Alfred Hitchcock’s Final Twist: Family Plot

30 03 2011

And so we come to “Family Plot.” Released in 1976, 51 years after Alfred Hitchcock directed his first feature length motion picture, “The Pleasure Garden,” this final film was Hitch’s Opus number 53. Hitchcock did not know it would be his last picture, and it is a slightly odd note to finish on, as it is, in a way, a dark romantic comedy about two criminal couples: One, essentially bumbling con artists, the other, ruthless kidnappers. It features Hitchcock’s usual sharp script, several interesting set pieces, and very appealing performances by some young talent.

Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed revolution after revolution in the film

Even on his final film, Hitch's attention to details like color remained impeccable

industry, and the 1970s were no less tumultuous than the decades before. 1975 had been the year of “Jaws,” which ushered in the new era of blockbuster films; 1976’s biggest film was “Rocky.” Yet “Family Plot” held its own against “All The President’s Men,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Omen” and others, finishing the year a very respectable number nine at the box office. Not at all bad for a seventy-seven year old filmmaker!

Like “Frenzy,” this was the new Hitchcock: Its script was fully of salty language, and its characters were adult in every sense of the word. In the era of the MPAA ratings system, sex had finally and unabashedly entered Hitchcock’s work. Where the sex in “Frenzy” had been violent, here, in “Family Plot,” it was more benign, as two unmarried couples carry out their criminal activities while continually crossing paths as though they were in a farce.

The two couples are Madame Blanche, a low-rent psychic played by Barbara Harris; her boyfriend, George, an actor and cab driver, played by Bruce Dern; Arthur Adamson, a sociopathic criminal played by William Devane; and Fran, Adamson’s accomplice in kidnapping, played by Karen Black.

Blanche and George have been hired by a rich old woman to find her long-lost nephew, Edward Shoebridge, who had been given up for adoption as a baby. Having been promised a ten thousand dollar reward, Blanche shows her innate honesty by setting out to find Shoebridge, rather than putting George up in his place. It’s a mark of Hitchcock’s strong characterization here – not a quality generally regarded as his strong suit – that we accept Blanche and George’s plan. Blanche’s scam as a spiritualist is only a little crooked; she very likely sees herself as telling nice people what they want to hear. George, being a bit on the dim side, goes along with her on this.

As the pair discuss their job, George nearly runs over a blonde woman in a black trenchcoat. We follow her and learn that she is on her way to a meeting to get the ransom for a kidnapping victim: a large, flawless diamond. She leads a helicopter pilot to the victim, then dashes off to meet Adamson, the mastermind of the operation. Back at home, Adamson hides the diamond in a crystal chandelier, practically in plain sight.

George starts poking around for information on Shoebridge, learning that he killed his parents and he tried to fake his own death. George follows a lead to gas-station owner Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter), who runs to tell Adamson what’s happening – because Adamson IS Shoebridge. Adamson runs a jewelry shop by day, and when he learns that George is asking questions about him, he puts Maloney to work, asking him to kill George.

Maloney calls George and Blanche, saying he wants to meet at a diner up in

As their car careens out of control, Blanche holds on for dear life - to George's tie

the mountains. While they wait inside, Maloney cuts the brakes on their car. (The scene inside the diner is a hoot, as a priest shows up with a bunch of Sunday school kids, then sits at a different from them, where he meets an attractive woman.) On leaving the diner, after deciding they’ve been stood up, George loses control of the car. There’s a lengthy scene of the car racing down the mountain out of control, with George struggling to keep from crashing and Blanche shrieking and falling all over the place – it’s an obvious parody of car chases from movies like “The French Connection,” although Harris’s shrill performance her is a bit grating.

Moments later, as they stagger into the road again, Maloney drives up to check on his work. Seeing them still alive, he proceeds to try and run them off the road, but ended up going over a cliff himself. Hitchcock shows us not the car crash but the reactions of Blanche and George – as always, he exercises great restraint.

