“Isn’t it touching how a perfect murder has kept our friendship alive all these years”
I am quite taken with Alfred Hitchcock’s final film—the much maligned comedy-thriller Family Plot. It did not do well at the box office, and the critics of the time were not kind to it. I am no apologist for bad filmmaking, but I have learned that if you don’t retain some whimsy and wonder, and a sense of humour, you’re likely to become bitter and jaded, your soul will shrivel up, and you’ll be unable to see the inspiring possibilities in… well… trash . So it’s good to see some “bad” movies once in while. For one thing, it does help to distinguish “good” movies. But Family Plot is not as bad as its reputation suggests, and is actually quite charming and funny. It is what The Trouble With Harry could have been if the earlier film had had any sincerity or conscience whatsoever.
Family Plot‘s biggest flaw is that it is old fashioned, and one of Hitchcock’s weakest efforts. It is timid and languorous, albeit stylish and upbeat. If the film had been directed by anyone other than Hitchcock, I would probably dismiss it as well-meaning but unimpressive. I do not suggest that the film should be praised or admired because it was Hitchcock’s last film, but that is why I find it meaningful. At the risk of sounding esoteric, you may not “get” this film if you’re not a devoted Hitchcock fan. Family Plot is best appreciated as a nostalgic farewell gesture.
We have a con-artist couple trying to make a quick buck—George (Bruce Dern) and Blanche (Barbara Harris). Blanche is a phony psychic who preys on rich and gullible old women. George is an aspiring actor working as a cab driver. They stumble upon the chance to make some big money. All they have to do is find some rich old lady’s true heir by delving into some sketchy and secretive family history. Along the way, they get mixed up with two conniving jewel thieves—Fran (Karen Black) and Arthur (William Devane)—who are after a valuable set of diamonds.
The story pokes fun at its own convoluted plot, and by extension, the labyrinthine plots of classic mystery-thrillers—the sort for which Hitchcock himself was known. It also draws reference to other Hitchcock classics. Karen Black’s character is a brunette who dons a blond wig to do her dirty work. Hitchcock was obsessed with the cool and tall blond—Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles. In Family Plot, we have a cool tall blond, but she has to fake it by wearing high heels, and a blond wig—which she keeps cool in the fridge. Her look is obviously crafted to mystify and seduce, much like the actresses in past films. We see a street named “Bates.” Hitchcock’s cameo comes in the form of his iconic silhouette in a doorway. This explicit self-referencing is indulgent, but also charming when you consider that the film was his last.
I am particularly fond of the hilarious runaway car scene. Our heroes, Blanche and George, find themselves in a car with the brakes disabled. As the car speeds dangerously down a winding mountain road, George tries desperately to keep the car away from the cliff and avoid the oncoming traffic, while Blanche frantically claws at him. It is pure slapstick, with George fumbling at the wheel, Blanche falling all over him, and the car skidding to avoid collision.
Family Plot was released in the late 1970s, into a movie-going climate that was being profoundly re-shaped by the blockbuster phenomenon of Jaws and Star Wars, and the angry anti-establishment thrust of Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. Studios were beginning to relinquish control over innovative young directors. Years before, Hitchcock had to fight censorship tooth and nail, often resorting to clever tricks, but the influence of European films and the success of avant-garde films of the late sixties and early seventies paved the way to freedom for a new batch of filmmakers. While indebted to Hitchcock, this new uninhibited generation had surpassed him. With Family Plot, Hitchcock—a veteran director in his late 70s—had made a tribute to a sort of film that had been left behind. A fresh group of filmmakers in their early thirties were taking over—Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on the commercial front, and Martin Scorsese leading the way for gritty and uncompromising films.
In the midst of this changing landscape of studio output and audience expectations, Alfred Hitchcock left us with Family Plot. It is not a great film, but it is a genuinely sweet final gift from a great director. When Barbara Harris, in the very last shot, turns to the camera and winks directly at us, it is—for those who love and admire Hitchcock—a remarkably touching moment. Although he was in pre-production for other projects, I am certain that he knew Family Plot would be his last. I can sense it in the unabashed self-referencing, and that literal and figurative wink to the audience that ends the film. This is pure speculation on my part, but I believe Hitchcock was saying “Goodbye.” And when I see that wink, I know—somewhere deep in my gut—that he is saying goodbye to me. It may sound silly, and perhaps it is, but that feeling is mine. I own it. And cherish it. I grew up with Hitchcock, and it was through his films that I first became aware of the artistry of cinema. Even at the tender age of 8, I could see he was using the camera in a special way—playing me, for both my amusement and his own.
Well played, Hitch!
Family Plot (1976)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Stars: Karen Black, William Devane, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris