Last night I re-watched Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie, Family Plot, released in 1976. I originally saw this in ’78 or ’79 in a drive in during the summer, and it remained stuck in my mind.
I re-watched it because it’s sort of research for a very long-shot of a project, but really I just needed an excuse.
Family Plot is a strange affair, a black comedy/crime caper revolving around two crooked couples – on the side of good, fake medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend actor/taxist George (Bruce Dern), and on the side of evil the suavely psychopathic Artur (William Devane) and his girlfriend and accomplice Fran (Karen Black).
Blanche pretends to be a psychic and in fact uses her boyfriend as an investigator to dig up details she then feeds to her clients. George and Blanche are lower class, and broke, and their small-scale swindles really hurt nobody – after all, Blanche does deliver the goods, it’s just the means that are not as advertised.
On the other hand – and on the other side of town – Arthur and Fran are rich, elegant, and while Arthur is a successful jeweller, the couple make their money and get their kicks by kidnapping people and getting paid in diamonds.
The two couples cross paths when Blanche is asked to track the lost heir of a family fortune – and that’s Arthur.
So, the bottom line is a pair of good-natured crooks looking for a guy to make him rich – only the guy’s a criminal, and when people start making inquiries about him, he goes fully paranoid and homicidal.
Arthur Adamson: [to Fran] We’re gonna have to kill these two ourselves.
Based on a script by Ernest Lehman (from a Victor Canning novel) and featuring the music of John Williams, Family Plot had a number of problems – a low budget meant Hitchcock had to rely on a wide cast of TV actors, and the director’s health was quickly failing, and the shooting had to accommodate his needs. For this reason, location shots were few, and a lot of the movie was filmed in a studio, with some pretty mediocre back projections.
This leads to the general feeling of being in front of a TV movie.
And yet it works.
The plot is ingenious and the comedy is never over the top.
The leads – even Black and Devane, that Hitchcock did not appreciate – are excellent, and the chemistry between Dern and Harris is wonderful.
George: Smells fishy to me.
Blanche: Well even fish smells good when you’re starving to death.
For all their bickering, money problems and frustrated sexual tension, Blanche and George are a couple of intelligent, resourceful and affectionate characters that work perfectly as a team. It would have been good to see Blanche and George in a sequel, or as characters in a series.
There are at least two masterful sequences – and one in particular is so great it creeps on you and you don’t notice, building a growing sense of tension out of absolutely nothing.
This will never make the list of the best 5 Hitchcock movies out there, and it’s really a pity – together with Frenzy, it is one of the small Hitchcock movies that I always cherished (and yeah, I’ll have to make a post about Frenzy, now)
But in the meantime, Family Plot is worth a look: it is after all a small picture from a giant.
It would be good to have more.