The last frame in the last Alfred Hitchcock film involves Barbara Harris winking to the camera. It’s as perfect a last shot a director could ask for, especially one like Hitchcock. The erstwhile Master of Suspense made a career out of delicious irony, nods to the audience, and playing with expectations. His whole career is like a dry British joke; even his most serious films include some kind of off-kilter humor. FAMILY PLOT is a weird movie; it’s the classic “Anastasia” fairy tale turned on its head. It has certain Hitchcock elements, including a morbid sense of humor and meticulously crafted sequences.
FAMILY PLOT stars Barbara Harris (NASHVILLE) as Blanche, a fake psychic who tries to find the missing heir for an old widow. She and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern, COMING HOME) track down that heir. The man turns out to be criminal Arthur (William Devane (MCCABE & MRS. MILLER) who kidnaps rich people with his partner Fran (Karen Black, FIVE EASY PIECES).
The narrative of FAMILY PLOT takes a fairy tale—the long lost heir—and twists it into a crime story. The heir is not some poor but hopeful pauper, but a harsh criminal. I also like the added element of Blanche being a fake psychic. The film plays with ironic twists, and the story presents itself like a maze. The characters have a maze-like journey, going from location to location even within a set piece. FAMILY PLOT is indeed a thickly plotted movie, with each detail moving the story forward. Hitchcock keeps the machine moving smoothly, through his elegant style and controlling eye over both the small moments and big sequences.
The most famous scene from FAMILY PLOT is the runaway car scene. Hitchcock places the camera on the hood of the car as he shoots Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern, and as he shoots the road. The effect is to really disorient the viewer. The audience feels like they are in the unstoppable car, and the scene becomes visceral. The car is not seen from the outside, bringing the danger off the screen. On top of that, Blanche is essentially doing everything she can to be unhelpful. Blanche is totally nutty in the sequence. Hitchcock probably imagined the sequence like a parody of action scenes, with little focus on the actual spectacle. The passengers are hysterical and inept, not cool and heroic.
FAMILY PLOT is Hitchcock-lite. While the actors were famous in their time, they lacked that midcentury glamour Hitchcock had during his most celebrated era. This was something that Hitchcock had to deal with during his final films. After he lost the Hollywood generation that included Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, and Eva Marie Saint, Hitchcock cast a lot of B-list stars. The lack of out-of-this-world celebrities in this film enhances the experience, because this is about small-time crooks and inept detectives. This is not a globe-trotting adventure, but a rather insular one.
It may be surprising that 5-time Oscar winner John Williams composed the score. Hot off his Oscar win for JAWS, Williams was still on his way to becoming the iconic music man he is now. Their careers were going through opposite trajectories. Hitchcock’s career was heading toward its end, with few critical or commercial hits. Williams was just one year away from STAR WARS. Usually during the 1970s, all people could talk about was the new kids in town, and I wonder if Hitchcock didn’t like that young men were taking over and changing things. Alfred Hitchcock and John Williams seem like an odd match. Williams’ scores are hopeful and triumphant, instantly iconic with impactful motifs. Hitchcock’s films had scores that were uneasy, intense, and disturbing. Hitchcock’s most famous collaborator was Bernard Herrmann, who created the classic scores for PSYCHO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Herrmann and Hitchcock had a long collaboration together, beginning with THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY in 1955. The two titans had a falling out during the production of TORN CURTAIN, when Hitchcock rejected Herrmann’s score. British composer John Addison took over for that film.
I am sure that Hitchcock was really impressed by the minimalist score for JAWS. The music in FAMILY PLOT has that Williams touch; its themes match the macabre and comic tone of the movie. In a roundabout way, it seems fitting that John Williams scored the film. John Williams is most known for his work with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. These guys brought about the new age in Hollywood. They created the summer blockbuster. They brought PG-13 into the ratings system for better or worse. The old Hollywood system was breaking during the 1960s, but by 1976 it was officially gone. FAMILY PLOT was not just a goodbye to the Master of Suspense; it was a goodbye to an era in Hollywood.
There is something sad about the last few films in the Hitchcock filmography. The end of his career has films that are aggressively mean (like his final masterpiece FRENZY) or tired and sluggish (like the misguided TORN CURTAIN). FAMILY PLOT acquits itself rather well. It’s a fun, very Hitchcockian thriller, with some inventive sequences and fine performances. It’s a good movie elevated by its circumstances. Watching this movie, I feel like I am watching a really good series finale to a TV show I love. Everything I loved about Hitchcock is there, but it feels heightened. It is to the film’s benefit that it’s not another “wrong man” thriller, or overly glamorous spy movie. It would have felt like a tired parody of Hitchcock. Instead, he gave us something we weren’t expecting and with a sly wink.