After escaping the car – it’s on its side, so Blanche climbs out the top window while George crawls out the bottom one – they regroup. They put together Adamson’s true identity, and George goes looking for information on him at a local church, just as Adamson and Fran drug and kidnap a bishop during mass, with the whole congregation watching in shock, as though they really were sheep.

Blanche, meanwhile, has been knocking on the doors of anyone in the area named A. Adamson, in a funny montage sequence in which she runs into several unlikely candidates, including a black woman and a set of twins. Finally, she finds the right A. Adamson. She expects him to be thrilled to hear that he’s going to be heir to millions, but she never gets to tell him the news, as she has caught Adamson in the middle of moving the unconscious bishop. Adamson and Fran grab Blanche, drug her and throw her into a room they have hidden behind a fake brick wall.

Luckily, George finds his way to Adamson’s house as well. He spots Blanche’s car out front and sneaks into the house, standing on the stairs to eavesdrop on Adamson and Fran as they plan to get rid of Blanche. George sneaks down to the hidden room, letting Blanche out of the room while trapping Adamson and Fran inside.

The infamous wink to the camera

Before they call the police, George tells Blanche that the diamond ransom is hidden somewhere nearby. Blanche falls into a trance and walks straight to the stairs, where she can reach the diamond, as George says, “You did it, Blanche! You really are a psychic,” in a moment that feels like something out of “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” The film ends on an even stranger note, as Blanche looks directly into the camera and winks.

“Family Plot” was based on the novel “The Rainbird Pattern,” by Victor Canning, adapted by Ernest Lehman, who had last worked with Hitchcock on “North by Northwest.” Hitch asked Lehman to keep things light and fun, and that is what Lehman delivered. The wink to the audience at the end is unlike anything else in Hitchcock’s work, and it is just one of the elements of “Family Plot” that made me think of Shakespearean comedy – the kind that ends with couples paired off together, and actors whisper asides to the crowd.

Aside from the parody car chase, the film’s other interesting set piece was in a maze-like cemetery, where George attempts to question Maloney’s widow, played by Katherine Helmond, best known as Mona from “Who’s the Boss?” as well as her role in “Brazil.” Another future TV star, Nicholas Colasanto, later known as Coach on “Cheers,” chews up the scenery as the kidnapping victim at the start of the movie.

Hitchcock was very happy with the cast in “Family Plot.” He had worked with Dern before in “Marnie,” and the actor had appeared on “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” Dern kept Hitchcock amused during shooting with some odd ad libs. Hitchcock had wanted to work with Barbara Harris for some time, and here, she is terrific, moaning and squeaking her way through her psychic sessions and acting like an adorable nut the rest of the time.

Hitchcock with the cast of "Family Plot," including Roy Thiennes

Hitchcock had cast William Devane as Adamson/Shoebridge, but by the time production got under way, Devane had to back out. Hitchcock recast with Roy Thiennes, only to learn that Devane was available again a few days into filming – so Thiennes was out with no explanation, and Devane was back in. There’s a famous, if chilling, story about Thiennes running into Hitchcock in a restaurant; Thiennes asked why he had been fired, and Hitchcock said nothing until Thiennes finally gave up and walked away.

The runaway car scene demonstrated both Hitchcock’s continued mastery of filmmaking and his flagging stamina. The scene was carefully storyboarded, as the car zigzags through oncoming traffic – cars, trucks and motorcycles. Hitchcock keeps the

A storyboard from the diner scene

scene completely subjective by showing only the people in the car, George and Blanche, and the driver’s point of view on the road. Never do we see a shot of the car itself, so we’re forced to experience the dangerous ride, which is a brilliant update of Roger Thornhill’s drunken drive in “North by Northwest.” (Karen Black’s blond-wig disguise is also reminiscent of the opening scenes of “Marnie,” where blon

A rare color shot of Hitchcock on set, looking in charge but exhausted.

But for all his careful planning, Hitchcock could not direct the scene as he might have. Herbert Coleman reported that he wanted Hitch to do what others would, by sitting on the back of a flatbed truck next to the camera during filming; Hitch said, in so many words, that it would not be possible in his condition.

