Alfred Hitchcock’s Last Ride: FAMILY PLOT (Universal 1976)

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.

Necktie Party: Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (Universal 1972)


Alfred Hitchcock’s  previous two films, TORN CURTAIN (1966) and TOPAZ (1969) weren’t well received by critics, who claimed The Master of Suspense was too old-fashioned and had lost his touch. One wag even suggested that, after fifty years in films, it was time to put Hitch out to pasture! But Hitchcock wasn’t quite ready for a life of tea and crumpets in the garden, and came back with 1972’s FRENZY, complete with all the blatant sex, nudity, gore, and profanity of other early 70’s auteurs, proving he could not only keep up with the times, but surpass them by giving us the blackest of horror comedies.

Hitchcock had returned to his native England before to make a few films, but always with actors who had box office appeal in America (Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in UNDER CAPRICORN, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in STAGE FRIGHT). This time around, he uses an All-British cast of superb actors to tell his grisly little tale of a psycho sex killer on the loose in London, and an innocent man accused of the crimes. Anthony Shaffer (SLEUTH, THE WICKER MAN) adapted Arthur LeBern’s novel GOODBYE PICCADILLY, FAREWELL LEICESTER SQUARE and added some macabre humor to the gruesome goings-on, which fit right in with Hitchcock’s playful style.

We begin with a woman’s nude body found floating in the Thames (and an early cameo for Hitch!), and learn she’s yet another victim of ‘The Necktie Killer’, a “criminal, sexual psychopath” that rapes and murders his prey. We then meet Dick Blaney, an ex-RAF pilot and unlovable loser who’s just been fired from his job as a barman. Dick’s a bitter, angry young man who seems to blame everybody else for his problems, including his ex-wife Brenda, now a successful “matrimonial agent”. Dick’s prone to drinking heavily and violent outbursts; despite all this, his girlfriend Babs remains loyal.

In contrast, Dick’s friend Bob Rusk is the charming, outgoing, and successful owner of a wholesale produce company. Bob’s the type of guy you’d like to left a few pints with down at the pub… so naturally, he turns out to be the Necktie Killer that’s been terrorizing London! When Bob brutally rapes and strangles Dick’s ex Brenda in her office, Dick is spotted in the area by her secretary. Finding her boss’s dead body, she tells Scotland Yard that Dick was in the office just the other day, arguing and carrying on, pointing the finger of suspicion on him, and from there, circumstances go rapidly beyond Dick’s control…

Jon Finch (Dick) was no stranger to horror, having previously been in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Even though Dick’s a shit, you can’t help but feel sorry for him, and that’s due in large part to Finch’s acting. Barry Foster (Bob) is charming on the outside, but creepy as hell when he’s in a “frenzied” state. Hitchcock had seen Foster in the 1968 horror TWISTED NERVE, and cast him for the part after Michael Caine turned it down (I know, hard to believe Caine turning something down, right!). The solid supporting cast includes Anna Massey as the doomed Babs, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as the doomed Brenda (just doesn’t pay to get involved with Dick!), Alec McCowan as Inspector Oxford and Vivien Merchant as his wife, and Bernard Cribbins, Jean Marsh (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS), and Billie Whitelaw.

Those famous “Hitchcock Touches” are still around, including the magnificent overhead shot of the Thames River in the opening by DP Gilbert Taylor . There’s a long, slow tracking shot down a winding staircase onto the street, a Hitchcock trademark. The scenes between McCowan and Merchant, an amateur gourmet chef serving her hubby the vilest-looking food while they casually discuss the case, are gems, as is the “potato truck” scene where Rusk frantically looks for his tie-pin, grasped in Babs’s dead hand inside a sack of spuds. Alfred Hitchcock showed his critics he was far from being washed up, and while FRENZY may not rank as his greatest (there are just so many to choose!), it’s an effective, gripping thriller that’ll grab you by the necktie and not let go until the end – and what an ending it is,  a deliciously twisted shocker that I’m not going to spoil for you. You’ll have to watch and see for yourselves!

This post is part of The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To read more entries on The Master of Suspense’s movies, just click on this link! Thanks for having me again, Maddy!

 

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)

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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder, Rock goes way out of his comfort zone portraying a sexual predator and gives one of his best screen performances. Tiger’s a family man, Masters level psychologist, and first class scoundrel not above killing the girls he seduces when they get too close, and Rock gets to show off his acting chops to good advantage.

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A subplot involves John David Carson making his debut as Ponce de Leon Harper, a student with sexual hangups who’s taken under the wing (and covers!) of substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson . Angie is always good, but Carson’s kind of stiff as the kid with a perpetual hard-on (pun intended!), which is a shame, because the character’s central to the film. His career never really took off, and he was relegated to mainly low-budget schlock like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE after this.

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The cast is peppered with Familiar Faces, such as Telly Savalas as a police detective out to solve the high school murder spree, Roddy McDowell as the school’s principal, Keenan Wynn as a bumbling local cop, and STAR TREK’s James Doohan as Telly’s assistant. Barbara Leigh, best known for almost starring in a Hammer movie adaptation of the horror comic VAMPIRELLA (which sadly never got off the ground), plays Tiger’s loving but unsuspecting wife. Another STAR TREK vet William Campbell appears, as does funny Susan Tolsky (of TV’s HERE COME THE BRIDES). The “Pretty Maids” are all pretty hot, including cult actress Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron (later Saturday morning superhero Isis!), Brenda Sykes, Topo Swope (daughter of Dorothy McGuire, now a top talent agent), and Gene’s daughter Dawn Roddenberry.

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There are underlying themes of oppression, non-conformity, and even racism in the film, but let’s be honest, it’s basically about sex! There’s lots of nudity, befitting a 70’s flick, and some may find it creepy seeing Rock Hudson getting down with all these nubile young chicks. As I said earlier, the film couldn’t be made in today’s repressive climate, but back then it was anything goes. I don’t know how you feel about it, all I can tell you if I was a horny 17-year-old back then, I’d have screwed Angie Dickinson’s brains out, too!

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW didn’t do well at the box office, and Roddenberry returned to TV and sci-fi, supplementing his income with talking about STAR TREK on the college lecture circuit. The show had developed a cult following by then due to its popularity in syndication, and by the end of the decade STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hit the big screen. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise will always be Roddenberry’s lasting legacy, but if you’ve got a taste for black comedy, check out his twisted PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW.

 

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