Family Plot Reviews
The plot is a convoluted and sometimes confusing lighthearted mystery romp involving 'psychics', kidnapping, ransom, and, of course, the dead (or presumed to be). It's not as funny as maybe it should be, and, while I am okay with humor, I think this might have been far more effective and interesting if it was played darker and more serious. Don't get me wrong, it's interesting stuff, but I think it could have been even more so if done differently.
I liked Karen Black and Bruce Dern, and, while the not as notable cast (at that time) are fine, I think this would have been better if it had some major star power behind it.
The music by John Williams is pretty good, and the film has a nice look to it, but I can just tell that Hitch was probably not trying all that hard here. I know it's cliche to rant about the dip in quality of his later work, but all things considered, this could have been far, far worse.
This might be lesser Hitch, but it's still kinda decent, so sure, give it a watch.
Family Plot is cast well. I love the chemistry, especially the verbal jabbing, between Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. William Devane is perfect as the debonair jeweler and kidnapper hiding a dangerous past. Ed Lauter's great too; he usually plays a jerk (think Longest Yard), but here he's even creepier.
This film is a greatly nuanced comedy about death. It's a nice contrast with AH's previous film, the R-rated shocker Frenzy. Considered together, I think they typify his career. This isn't deep philosophy, its entertainment. As the master stated, "drama is life with the dull bits left out."
"There's no body in the family plot."
Family Plot is a pretty good going out party for the Master, Alfred Hitchcock. It's lesser Hitchcock for sure, but lesser Hitchcock is still pretty damn good. This film brings together a lot of Hitchcock's signature techniques and wraps them up nicely in two hours. Now, years after being made, Family Plot is a pretty good introduction to Hitchcock. It wouldn't be a bad movie to watch first, before diving into his several masterpieces like Psycho and Vertigo.†
The movie follows a couple, one a phony psychic and the other, a taxi driver who is a pretty good little investigator. Blanche(the psychic) is asked to locate a family heir who has been missing for several years. Her and Lumley(the taxi driver) don't have to much to go by, but they soon start following up leads which lead them to another couple. These two are jewel thieves and one has a huge secret. The film brings the two couples together in a smart and intricate way. Hitchcock, like usual, doesn't try to keep major details from us. He let's us in on all the secrets and let's the suspense build from the characters mission to find out what we already know.†
There's a reason he is known as the "Master of Suspense." He knows how to build it. He knew that suspense isn't built by surprises, but by knowing what's going on, but not what's going to happen. Sure, this isn't the greatest example of that in his work, but it is still a good one. He's not into huge plot twists at the end. Think how Psycho would have turned out in another director's hands. We sure wouldn't have been let in on the Norman Bates/Mother thing that early.
There's one thing I have a problem with and it is a dumb ending. I didn't care for it, but it didn't ruin the movie either. Overall, Family Plot is just another solid thriller from Hitchcock. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Barbara Harris (who also starred in "Freaky Friday" that year) plays a fake psychic trying to track down the bastard son of a rich woman. She and her boyfriend (a wacky, funny performance from Bruce Dern) stumble into some mild danger. It turns out the bastard son (William Devane), who doesn't realize that he has links to an aristocratic family, is a criminal.
He and his wife (a flaccid, whiny Karen Black) specialize in kidnapping semi-prominent people (a bishop, for example) to gain ransom money. It's all very light-hearted and it plays like a 1970s TV show. It's not terrible, and there are some cool moments. But for the most part, this is devoid of any artistry. Not recommended.
Just FYI -- Other films that came out in 1976: The remakes of "King Kong" and "A Star is Born," "Carrie," "The Omen," "Taxi Driver," "Marathon Man," "Network," "All the President's Men," and "Rocky," which won the Oscar for Best Picture. I would have voted for "Network" as Best Picture -- it was also nominated. But "Rocky" is a fine choice.
A phony psychic and her taxi driver boyfriend launch a scam to make 10,000 dollars off an old lady by making her think they are in contact with her heir. As it turns out, they do make contact with the heir, who is a kidnapper and a jewel thief.
The whole last half hour was very predictable, and perhaps showed the signs of a man coming to the end of his career who had made all his great moves on screen already.
However you choose to view it, though, it's still a great success. Hitchcock's a genius.