As he had in so many films, Hitchcock pondered his cameo here endlessly; given that wink at the end, one wonders if perhaps his greatest concern was how old he looked. He is seen in shadowy profile through a frosted window in an office door; the window bears the words “Registrar of Births and Deaths.”

Here’s a look at the trailer for “Family Plot.” You can tell how much Hitch liked his cast – I believe this is the only trailer he narrated where he talks about the actors!

Next, we’ll look at “The Short Night,” Hitchcock’s final unproduced film, as well as the book about it, “The Final Days of Alfred Hitchcock.”


Alfred Hitchcock’s Triumphant Homecoming: “Frenzy”

15 03 2011

Alfred Hitchcock returned to London in 1972 to make the film “Frenzy,” based on the novel “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square” by Arthur La Bern. It was a nostalgic trip home for Hitchcock, and although parts of his previous two movies were filmed in Europe, this was his first full production in England since “Jamaica Inn” in 1939.

It was also a major return to form for Hitchcock. After the missteps of “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz,” “Frenzy” puts The Master of Suspense on familiar, comfortable ground, as it is a darkly comic movie about a serial killer and a wrongly accused man on the run, whose themes include food, sex and marriage, all set in his old stomping grounds. “Frenzy” is arguably Hitchcock’s best film since “Psycho,” and resonates all the way back to “The Lodger” from 1927.

The movie opens with the kind of black irony and horror that run throughout it. After a majestic opening sequence in which we view the Thames River and London, we move in on a politician making a riverside speech about cleaning up the river. A crowd – including Hitchcock, wearing a bowler hat – listens intently, until a scream interrupts the speech. Someone has spotted some rather unusual pollution in the form of the nude body of a woman floating facedown in the river. As the police move in, a man in the crowd notes this as “another necktie murder,” and starts comparing this killer to Jack the Ripper, and we’re reminded that Hitchcock’s London is a city that loves a good murder.

The story centers around Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), ex-R.A.F. squadron leader, who’s just lost his job at a pub. His friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a successful fruit and vegetable merchant in the Covent Garden Market, offers him support and advice; his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a matchmaker of sorts, takes pity on him despite his black mood.

What Blaney does not know is that Rusk is in fact the Necktie Murderer – and that, since Rusk is about to start killing the women in Blaney’s life, including Brenda and a perky barmaid called Babs (Anna Massey), the police will conclude that Blaney is the killer.

After Rusk murders the helpful Babs, Blaney unwittingly turns to Rusk himself for help, but this time, the killer uses Blaney’s situation to his advantage. Rusk takes Blaney’s bag and says he’ll meet him at his apartment. Rusk then loads the bag with the murdered women’s clothes, so that when the police arrive (tipped by our villain, of course), Blaney looks very guilty indeed.

Blaney is tried and sentenced, but his promise to get vengeance on Rusk makes Chief Superintendent Oxford (Alec McCowen) wonder if they collared the wrong man. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Oxford discusses the case with his wife, who’s been studying French cooking. Oxford is very grateful when he is pulled away from his nauseating dinner to chase down information on Rusk.

Blaney, meanwhile, gets himself put in the prison infirmary, then breaks out, steals a car and heads for Rusk’s apartment, intent on revenge. With the car’s jack in hand, he breaks into the apartment. He sees the shape of a body in the bed and begins beating it with the jack, but when he seems an arm fall out of the bed, he realizes that this is not Rusk but a dead woman, a tie tight around her throat.

Just then, Oxford enters the apartment. He signals Blaney to be quiet. We hear

"Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie."

someone thumping up the stairs; it’s Rusk, pulling a large trunk behind him. As Oxford says, “Mr. Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie,” Rusk drops the trunk. It falls, looking very much like a tombstone, as the closing credits appear.

Timing is everything in “Frenzy.” Blaney is constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time; Rusk, meanwhile, escapes over and over.

