Week 52: ‘Family Plot’ – 1976

And so we come to the last Alfred Hitchcock film, the fairly light hearted and worth a watch ‘Family Plot’. The opening titles show some signs of inventitude, the main ones being enwrapped on a crystal ball which then leads us into the opening seance scene.

Here Madame Blanche (Tyler, played by Barbara Harris) is conducting the procedure on an, obviously wealthy, old girl called Miss Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) –the upshot of which is that Miss Rainbird will cough up a load of conned cash to locate her dead sister’s long lost nephew. Madame Blanche has a little peek through her fingers as the old rain bird is turned away, and then enters into even more bizarre impersonations before the full story is related to us. For $10k it’s decided that the search for her true heir should begin and thus receive his just inheritance.

Blanche is partnered up in all ways with George Lumley (Bruce Dern) and together they embark on the search. They think they’ve found their guy in the figure of Arthur Adamson (the great William Devane), a jeweler who also happens to be a crook, heisting big chunky diamonds with his bewigged girlfriend Fran (the execrable Karen Black). The whole plot gets more and more dense with misunderstandings and rubbish crooks mixing with uber pro ones – it’s a good old yarn and pretty entertaining to boot.

After the lengthy exposition in the car between Blanche and George (the director struggling to get any camera interest into the shot/reverse shot style and questionable rear projection), George has to brake sharply to avoid hitting a black clad blonde woman crossing the street  – a rather too neat coincidence as this is Fran picking up a big rock in exchange for the safe but unconscious return of one Victor Constantine (Nicholas Colasanto). Fran and Adamson get back to their place with admirable professionalism – Hitchcock taking care to illustrate how thorough they are as a team, all hidden basement cell and careful cleaning and Fran stashing her rug in the icebox. A shot of their rather lavish chandelier is then revealed to be their out-in-the-open hiding place, the diamond simply Sellotaped up there.

There’s a pretty entertaining séance scene as Blanche cheeses her way through another performance, hamming it up splendidly – I like Barbara Harris a lot in this and throughout the picture. In the middle of it all George sneaks in and has to entice her out to borrow her car keys. George’s investigations drive him to the burial plot of the Shoebridge family and eventually to Arthur Adamson. On the way to locating Shoebridge/Adamson, George encounters Joe Maloney  (Ed Lauter) who is in cahoots with the big jewel thieves – a slightly weird blue screen thing going on as Maloney comes to see Adamson in his jewelry store to keep him up to speed on the sniffing around (this rear projected thing occurs with Fran later also – it’s a stage set and they seem to have inserted a street scene outside the window).

Maloney is blackmailing Adamson for his silence – he was the one who put the fake headstone on the family plot and also assisted Adamson in the murder of his parents. Adamson is as cool as Maloney isn’t, Devane giving his usual wonderful soft spoken delivery under pressure and keeping his head as the cops turn up investigating the diamond theft. Adamson coolly picks a tiny speck of something from one of the cop’s jackets, a good little touch from Devane to show his supreme confidence. He’s great, why isn’t he an enormous star or used more as a character actor?

Pipe smoking George’s sniffing about brings him through the cathedral doors of Bishop Wood (William Prince) who baptized Edward Shoebridge and may be able to help him see some kind of light. Just as he is about to make contact the slick duo of Adamson/Fran manage to inject the Bishop and drag him out of the full to the rafters church, a good little sequence showing the professionalism of their schtick. The bishop is promptly locked up in their underground hidden cell and spoonfed gruel (not really, he gets chicken and a fresh bottle of wine).

There’s a pretty good eating/dialogue scene where George and Blanche get the call to meet up with the scheming Maloney, the two of them making homemade burgers and negotiating through bap* stuffed mouths. I at once find Dern annoying but weirdly watchable in a kind of overacting, twitchy way – he falls into that James Woods school of unbelievability and ‘look Ma, I’m acting here!’

The very fact that I notice his acting means he’s no good at it**. He even drinks beer annoyingly in the next scene when they are waiting for Maloney (who is busy outside the diner knackering their brakes) – most times I see people embibing it makes me want to also, but not in this case, no way****.

The ensuing brake failing car out of control sequence is perfect to summarise the weird tone of parts of the film. It’s quite ludicrous, Blanche grabbing George as he struggles to retain control of the vehicle – then she starts clambering all over him, sticking her feet in his face, yanking his tie etc. The poor sod is trying to drive an out of control car whilst himself busily over acting like a mad loon against a patently obvious rear projected background and some over cranked shots of a mountain road – leave him be woman! It’s not very good at all and I can’t quite fathom why Hitchcock does it like this as it seems out of tone with the rest of the picture.

There’s a nice cat and mouse shot as George stalks Maloney’s wife in the graveyard, it feels like they’re in a maze from above and he finally traps her and gets some answers about the (non existent) Shoebridge (who went up in smoke some years before) and Arthur Adamson. He and Blanche then start tracking him down, George bizarrely having half a (rather contrived and soapy) conversation topless aside from his cabbie’s peaked cap. It seems a slightly dangerous strategy for Blanche to actually troll around all the A. Adamson’s in the phone book in person – a humorous montage as she encounters an old guy/a black guy/a woman/twins in her search before coming across the real deal. What does she expect to happen then? Strikes me as a rather shocking lack of foresight for a medium.

