Family Plot (1976)

“There is no Eddie Shoebridge. He went up in smoke 25 years ago and came down in the city; he calls himself Arthur Adamson.”

Family Plot Poster

Synopsis:
A fraudulent psychic (Barbara Harris) and her taxi-driver boyfriend (Bruce Dern) try to locate the nephew of a wealthy woman (Catherine Nesbitt) who is offering a reward for his discovery — but the nephew (William Devane) turns out to be a psychopathic jewelry store owner who, with the help of his girlfriend (Karen Black), kidnaps people in exchange for enormous diamonds, and will stop at nothing to get Harris and Dern off his trail.

Genres:

Review:
Hitchcock’s last film isn’t one of his best by a long shot (it faces some stiff competition!), but it remains a worthy final installment in his lengthy and illustrious career. The script (by Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest) is a fun mix of comedy and thrills, with a dense but comprehensible plot that keeps one in suspense throughout. In just one of the film’s many instances of symmetry and “doubles”, Harris and Dern provide a welcome comedic counterpart to Devane and Black’s deliciously nefarious thieves (though I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of Harris’s overly nutty performance); it’s particularly nice to see Devane — normally a supporting player — given a chance to shine as the central baddie. Naturally, one wonders why Harris and Dern never think about simply finding an impersonator to play Nesbitt’s nephew — but, as I noted in my review of Strangers on a Train (1951), over-analyzing Hitchcock’s films for plot holes simply ruins the fun! What’s most disconcerting to me about Family Plot (much like the graphic violence in his earlier Frenzy) is hearing such overt sexual puns — as when Dern assures sex-starved Harris that she’ll see a “standing ovation” that night in their waterbed. On that note, it’s interesting to contemplate what Hitch’s film might have looked like had he lived and continued working through the 1980s and ’90s…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Devane as Arthur Adamson
    Family Plot Devane
  • Karen Black as Fran
    Family Plot Black
  • Bruce Dern as George Lumely
    Family Plot Dern
  • Ernest Lehman’s darkly humorous script
    Family Plot Humor
  • John Williams’ catchy score

Must See?
Yes, as Hitch’s final film.

Categories

Links:

One Response to “Family Plot (1976)”

  1. A must-see, as one of Hitch’s strongest films. Seeing it again after many years, I was struck by how fresh a film it seems (for one that is moving towards being 50 years old). Not being a major Hitchcock fan (outside of the films of his that I agree are things of genius), I’m delighted that ‘Family Plot’ feels wonderfully spontaneous – when Hitch films can tend to feel heavy-handed or overly ‘studied’ in advance.

    I would think ‘FP’ holds up well on occasional repeat viewings. It has enough surprises (and depth) for them.

    More than anything else… for a thriller, ‘FP’ simultaneously feels like fun entertainment. Assisting with that is John Williams’ often-playful score – which, to me, resonates in John Morris’ delightful score for 1985’s ‘Clue’.

    People often mention Hitch’s comedy ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ (which Carole Lombard asked him to direct as a favor to her) as an “uncharacteristic” work but – as most of us know all too well – there’s humor in many Hitch films; ‘M&MS’ only stands out because it lacks any kind of suspense element but one of Hitch’s quirks was a preoccupation with poking fun (he even does it in something as intense as ‘Psycho’) – and it’s characteristically fitting for Hitch that ‘FP’ ends with Harris looking directly into the camera to wink to the audience. Harris becomes Hitch at that point, reminding us that his main interest throughout his career was his intent (whether always successful or not) to ‘entertain’ (in his quirky and adventurous way) and amuse.

    ‘FP’ is quite often amusing – and a lot of it is right there in Lehman’s richly complex yet still essentially simple script (a much better one, I think, than the one Lehman did for ‘North by Northwest’).

    Hitch gets very satisfying performances out of Dern and Black; I think it’s some of their best and most relaxed work. It’s true that Devane here is given a rare lead – but, oddly, he reminds me of Jack Nicholson in this role, and even sounds like him in his tone and delivery. (I also quite like Nesbitt in her very engaging supporting role.)

    Ultimately, I think ‘FP’ belongs to Harris and what she does here charms me endlessly. It’s understandable that she didn’t have more of a career. (Among her credits, unfortunately, there’s a surplus of forgettable films.) Often referred to as “eccentric” (though who really knows in what way), what’s more to the point is that Harris was ambivalent about her career and didn’t seem to care about being ‘famous’ (since fame seemed to annoy or just bore her). Reportedly, she much preferred the rehearsal process over having to repeat a performance nightly on-stage (which explains why she abandoned stage for screen; but eventually she gave up the screen in order to retire – so she could concentrate on ‘process’, as an acting coach).

    I’m really glad that Harris has this film as a strong, focused example of her unique persona. She does lovely work in a number of films (‘A Thousand Clowns’, ‘Nashville’, ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, etc.) but ‘FP’ is, more or less, all hers. Hitch is generous to her in this film – in return, Harris allows Hitch to cap his career with a winner! (RIP Barbara: 8/21/2018.)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.