Although the story is similar to that of “The Lodger” – although, of course, the

The Necktie Killer strikes.

killer is actually on camera in “Frenzy” – Hitchcock is free to turn up the violence in this movie. “Frenzy” only shows one of the killings, though, and leaves the other to our imagination. Hitchcock did not shy from the brutality of the killing; both actors are covered in sweat and disheveled by the time the scene is over.

Rusk gets one of the movie’s funniest scenes, as well. After killing Babs off camera, he puts the body in a potato sack and dumps in the back of one of his trucks, but then notices that he’s missing his jeweled “R” stickpin. Realizing that it must be with the body, he attempts to find it among the potatoes as the truck pulls out. Rusk is kicked in the face by a loose foot as he tries to find the pin; finally, he breaks the fingers to get it out of her grip. As the truck makes a stop, Rusk hops out, brushes himself off and stops in at a café for a drink.

“Frenzy” made its debut with much acclaim, and the movie was a hit. Hitchcock had a great script to work with here – not quite on the level of “North by Northwest,” perhaps, but strong nonetheless – written by Anthony Shaffer, who had written the stageplay “Sleuth” (later a terrific movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine).

London’s theater provided Hitchcock with his cast as well. Avoiding established movie stars helped keep costs down; also, the cast did not have the concerns some movie stars did about portraying unsavory characters.

The fact is, while the plot of “Frenzy” is very engaging, particularly after the first half hour or so, when the characters and their relationships are established, there really isn’t anyone to like in the film. Blaney is moody and bad-tempered; Rusk is charming in his way but still a monster. Perhaps the most sympathetic character is Oxford, the Chief Inspector, struggling to smile as he attempts to swallow his wife’s outlandish menu and rethinking the entire case based on a bad feeling – but “Frenzy” is hardly his story.

As always, Hitchcock plays the audience, making us suffer as much as possible. He holds a long, silent shot of the exterior of Brenda’s office while the secretary returns for lunch; how long it will take for her to reach the office, find the body and scream, we do not know, but the wait seems interminable. The death of Babs, drowned out by the noise of Covent Garden Market and unseen even by the audience, seems pathetic. And, as Robin Wood might have written, Hitchcock titillates us with nudity, then makes us feel ashamed, even nauseated, by the violence that follows. In the potato truck scene, Hitchcock adds humor to the suspense, as Babs’ dainty toes smack Rusks’ face while he tries to find his stickpin in a bouncing truck full of dusty tubers.

The making of “Frenzy,” and Hitchcock’s return to London, was well documented, and his fondness for the city shows. There are lingering shots of the greengrocers’s stands in the Covent Garden Market, undoubtedly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s father’s own business in the area. The opening shots of the market seem a bit overplayed thanks to the bombastic music by Ron Goodwin that accompanies them; it’s one thing to use that music when showing the Thames River and the Tower Bridge, but implying a majestic quality to fruit and vegetable stands is bit much. Henry Mancini had been hired originally to score the movie, but Hitchcock was not satisfied with the results and fired him.

Hitchcock clowns with someone wearing the mask shown in the trailer.

“Frenzy” echoes “Psycho” both in its serial killer theme and in the carefully storyboarded and tightly edited murder scenes; in 1960, Hitchcock had to argue with the board of censors that he showed neither nudity nor a knife entering the body. Twelve years later, the world of film had changed enormously, and the new MPAA ratings system was in place. Hitchcock was able to show both nudity and graphic violence, at the cost of an “R” rating. This was not a detriment to ticket sales, however. On the contrary, the fact that The Master of Suspense had ventured into this territory must have piqued audiences curiousity. Along with the nudity and violence, the script is full of swearing, bringing the cast of working class characters to vivid life.

Of course, the viewer may have a few questions after the movie nears its end: If

Rusk's trunk, looking very much like a tombstone.

Blaney thought that the figure in bed was alive, wouldn’t he be charged with attempted murder? And wouldn’t he be also be charged for escaping prison and stealing the car? Hitchcock’s fast fade-out at the end helps to keep audiences from stumbling over those questions.