Blanche recklessly heads off to Adamson’s place and the music here has overtones of classic Bernard Herrmann, some strident strings to emphasise the drama. The composer was John Williams and clearly as a modern master himself he’s aware of the Hitchcock heritage as the score throughout is a good one in comparison to some of the lackluster ones of some of the recent director’s efforts.

The stand out scene for me – short though it is – is when Adamson and Fran open their garage door and Blanche is standing right there! She tells them about the huge possible inheritance but dopey Fran blows it by opening the car door to tuck the unconscious bishop’s bright red robes back in (a great from the ground shot here) and the clergyman promptly spills out head first.

Adamson isn’t messing about and has to inject Blanche into oblivion straightway, a little drop of bright crimson on her fresh white blouse. It’s a neat sequence and shows the director’s tonal intention in the picture, a mixture of lightish humour and dark intentions. Good stuff, finally.

It’s also gratifying that the rather more slapdash and amateurish couple get the better of the hardened pros, who end up encased in their own personal prison with Blanche actually doing something genuinely psychic and locating the sticky taped diamond. The final shots have Blanche winking at the camera and a big diamond close up. On the DVD doco Bruce Dern relates how he suggested that Hitchcock himself appeared and did this wink himself. I always take these kind of anecdotes with a pitch of snuff but he’s right, it would have been a cool ending – especially given this transpired to be the great master’s final work.

Given that it features in prominent roles two actors who I continually find pretty annoying (Bruce Dern and Karen Black) ‘Family Plot’ is enjoyable and a not-too-ashamed-of swan song to Alfred Hitchcock’s career. It’s quite TV movie-like and struggles to break out to be really like a cinema experience but has enough twists and turns to make up for this. To balance the two annoying actors (this is purely a personal dislike, they’re ok at acting I just don’t like them – actually Karen Black’s rubbish, but anyway…) William Devane and Barbara Harris are really good and a treat to watch. It’s a fairly good movie and ok second tier Hitchcock. Worth a look on a Sunday afternoon in a kind of innocuous, light and entertaining way.

Miscellaneous notes

Cool Hitchcock cameo @ 39’57” finger pointing at some guy behind a frosted door, the two of them silhouetted.

There’s a weird brief few frames of black @ 51’42” which looks like a mistake – both pictures and audio drop out, probably an authoring boo-boo.

Profile shots abound in some of the séance scenes of Blanche doing her thing, as well as in the conversation between Shoebridge and Fran in the jewelry store.

*or roll/cob/bun/barm/blaa/manchet/nudger/flour cake/oven bottom etc.

**and don’t get me started on: Michael Maloney or Nicholas Farrell or bloody Bill Nighy for Olivier’s sake. And Toby effing Stephens? How, how, how do these people get work? Awful show off actors with twitching unnatural foibles and facial tics quite out of the ordinary and into the void of stop it-ness. Nicolas Cage veers into these realms sometimes too, but you can forgive him a bit because he’s Nicolas Cage and was in ‘Wild at Heart’ and ‘Rumble Fish’ for a little bit. And Brian De Palma’s ‘Snake Eyes’, heaven help us. And ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ – did you see that stinker? Michael Sheen. Ethan Hawke, Ethan Hawke – I think he may actually be the worst of them all, I literally don’t believe him in pretty anything (although the ‘Before…’ Linklater films were ok). Robin bloody Williams***. Christian Bale in ‘The Fighter’ or ‘American Hustle’ or most things. Shia LaBeoarff also. Paul Dano – he can’t even act in photos. Idris Elba?? Awful awful. Good Lord, how do these people get jobs? Grrrrrr….

***I am a massive admirer of the great American writer Vern who writes of Robin Williams, in his exhaustive and astonishing book ‘Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal’:

‘And if that’s not enough for you there’s an interview with Robin Williams where instead of offering any sort of insight he does his complete cokehead spazz out thing where he spits out 700 wacky voices and references in 1 minute, and you don’t know what the fuck his problem is so that’s supposed to count as being a comic genius’.

Nailed it Vern – I love your work.

(Note – this quote used without permission from Vern, although I reckon with enough compliments thrown out as tributes to his absolute stone cold writing genius he may not sue me. Thanks Vern).

****On the subject of Bruce Dern drinking beer in movies, have a look at his technique in his Oscar nominated turn in ‘Nebraska’ – he seems to do some weird thing where he puts his tongue in the neck of the bottle every time he drinks, very odd. I’ve tried doing it myself and it either just spills down my chin or stops anything coming out at all. 36 years after ‘Family Plot’ and he’s still distracting me with his lager antics. I hope he wins the Oscar, though, as he was actually pretty good in this new one…  

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