The Sixth Annual Hitchcock Festival closes with the Master’s final film, Family Plot. Don’t miss this rare screening!
Family Plot review by Trylon volunteer Greg Hunter.
Imagine a film of hazy California afternoons. A film in which a stretch of sun-bleached coast is as fine a backdrop for violence as any back alley. Our guide at this time, in this place, is an unserious take on the existential detective—a man who can barely guide himself sometimes. Inhabiting this character is an actor perfectly suited to Hollywood’s iconoclastic seventies. Our director, surveying the scene, finds poetry in confusion.
The film, of course, is Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot meets a couple of these criteria, too. Unlike The Long Goodbye, Family Plot is screening at the Riverview this Monday.
Family Plot found Hitchcock returning to the United States after his final shoot in England (for 1972’s Frenzy)—and perhaps trying to apprehend the change in the air. The movie features Bruce Dern as a Californian cab driver who, along with his fake-psychic girlfriend (Barbara Harris), stumbles into a criminal conspiracy. Dern’s wonderfully named George Lumley is more a figure of fun than most of Hitchcock’s leads, and the film as a whole plays as a not-wholly-successful caper—a transitional work for which there is no next step. The piece that follows is not a work of contrarianism, not an essay suggesting that Family Plot isn’t one of Hitchcock’s weaker movies. Family Plot is one of Hitchcock’s weaker movies. But no one needs a spirit of adventure in order to attend a really good Hitchcock film. So here are incentives for the adventurous.
Hitch on the Verge: Family Plot is not quite the Hitchcockian equivalent of the Quincy punk episode, but the movie does find the director navigating some cultural shifts. It’s not just a movie Hitchcock made in the seventies—it’s Hitchcock making a seventies movie. Hitchcock had told California stories before, but unlike Vertigo, Family Plot was produced after The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974), films that established the state as the decade’s destination for noir. Hitchcock’s final film is more cumbersome than those Altman and Polanski works, but it has an interesting sort of interpretability: a viewer can watch Family Plot and wonder if Hitchcock is trying to run with the dogs, or if he’s reacting against the works of his younger peers by creating something a little quainter.
Weirdo Heroes: Maybe the most seventies thing about Family Plot is Hitchcock’s casting of Bruce Dern as his lead. Dern’s an affable goober in the film, as opposed to one of the psychotics or neurotics he has also played. He’s also, on a more basic level, odder looking than previous Hitchcock leading men. Give Hitchcock credit here: if he had begun to see a world or a culture he didn’t recognize, he at least cast his final film according to his impressions of that world. Bolder still: Barbara Harris in the place of Hitchcock’s typical leading lady.
Not only was Barbara Harris older than many of her predecessors at the time of filming—around forty—she also performs the role of Blanche the fake psychic with little of the rigidity that Hitchcock often demanded from female actors. In fact, Blanche seems kind of stoned most of the time. It might be a stretch to say that, with Harris, Hitchcock intended to capture the zeitgeist—to depict, with Harris, a new cultural fuzziness. Even so, the onscreen result is Hitchcock (not the best at gender relations) introducing a new type of female character at the eleventh hour of his career (and one who’s more adept at navigating a criminal conspiracy than she first appears).
Weirder Villains: Barbara Harris is at once more grounded and cartoonier than earlier Hitchcock blondes. But the film’s antagonists are stranger still, and, at least on a visual level, some of Hitchcock’s most memorable baddies. As the thieving Arthur Adamson, William Devane looks like Alfred E. Newman grown up and gone to seed, with skeevy mannerisms to match. His scenes occasionally play as if they’re anticipating the type of villainy that flourished on ’80s primetime action shows rather than maintaining the tradition established by Robert Walker and Joseph Cotton, but even that suits the film’s relatively-low-stakes vibe. Meanwhile, the scenes in which Adamson’s accomplice (Karen Black) disguises herself to retrieve a payday play as if they’ve been spliced in from a different film entirely. Decked out in huge polygonal sunglasses and a wide-brimmed black hat, Black’s character Fran is halfway to being a giallo-film character, a costuming choice that—in a movie full of discordant details—rings out powerfully.
Fodder for the John Williams Completist: Even if you think that John Williams, say, crapped all over the final third of Lincoln, he still wrote some of the most memorable scores in the history of motion pictures. Family Plot arrived in theaters not long after the success of Jaws, and about one year before Star Wars, and people who know more about the composing of music than I do could probably go crazy examining the shared DNA in these different pieces. Talk about a transitional work!
Sexy Closure: Many Hitchcock fans consider Family Plot the closing entry in trilogy of films about theft and sex (in particular, the allure of criminal activity). To Catch a Thief, Marnie, and Family Plot weren’t released one after the other, but together they form a spiritual arc. Even if Family Plot is not as revolutionary a work as that of Robert Altman or his contemporaries, watched in the context of Hitchcock’s filmography, it underscores how weird popular film managed to get for a while.
Finally, This Scene: In all its frantic charm:
Greg Hunter (gregjhunter.tumblr.com) is a writer-editor from Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Comics Journal, The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature, and elsewhere. He concept-tweets in obscurity as @Dialogue_Log.