Hitchcock returns in his role as narrator of the trailer for “Frenzy,” and he seems to be enjoying every moment of it:

The body we first see is a dummy wearing a Hitchcock mask; there are production photos of Hitchcock mugging with the mask on set. The fractured “Frenzy” logo, not seen in the movie itself, reminds us of “Psycho,” as does the screaming response to a question from Hitchcock. The clumsy rear-projection behind Hitchcock does not seem important; this is Hitchcock having fun, making references to a “leg of lamb” – perhaps a reminder of his most famous episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” His drawled intonation of the line “How d’you like my necktie?” is the highlight of the trailer.

Next, Alfred Hitchcock returns with his final feature film, the black comedy “Family Plot,” starring Karen Black and Bruce Dern.

Alfred Hitchcock Makes a Modern Spy Drama

8 03 2011

The late 1960s was a difficult period for Alfred Hitchcock. Audiences’ tastes were moving in two directions: Toward the escapism of James Bond or the realism of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Hitchcock’s brand of carefully controlled suspense in films layered with meaning derived from camera movement and lighting, costume and color was no longer in style.

Hitchcock was certainly aware of the change in the air. After more than twenty years, the title “Master of Suspense” was weighing him down. Trends in European filmmaking had given him new inspiration that he wanted to follow. Around 1965, he developed a script called, alternately, “Kaleidoscope” and “Frenzy” (having nothing to do with his 1972 film of the same name). This was to be a very violent and sexual thriller, with a killer for a hero, and Universal Pictures killed the project.

While “Kaleidoscope” was in development, Hitchcock also began another script called “R.R.R.R.,” working with Italian writers Age and Scarpelli. Hitchcock had first dreamed up the idea of a comedy about a hotel full of criminals in the 1930s; now he hoped to direct it with a cast of unknowns. Again, Universal had no interest in this film, and it was dropped with little writing done.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock directed “Torn Curtain,” a movie with stars he did not particularly like, and an undercooked script. As a counter-balance to Paul Newman and Julia Andrews, Hitchcock populated the film with European actors, and set the action primarily in East Berlin.

Hitchcock took this modified European approach further with his next film, “Topaz,” released in 1969. Based on a bestselling novel by Leon Uris and adapted by Samuel Taylor, who had written the sublime “Vertigo,” “Topaz” is a difficult movie on many levels, with touches of Hitchcock’s filmmaking brilliance peeking through the morass only occasionally.

“Topaz” is divided into three sections. (It’s hard to call it a three-act structure, since each part is so separate from what came before.) Set in 1962, it begins with a typical bravura Hitchcock set-piece, as a Russian intelligence officer, on vacation in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter, defect to the United States. The suspense builds slowly as the Russians attempt to quietly evade capture by their former comrades while on a tour of a porcelain factory, the two sets of players moving against each other like chess pieces on a board. The defectors get their instructions from CIA agent Mike Nordstrom, played by John Forsythe, and make a break from a department store into the American’s getaway car, while other American agents block the Russians’ way in an oddly stiff dance, trying not to cause a panic on the crowded streets but still reach their quarry.

A beautiful, almost abstract shot of the defectors' car approaching their plane

The defectors board a plane bound for the U.S., with Kusenov, the intelligence officer, griping about the clumsy operation. After being set up in a house, Kusenov refuses to cooperate; he’s now decided that there he never made any promises to the Americans. But his hosts refuse to take no for an answer, and Kusenov finally gives up some hints about the mysterious Topaz they’ve been asking about. He sends the agents after Cuban revolutionary Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Kusenov warns the Americans that Parra won’t talk to them, and so Nordstrom enlists the help of a French agent, André Devereaux, played by Frederick Stafford.

Devereaux picks up the story here as the second part begins; he heads into Harlem, where he enlists Phillippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) to infiltrate Parra’s offices to find documents concerning a missile program, which lead Devereaux away from his wife and into Cuba. There he contacts Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), a well-connected anti-Communist with romantic ties to Parra. Devereaux and de Cordoba are in love as well, and they plot how to gain information on the Russian missile program. When Parra learns that de Cordoba has been passing classified information to Devereaux, he regretfully shoots her, trying to spare her from being tortured.