The director had prided himself throughout his career on his ability to sidestep plot, dialogue and character, three aspects of film-making that are given far too much credence today. His last film is brimming with all three, to it's detriment. It plays more like a made for TV Coen brothers film than a work of the master of suspense.
Harris is a fake psychic who, with boyfriend Dern, attempts to swindle money from an elderly client by tracking down her long lost son. That son is actually Devane, a jeweller who stays in business through kidnap and extortion, aided by his lover, Black. When Devane realises Harris and Dern are about to expose him he sets out to have them killed.
This film is unbearably talky, by anyone's standards, let alone Hitchcock. The opening scene alone contains more exposition than his entire output of the previous twenty years. It's script is written by Ernest Lehmann who penned the great "North by NorthWest", a shining example of visual storytelling if ever there was one. That movie had no plot, it didn't require one. Hitchcock actually mocked plot driven films by having the one moment when a character is about to explain all drowned out by a loud airplane engine. The roar of a jumbo jet would be far preferable over the stream of badly written dialogue offered up here.
Naturally there are some impressive visuals but they occur all too rarely. The most famous shot involves a crane into a huge close up of a diamond hidden in a chandelier. Hitchcock was the primary influence on the makers of Italian thrillers in the seventies and here he gives them a nod in a great tracking shot following Black, disguised in the sort of outfit the villain of a giallo might sport, as she picks up a ransom from a police station. Lady Gaga, of all people, referenced this scene in one of her music videos.
At this stage in his life, Hitch was in troublesome physical condition. During filming of "Family Plot" he would receive a telephone call from the studio execs each morning who had him place the receiver against his chest in order to determine if his heart rate allowed him to film that day. His lack of mobility is the primary reason for this film's absence of visual inventiveness. By 1976 the idea of filming a scene in a car on a sound stage was old hat but Hitch's health prevented him from location shooting. As a result the scene where Dern tries to control a car with sabotaged brakes resembles something from an Ed Wood movie, the projected backgrounds moving at a ridiculously fast speed. No doubt realising it would look absurd, Hitch has Dern and Harris play the scene for laughs which makes it even more cringeworthy.
Another problem is the soundtrack by John Williams, fresh off his iconic work on "Jaws". A criticism often leveled at the composer is that his music is often overbearing and that's certainly the case here. The central harpsichord theme (again familiar to fans of Lady Gaga) is irritating and gives the film a cheap "Movie of the Week" feel. At one point the camera pans to an open window to reveal a character has just made his exit. Williams wanted the score to swell when the window comes into view but Hitch wisely cut the music instead to give the image more impact. He was showing the composer that often less is more but if you've seen any Spielberg movie of the last two decades you can't help but wonder if Williams was paying attention.
The first scene Hitch shot on this film was set in a cemetary and the fake tombstones were embellished with the names of members of the press he had invited to witness filming. Bizarrely, this film has a cult following amongst Mormons who believe the director was secretly enamored of their faith. They believe there are references to Mormonism throughout Hitch's films and the cemetary used here belongs to their order.
It was clear to everyone around him that this would most likely be Hitch's final film and Dern urged him to make his famous cameo at the end of the film by walking down a set of stairs and winking at the camera in the movie's final shot. Understandably Hitch objected as he felt he would be sealing his faith but he does have Harris end the movie with a wink to the audience. I like to think this is Hitch's way of acknowledging the decades of joy and suspense he and his fans have shared at the expense of his characters.
