Critics in 1976 were divided over Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, which turned out to be his final film. Some gave it faint praise, in an “it’s okay” kinda way; others decried it as too old-fashioned, saying the Master of Suspense had lost his touch – and was out of touch far as contemporary filmmaking goes. Having recently viewed the film for the first time, I’m blessed with the gift of hindsight, and can tell you it’s more than “okay”. FAMILY PLOT is a return to form, and while it may not be Top Shelf Hitchcock, it certainly holds up better than efforts made that same year by Hitch’s contemporaries George Cukor (THE BLUE BIRD), Elia Kazan (THE LAST TYCOON), and Vincente Minnelli (A MATTER OF TIME).
Hitchcock reunited with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) to concoct a devilishly clever black comedy about phony psychic Blanche Tyler who, along with her cab driver boyfriend George, is charged with finding the missing nephew of very rich Mrs. Rainbird. The old dame is offering a $10,000 finder’s fee, which makes the perpetually broke couple drool, but there’s a catch: the boy in question has been missing since he was a baby, over forty years ago.
Meanwhile, as the couple leave the Rainbird manse, we cross-cut to a tall, mysterious blonde walking toward another stately manse. The silent woman hands over instructions to a trio of suits; she’s actually Fran Adamson, who along with her mastermind husband Arthur kidnap the rich and powerful for ransoms paid in sparkling jewels. The pernicious pair has been plying their trade for years without being caught, and it’s no spoiler to tell you Arthur Adamson is really the missing Rainbird heir, a sociopath who killed his adoptive parents in a house fire, and doesn’t like Blanche and George snooping around in his business…
Hitchcock and Lehman combine the suspense with loads of dark humor, and the result is a fun film that ends with a wink to the camera, as if Hitch is telling us, “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”. It may be a minor film in his major career, but it was entertaining enough to keep me invested throughout. Lehman’s script keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek, and he won that year’s Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Screenplay. The language is cruder than you’ll find in Hitchcock films past, but that’s just Alfred keeping up with the times; he had always pushed the boundaries of the censorship boards, and was probably delighted to be able to let loose!
Barbara Harris is marvelous as the fake psychic Blanche, giving a joyously ditzy performance. Harris was shamefully underutilized by Hollywood, and should have been a much bigger star. Bruce Dern does good work as well playing Blanche’s bickering boyfriend, caught up in something way over his head. This was Dern’s second film with the Master; he had previously had a small role in 1964’s MARNIE. William Devane is another criminally neglected actor; he’s chillingly charming as Adamson (and can now be found hawking gold in TV commercials for Rosland Capital!). Karen Black’s Fran is kind of a thankless role, but her presence is always welcome onscreen, as is another underrated actor, Ed Lauter, playing Devane’s murderous cohort.
Albert Whitlock’s (THE BIRDS) special effects during the car chase scene were no longer cutting-edge, and in fact look as phony as Blanche’s psychic powers, but that’s really a minor quibble. FAMILY PLOT may be lesser Hitchcock, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to keep Hitch fans happy. At least it did for me, and I’d recommend it to all who want to see The Master of Suspense take us on one last ride.