Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Family Plot (1976)

Family Plot
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock.
Written by: Ernest Lehman based on the novel by Victor Canning.
Starring: Karen Black (Fran), Bruce Dern (George Lumley), Barbara Harris (Blanche Tyler), William Devane (Arthur Adamson aka Edward Shoebridge), Ed Lauter (Joseph P. Maloney), Cathleen Nesbitt (Julia Rainbird), Katherine Helmond (Mrs. Maloney), Warren J. Kemmerling (Grandison), Edith Atwater (Mrs. Clay), William Prince (Bishop Wood), Nicholas Colasanto (Constantine).

Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, his 53rd and final feature film, I got the impression that the Master was simply having fun toying with the audience with this movie. This isn’t a Hitchcock masterpiece, where the thrills mask something deeper. But the movie is made like a well oiled machine is visually superb, and proved that Hitchcock could make a dark comedy if he wanted to (his previous attempt, The Trouble With Harry, may just be my least favorite Hitchcock film). No, it isn’t great. But it’s good – and a hell of a lot of fun.

Hitchcock never liked a lot of explanatory dialogue in his films – and hated it at the beginning, preferring to dive right into the action first, and then explaining as he went along. He made an exception with Family Plot – and he pretty much had to. The plot is so convoluted, that it needs some setting up before we can dive right in. The movie stars Barbara Harris as Blanche Tyler, a phony psychic, whose elderly client Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) is approaching death, and wants to set things right before she goes. Her sister gave birth to a bastard child 40 years before, and gave him up for adoption. The sister is now dead, and Rainbird has no heirs of her own – and wants to leave the Rainbird legacy to a blood relative. Because Blanche is a psychic, Rainbird figures that she should be able to find the child, even though Rainbird cannot give her any information about him, other than he was a boy.

If you assume that Blanche is just going to get her somewhat dimwitted boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) to pose as the long lost bastard, while so did I. But Blanche decides instead to actually find the nephew – and sends George out looking for clues. Little do they know that they almost ran directly into the bastard’s wife Fran (Karen Black) early in the movie. He now goes by the name Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and along with Fran, he kidnaps wealthy people, and holds them hostage for a payout in jewels – that because he runs a jewelry store, he can move easily. If the plot already sounds needlessly complex, don’t worry, it gets even more convoluted as the movie goes along.

Family Plot is a movie built on coincidence after coincidence, offbeat performances, in jokes and of course, Hitchcock’s classic style. While Family Plot is more comedic than most Hitchcock films, there are still some great set pieces – a chase in a cemetery, a kidnapping in church, a car chase gone awry – that have all of Hitchcock’s trademarks. The performers hit an interesting tone, somewhere between manic and over the top, and all of them do a fine job. I particularly liked Bruce Dern as George, a cabdriver turned Private Investigator – but only when he’s off shift. The movie glides effortlessly along, and if he doesn’t demand too much of the audience, that’s okay, because it’s an entertaining ride.

The final shot of the movie has Barbara Harris winking directly at the audience. Apparently screenwriter Ernest Lehman hated this, but Hitchcock didn’t care. He winked at the audience subtlety throughout his career, and in his final movie, he decided to be overt about it. While the film isn’t a masterpiece, and certainly cannot compare with Hitchcock’s best films, it is an entertaining little ride. A fitting end to one of the greatest careers in Hollywood history.

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