stemming from greed, desire, and a taste for danger drive Arthur and Fran’s relationship.
It’s impossible not to imagine how so many of the above-mentioned now-iconic actors and actresses up for the four leads would have fared with the material. Such a thought quickly becomes irrelevant however when seeing how great each performer is in his or her role. Black inhabits one of her more humanized roles perfectly, making Fran one of the most wonderfully subtle characters of her career. She plays off Devane well, who mixes silent menace and potent charm to create Arthur’s unforgettable persona. Dern shines in a rare good guy role, playing George as both hapless and heroic. He shares unbelievably great chemistry with Harris, who nails it perfectly as Blanche, garnering most of the film’s laughs and appearing as if she’s having a blast every minute she’s on screen.
Most Hitchcock enthusiasts have always claimed that Family Plot was a flop upon release mainly because many consider it a less-than-stellar way to end an otherwise remarkable career. But in reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. Critics loved Family Plot, bestowing numerous awards upon it, including a Golden Globe nomination for Harris, while enough audiences turned up to ensure the film made a decent profit at the box office.
Family Plot was never meant to be the director’s final film. In fact, Hitchcock had already set plans into motion to direct a thriller titled The Short Night before succumbing to the confines of his old age and abandoned the film altogether, thus making Family Plot his last cinema effort. Had it not been his final turn behind the camera, perhaps the film would have been treated more kindly by the director’s many fans and scholars. However, time has endeared Family Plot to many who might have been dismissive of it upon first viewing, and it is now recognized as undeniable proof that Hitchcock remained the true master right up until the final reel.