Whether it be because it's even self-aware about its dramatic thinness, or simply because of whatever, this film doesn't put much thought into developing its characters, whose unlikable traits are hard to deny without being veiled by some extensive characterization, and loosen your investment about as much as the many moments in which the film jars in its focal shifts. Something of an ensemble piece, this film juggles several plots, and messily so, giving you time to detach yourself from certain characters the longer the film focuses on others, something that it didn't have to do, and probably wouldn't have done if Ernest Lehman's script didn't go dragged out my meandering bits in material which break up a fair deal of tightness. Yeah, there are plenty of places in which the film feels tight, but in plenty of other areas in this ultimately unnecessarily two-hour-long affair, things outstay their welcome, and such pacing inconsistencies challenge engagement value, not unlike the tonal unevenness. The film opens with a sťance sequence that is so cloyingly scored, overacted and lamely written that it, quite frankly, is rather embarrassing, and after that, the level of cheese takes a serious drop, yet it admittedly rarely, if ever truly dissipates, as certain missteps in dialogue or overblown aspects to humor distance, particularly when they break a certain relative seriousness through tonal inconsistencies that limit a sense of weight to this narrative. I don't suppose the inconsistencies in pacing and tone are as severe as I make them sound, being not much more glaring than the developmental shortcomings that you kind of get used to after a while, thanks to storytelling's and acting's shining a light on the color of this ensemble piece, yet those issues stand, and the more they stick around, the harder it gets to be to ignore how kind of overblown the telling of this story is, for although there's plenty of intrigue to the idea behind this pseudo-thriller, it's natural shortcomings that really hold this thing back. There's only so much momentum and sense of consequence to this not-so lighthearted fluff piece, and while the entertainment value is there, it can't quite make the final product all that memorable, through all the inconsistencies. Consequential shortcomings are almost as recurring as natural shortcomings, but just as recurring as anything are the strengths, of which there are enough to sustain a decent amount of entertainment value, with the help of lively score work.
At least notable as the meeting between two legends of the offscreen aspects of filmmaking, this film sees Alfred Hitchcock employing the great John Williams to compose a score that isn't all that special, is formulaic, and isn't even all that prominently used on the whole in this mostly unmusical film, but it's most certainly rich with much of that classic John Williams color, which, while subtle, helps sustain liveliness, when actually played upon, that is. Needless to say, more recurring than the score work in this ensemble piece is, of course, the ensemble of performers, for although Barbara Harris, maybe even a few other people, gets carried away with some of the film's more cheesy material (Like I said, that opening sťance scene is a bit of a challenge), most everyone in this perhaps overblown cast charms, with the leads nailing their morally questionable characters' sleaze with enough realization to help win you over, despite expository shortcomings. As with many of your trademark dark comedies, this film is driven by thoroughly flawed and often unredeemed characters, and in order to sell them as driving forces in this ensemble piece, it needs the charismatic performances that are found just about across the board in this heathily sizable collection of talents, and might also require some inspiration to writing. Ernest Lehman's script is perhaps the relative weakest aspect of the film, as it bloats its interpretation of a somewhat thin story concept with uneven pacing, while limiting development and control on tonal dynamicity, however limited, yet Lehman still delivers on plenty of wit to dialogue, as well as humor that is never broad enough to be riotous, but still amuses, to some extent, time and again. Cleverness is pretty prominent through the script's dialogue and subtle humor, but also applies to the handling of this narrative, which is dramatically thin, yet tells an interesting tale about several people's varying investigative takes on a case involving a dark family secret, sold in no small part by the colorful acting, scripting and direction. Not counting the ultimately unfinished "The Short Night", this film marked the final project by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, and no, it's not a terribly worth testament to the late, great filmmakers groundbreaking abilities, yet Hitchcock's direction still carries the final product's engagement value, however limited, as much as anything, framing the film evenly enough to immerse you into the setting of the film, if not immerse you into a degree of intensity, while utilizing a certain steady pacing that, while a little too limp on occasion, thoughtfully soaks up the subtleties that make the film so interesting in so many places. Alas, were the film a little more comfortable in its storytelling, it would have bordered on rewarding, and if the story was a little meatier on top of that, then the final product would have gripped as a grand finale in Hitchcock's career, yet Hitchcock, joined by a team of other talented filmmakers, holds enough of your attention with entertainment value, if not tension, to keep you going, at least up to a point.
When it's all done and buried, limitations in development and an excess in material beget focal inconsistencies in this ensemble piece, while cheesy occasions and a hint of tonal inconsistency reflect the plot's being kind of thin secure the final product as rather underwhelming, but a colorful score, charismatic performances, clever writing and a reasonably well-structured final directorial performance by the late, great Alfred Hitchcock dig up enough intrigue to endear you to "Family Plot" as a serviceably entertaining affair, improvable as Hitchcock's grand finale though it may be.
2.5/5 - Fair
The out of control car scene is a particular highlight that made me scream and gasp a little bit and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
And honestly, how amazing is it that the final shot of Hitchcock's career features one of his trademark blondes looking into the camera and winking at us, the audience.
Thanks for the wonderful films, Mr. Hitchcock. You gave the world a bundle of gifts that will unquestionably outlive us all.