Review: Family Plot (1976)

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Released in 1976, ‘Family Plot’ was the final film in Alfred Hitchcock’s outstanding directorial career. While never regarded as amongst his best films, it has reputation as a good film and when I’d seen it previously had enjoyed it. Having not seen it for many years I was interested to see how it held up.

The plot centres on two couples who initially have no connection with each other. The first couple is fake psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), with the second couple being jeweller Arthur (William Devane) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) who are also ruthless kidnappers. When Blanche and George go searching for a lost heir (with the prospect of $10000 for themselves) their paths cross with Arthur and Fran… which could cost them their lives.

‘Family Plot’ has the elements to be a top-class entertainment – a good cast, an interesting and fairly unusual plot and one of the most acclaimed directors ever. But despite its good qualities the film never really catches fire. The elements are there for a thrilling and tense ride but the film is never more than mildly diverting.

Considering he was so often the biggest asset of films he was associated with during his epic career, ironically probably the main reason for the failure of Family Plot is Hitchcock’s direction. For a film and a plot that needs a snappy and brisk feel, Hitchcock’s direction is rather flabby and laboured. Apart from a tense car chase that Blanche and George experience, there are precious few of the famed Hitchcock touches on display.

Also Hitchcock’s style – so innovative and captivating for most of his career – feels rather ‘old-hat’ here. The film is visually uninteresting and it has jarringly obvious back projection that’s used not only for scenes set in cars, but even in Arthur’s jewellery store. Such back projection was not really an issue in the 1940s & 1950s but by 1976 it gives the film a rather cheap look..

Despite Hitchcock’s direction the film is still solid entertainment. The main credit for this can go to Ernest Lehmann’s script. While it makes the plot a tad too convoluted, it’s full of good characterisation and witty lines. Crucially, it creates an interesting dynamic between not only the two central couples but even between Arthur and his sidekick Maloney (well played by Ed Lauter); indeed because of the deft writing the Arthur/Maloney scene is probably the most enjoyable in the film.

Lehmann’s script also makes an interesting contrast between the two couples. Arthur and Fran are portrayed as wealthy, composed, slick and charismatic while Blanche and George are messy, coarse and chaotic. Indeed by traditional Hollywood standards you would almost expect Arthur and Fran t be the charismatic heroes of the film,  with Blanche/George with the rather buffoonish enemy. And yet the script turns things on its head in the latter stages as we see the intelligence and ingenuity of Blanche and George come to the fore while the truly nasty side of Arthur is exposed.

Due to the talky, non-flashy style of the film, it’s to the film’s benefit that the main characters in the film are portrayed by character actors, not the stars that so often fronted Hitchcock films. Particularly good is Bruce Dern as George. It’s a good example of the benefits of having a character actor in such a role as he adds lots of interesting details to his character’s persona; even before watching this again after many years, the way he tapped a gravestone with his pipe always stayed in my mind. He’s great fun to follow in his investigating as he slowly uncovers the conspiracy. Also William Devane (sounding a lot like Jack Nicholson) is entertainingly smooth and smarmy as Adamson. The only weakness on the acting front is the seance scenes where Barbara Harris (who’s otherwise good in this film) indulges in tedious and incomprehensible mugging.

To be sure ‘Family Plot’ is well down the list of Hitchcock’s best works and is probably one of the worst examples to use of his directorial skills. But overall it’s a decent, well-acted and intelligent film that provides solid entertainment throughout.

Rating: B-

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