You rarely hear mention of Alfred Hitchcock’s last cinematic foray, Family Plot, and you would assume that means a throwaway title — a fall from his illustrious heights. Not so! In fact, it’s rather a shame more folks haven’t turned the movie on because it proves the Master still has it. There’s still a twinkle in his directorial eye as he leads us on one final merry jaunt of murder, crime, and passion.
I was always under the illusion family plot was about some kind of conspiracy. The first inkling is from a cemetery plot even as it evolves into a broader conspiracy unraveling in front of us. It never registered as a pun until the story began to run its course. Allow me to explain.
Our story opens with a quack psychic (Barabara Harris) drumming up business with rich old spinsters ready to fork out money to get their fortunes told. She’s running the ongoing con with her boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern). They’re purely small-time operators.
Soon he is on the beat poking around about a man named Shoebridge. What he’s doing at first isn’t exactly clear — he’s a taxi cabbie by day — however, soon we realize he’s digging up tidbits for future seance fodder.
Their latest coup involves a wealthy widow, if only they can locate her long-lost nephew who was given up for adoption years before. She looks to bequeath him some of her vast fortunes on behalf of her guilt-ridden dear departed sister. They too have a stake in finding him: $10,000 to be exact, which is a fortune to them.
Meanwhile, the headlines are taken with a crime of a different sort: The Constantine Ransom for a priceless gem. It really is the perfect crime. The police are befuddled and there hasn’t been a single false step. Their hands are tied as a mysterious lady in black — a twist on the Hitchcock blonde — shows up to make the trade. She leaves with her gem and orders a helicopter to aid in her getaway, all planned so she can drift back into anonymity.
It turns out she also has an accomplice: her lover, who works as a local jeweler (William Devane). By sheer coincidence, he is the very same man Dern is hunting for. Instantly we have the glorious joke at the center of the drama.
Because these circumstances have nothing to do with his dubious extracurricular activities and still, this uncanny connection becomes a lovely fulcrum for the movie to balance on with comic underpinnings. In one defining moment, the stolen diamond is kept in a very visible hiding spot established by a telling Hitchcock closeup. He looks to be having a gleeful good time of it.
Ernest Lehman’s script (remember he collaborated with Hitch on North by Northwest) is more liberal with the profanities, but it readily amuses itself with the quandary at its core exploring the relationships of these two couples and how these separate scenarios are tied together. In some strange way, it’s all things police procedural, murder mystery, and a bit like a vintage drawing-room comedy. They’re both after two very different pots!
The ransomers’ latest plans involve the brazen kidnapping of a local bishop taking full advantage of the congregation’s shock. Diagnosing the situation later, as they tear off their disguises and zoom away he notes smugly, “they’re all too religiously polite.”
Lumley’s travails take him to a religious setting of his own, in his case, the funeral of a balding gas station attendant named Maloney (Ed Lautner). There’s no need to get into his death although it involved some winding roads and a car chase of sorts…
In the most captivating shot, Hitchcock captures the overgrown cemetery from a birdseye perspective. Maloney’s reticent wife (Katherine Helmond) scurries away and Dern scampers along until he corners her. It’s the same old story. She wants to be left alone, and he just wants information.
The search for A.A. Adamson leads to all sorts of people and visual gags placed in front of us with a wry wink. But this is hardly the grandest joke as Hitchcock allows us to watch the stories converge as we are caught right in the middle. Again, it’s wonderful bits of coincidence getting in the way or more precisely bringing the story to an impeccable climax.
I’ve been mulling over the assertion that the great directors have a distinct point of view. With Hitch, he used the shot-reverse-shot paradigm certainly, but there was always a cadence to it. If he needed to break out of the rhythm he would.
My mind flashes to a scene with Dern as he’s hiding on the stairwell. The couple has returned from their latest crime totally unaware of their guest. Their feet wander around the kitchen as they talk. We’re paying partial attention to that but like Dern, Hitch makes us crane our necks and feel uncomfortable as the audience. In that individual moment, we don’t have the whole picture, and we are forced to be in his shoes for even an instant. There’s definitely a profound level of audience identification and inherent tension. This is all Hithcock’s doing.
The ending is more than satisfactory, but Barbara Harris’s wink to the camera is like a final curtain call for Hitch. This last gesture sums up his career for me. It was built on suspense and an intuitive understanding of visual cinema and audience manipulation. However, his very own persona and the connection he created with the masses wouldn’t be anything without his sense of humor.
Due to his deteriorating health, he would never complete another film, dying 4 years later in 1980. He was planning on a film called The Short Night, a project that obviously was never realized. With his death, the film world lost one of its most consummate craftsmen and storytellers.
In a Hitchcock movie, you feel well taken care of because the director knows what he’s doing, oftentimes even when we don’t. He scares us when we want to be scared. Thrills us. Gives us romance. And even deigns to allow us to be in on the joke.
Under the circumstances, I can’t think of a more appreciative place to leave the Master. His powers haven’t atrophied. On the contrary, he still knows how to play the game and how to have fun doing it. This might be the most pleasant surprise of Family Plot. Alfred Hitchcock never lost his wonderfully grim sense of humor.