If you were idly flicking through the TV channels on a wet afternoon and hit upon Family Plot, chances are you wouldn’t immediately think it was a Hitchcock movie – it looks more like an episode of Columbo. That bright TV lighting, those mid-range actors who look like they’re trying not to be fingered as this week’s criminal, one who’s once again not as smart as the man in the mac.
I’ve looked up Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Barbara Harris and William Devane and not one of them ever did make an appearance on Columbo but they don’t quite fit the standard Hitchcock bill either, or not the bill containing Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, James Stewart, Eva Marie Saint and other starry stars.
It’s atypical Hitchcock, in other words and he’s trying something newish in 1976 on what was to be his last film. In Hitchcock’s own words Family Plot is a Lubitsch-style whimsical caper. Never to be taken at face value and a master of self-promotion and covering his tracks, the ailing director is probably less Lubitsch inclined here than he’d like to admit and more influenced by 1963’s Charade (he’d tried to make a film with Audrey Hepburn a couple of years earlier), though Columbo (which had started in 1971), The Rockford Files (1974) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) are all in there too, in various quantities.
Laconic, in other words, teasing, playful, with a slight baiting of the genre going on, along with two separate stories which only really come together (and even then, not really) right at the end. In one there’s Barbara Harris as a fake medium who realises she’s struck lucky when an old dear (Cathleen Nesbitt) comes to her with a story about her sister’s missing-presumed-alive son, who would now be the heir to a fortune… if he could be found. Bruce Dern plays the phoney’s cab-driving partner and gopher, an ad hoc amateur detective who does the spade work which she presents to gullible clients as messages from beyond.
In the other story are Karen Black and Wlliam Devane as a pair of kidnappers who lift wealthy people off the streets, treat them fairly well in the cell they have hidden in the basement of their house, and then return to their normal lives once a ransom has been paid.
There’s a McGuffin (a diamond), some North by Northwest slight return sequences featuring Dern and Harris in a runaway car – done for laughs – and John Williams’s score fanfares Bernard Herrmann pastiche here and there, all of them tokenistic reference to Hitchcock’s thrillers of yore.
It’s a case of the glory days being referenced but not recaptured. The complete lack of thrills is the film’s big problem, and its unevenness of tone – the jauntiness comes and goes sporadically – and the sense watching a modern film which also seems trapped in a different era. Much as 1972’s Frenzy made much of its up-to-date settings and yet was all wrong in terms of zeitgeist, the same applies to Family Plot, as if Hitchcock were trying to make a 1940s movie without telling anyone else involved.
It’s strange how Hitchcock in his later years discovered dirt. In earlier films, no hair was out of place, no decorative fixture anything less than pristine. In Family Plot the apartment that medium Blanche and pipe-smoking George share is filthy, every kitchen cabinet covered in smeary finger marks.
A Hitchcock constant is the enduring awkwardness of emotional relationships. No one is handcuffed to their partner (or trapped in a marriage) à la The 39 Steps but there is a relentlessness about the way that, in both partnerships, two heads are not better than one.
Of the four key actors, Karen Black comes out least well. Hitchcock didn’t like her much and a lot of her contribution ended up on the cutting-room floor. Devane’s shit-eating grin helps him to cut through, even though Hitchcock is less interested in the kidnap side of the plot. It’s laconic Dern and scatty Harris who go home with the plaudits, two elements in one half of a Hitchcock film that would have been more of a Hitchcock film if it had been allowed to go solo.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022