Part three begins as Devereaux, now compromised as both an agent and a husband, flees Cuba and heads back to Washington, where he learns that the spy organization Topaz is based in the French intelligence community. Devereaux flies home to Paris and calls together his most trusted associates, hoping to piece things together; one of the men, Jarre, lets slip a bit of information that tells Devereaux that he is a counter-agent. Devereaux sends his son-in-law, a reporter called Francois, to learn more from Jarre, but Francois is put in harm’s way when killers show up at Jarre’s doorstep. Francois escapes unharmed, and, on recalling a phone number he heard the killers mention, tells Devereaux that the leader of Topaz is his old friend, Granville, another intelligence agent.

Word gets out that Granville is an enemy agent, and the film (at least the version I saw) ends at an airport, as Devereaux and his wife, now reconciled, board an airplane; nearby, waving to them, is Granville, boarding his own Aeroflot plane to Russia.

“Topaz” is populated – perhaps overpopulated – by characters we barely get to know, including the CIA agents attempting to make Kusenov cooperate, de Cordoba’s network of Cuban peasant operatives, Parra’s revolutionary stooges, and the French agents who work with Devereaux. Hitchcock costumes them distinctively, which helps the viewer to keep them straight, but very few of the cast are engaging as characters. Although Hitchcock’s concession to Universal was to film a bestseller, he preserves so much of the convoluted plot that it’s hard to follow what’s going on from one scene to the next. One that feels that Hitchcock might have been making a point about the ultimate triviality of spy work by reducing the secret agents to near ciphers.

Or are the heroes and villains of “Topaz” not the cast members but their nations? There are scenes set in Sweden, the United States, Cuba, Russia and France, and Hitchcock creates a distinctive look for each setting; the countries almost have more personality than the characters do.

Hitchcock makes his traditional cameo about halfway through the film; he’s in an airport, being pushed along in a wheelchair, when he suddenly stands up to greet a friend.

“Topaz” encountered some serious trouble during test screenings. Originally, the film ended with Devereaux and Granville dueling at a football stadium, but American audiences found this laughable. The second ending, described above, was also disliked, as the villain gets away with his misdeeds. A third ending was made, too, in which we see Granville enter his house, followed by a gunshot that’s meant to imply that he killed himself; this is the most commonly seen ending, although it was tacked onto the movie so late that it had to be made with reused footage. It’s both cheap looking and unclear.

Of the sprawling cast, the standouts are John Forsythe, who recalls the cool, early spies of Hitchcock’s films like “Secret Agent”; Karen Dor, who played Juanita de Cordoba; John Vernon as Rico Parra; Dany Robin as Devereaux’s wife; and Roscoe Lee Brown as Phillippe Dubois. There’s also some rather bad acting from Tina Hedstrom as Kusenov’s teenaged daughter and Claude Jade as Devereaux’s daughter, although Hitchcock was fond of Jade.

As with “Torn Curtain,” Hitchcock rushed “Topaz” into production, and the script feels unfinished. The dialogue is flat, even laughable, at times. Hitchcock had often said that by once the script was finished, the film was over for him; actually shooting it was both boring and the dreaded point where compromise began. Now, it seemed that even the act of creating the script no longer interested Hitch. After the test screenings, Hitch cut the movie considerably, although it’s the full two hour twenty minute version that appears on DVD currently.

Still, there are moments of genuine brilliance in the movie, including that opening defection, the sequence in which de Cordoba’s operatives capture information on the missile program and are themselves captured, and, especially, the moment when Parra shoots de Cordoba. As she collapses, her dark purple dress spreads out on a black and white tile floor; shot from above, it looks almost like a pool of blood. It’s a fascinating moment in an otherwise workmanlike movie.

Here’s the exciting trailer for “Topaz,” in which Hitchcock briefly describes the movie against modern graphics and type treatments. Note the emphasis on the novel’s bestseller reputation…

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