Family Plot


Family Plot

Critics Consensus

The Master of Horror's swan song finds him aiming for pulpy thrills and hitting the target, delivering a twisty crime story with pleasurable bite.



Total Count: 25


Audience Score

User Ratings: 7,531
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Movie Info

Alfred Hitchcock's final film was adapted from Victor Canning's novel The Rainbird Pattern by Ernest Lehman, who previously wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Barbara Harris plays Blanche, a phony psychic, hired by wealthy Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) to trace the whereabouts of her nephew, who'd been given up for adoption years earlier and who is now heir to a fortune. Blanche's cohort is "investigator" Lumley (Bruce Dern), who is fully prepared to milk the last dollar out of Julia before locating the long-lost nephew. Meanwhile, we are introduced to elegant kidnappers Adamson and Fran (William Devane and Karen Black). The fates of the two couples are inextricably intertwined by the search for the missing heir.


Critic Reviews for Family Plot

All Critics (25) | Top Critics (3) | Fresh (23) | Rotten (2)

Audience Reviews for Family Plot

  • Mar 04, 2014
    Ah, yes, the family plot thickens, and with it, Alfred Hitchcock's kidneys. People, the man went out in 1980, and it's not like we weren't seeing it coming for many, many years by that time, so we may as well have a morbid laugh, something that Hitchcock apparently believed in during his final days. Yup, people, for his last realized stroke... of creativity, that is (Seriously, speaking of "morbid"), Hitchcock decided to go a more comedic route with this film, although he was sure to keep in plenty of dark elements, and I mean plenty. Yeah, folks, don't go thinking that this film's title is short for "Family-Friendly Plot", unless your part of, well, the Bates family, because this story is a "grave" one. Don't worry, this film is a little bit funnier than that pun, and you can gather that from looking at the title, which does, in fact, feature a much better pun. You know, like, a family plot is where they bury relatives, and this film is about a scheme involving a family... right? I don't know if that's more reflective of my being inaccurate about calling this film funny, or a reflection of just how unfunny my "grave story" pun was, but in all seriousness, this is a fair note for Hitchcock to go out on, despite its flaws. 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 séance 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 séance 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
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • Oct 16, 2012
    An appropriate swan song for Alfred Hitchcock's career, Family Plot is light and thoroughly entertaining. It's a clever mystery involving multiple identities and ensuing confusion with the master's comedic touches as well. Family Plot may not seem typical Hitchcock to some, but it reminds me of The Trouble with Harry as a few others. Those only familiar with Psycho and Vertigo would be surprised at his amazingly varied career. Remember how funny Hitch was on his TV show. 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."
    Clintus M Super Reviewer
  • Aug 12, 2012
    Hitch's final film is a convoluted and talky affair which plays more like the TV movies of it's era. 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.
    The Movie W Super Reviewer
  • Dec 07, 2011
    Arthur Adamson: Isn't it touching how a perfect murder has kept our friendship alive all these years.  "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.
    Melvin W Super Reviewer

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