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.”


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8 responses

30 03 2011
Ron Hobbs

Great observations on Hitch’s underrated last movie. Interesting to note the score by John Williams who was THE hot composer, and possibly filmdom’s most famous scorer.

I saw a book recently on eccentric directors. Apparently, although Hitch had a belly, he had no bellybutton, due to abdominal surgery. On the set of Family Plot he would lift his shirt in front of Karen Black, to get reaction.

On a sad note, I read today of the passing of Farley Granger, one of Hitch’s last actors from the 40’s/50’s. He was an excellent counter-point to Robert Walker’s menacing Bruno, on Strangers on a Train. R.I.P. Mr. Granger.

31 03 2011
Lance

Congratulations on reaching #53, Adam. Thanks for a truly grand excursion through the catalog!

I’m especially fond of “Family Plot” because I vividly recall his appearance on Merv Griffin to promote it. Great fun. Too bad all I have is an audio cassette I made of the show. I don’t think it’s been preserved online yet.

Hope you’ll be covering more beyond “Short Night.” For instance, there’s a whole entry on Hitch’s various animated incarnations just begging to be written, as well as a host of other angles you probably have tucked away somewhere, waiting to go. Looking forward to whatever you may have!

1 04 2011
adamphilips

Hi Lance – Not to worry, I have a long list of Hitchcock posts coming up! Thanks!

6 03 2012
Hal

I only discovered your site two days ago so it’s probably a little late to comment but here goes… I really like Family Plot as although it’s generally thought of a lightweight ending to Hitch’s career it has a rare sweetness that leaves you uplifted (Frenzy may be the superior film but it’s also somewhat depressing despite its mostly black comedy) whilst having enough recognisably “Hitchcock” moments so as not to stand out like an bludgeoned big toe. A particular pleasure is the cast, the appealing Barbara Harris, likeable Dern (in a fairly rare niceguy role), oddly sexy Katherine Helmond, familiar villain Ed Lauter, Cathleen Nesbitt, suavely saturnine William Devane (later Greg Sumner in Knot’s Landing and often a villain when he wasn’t playing Kennedyish figures), and the kooky talented Karen Black all are extremely watchable and well-used by Hitchcock. It’s also notable that although AH instructed Ernest Lehman to remove the more egregiously bleak elements from the original book the film still manages to play with ideas about humanity’s less honest side (and the irony of Devane’s character being an heir to a fortune but so fixated on his criminal schemes that he blows his chance of finding this out is delicious) but in a more subtle and good-natured way than the source with Blanche and George being basically nice people though capable of dubious behaviour. Thanks for the review, and kudos on your site.

7 03 2012
adamphilips

It’s never too late to comment, Hal! Thanks for joining the party!

3 07 2012
fergalhughes

A wonderful post, well-written!
I would echo what the “Hal” wrote up there, that there is that interesting bit at the end which goes as follows:
Blanche *does* get to tell Arthur about the inheritance (“all those lovely millions and millions”) but it hardly seems to register with the man.

7 03 2012
Hal

Thanks, Adam! You probably already know this but Patrick McGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light offers a slightly different version of the Hitchcock and Thinnes restaurant confrontation in which AH finally responds to Roy Thinnes by telling him something like “You were too nice, *too nice*”. I feel quite sorry for Thinnes but it apparently turned out that Bill Devane was quite Method-inclined as well which got on Hitch’s nerves slightly!

3 07 2012
fergalhughes

Yes, did you see the extra on the c.1999 DVD release of the film? According to Devane himself, in the scene where Arthur is questionned by the two cops, Devane added the little moment where he picks a piece of lint off of the cop nearest him .. apparently, Hitchcock wasn’t happy with that and asked him to leave it out in the next take.
Anyway, its ended up in the film and I personally think the scene is the richer for it (the dashing and daring Adamson has no qualms about behaving condescendingly towards the law!).

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