And it all comes down to this. Alfred Hitchcock’s final film is Family Plot, a 1976 feature based on Victor Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern. Ernest Lehman adapted the novel for the screen, marking the second time the writer and director worked with each other. The first was North By Northwest, which was also a film sprinkled with ample comedy.
Family Plot is among Hitch’s lightest movies. It features plenty of cheeky innuendo and a lot of opportunities for black comedy, including a scene in which a bishop is kidnapped that must’ve tickled the filmmaker. In effect, these sorts of moments seem to be what this picture is all about and viewing it in that light can make for an amusing ride – especially after the darkness of Frenzy.
Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is a “fake” psychic who works with her boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) to run some small con jobs on a series of unsuspecting bluehairs. One day, Blanche is doing a session with the wealth Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) when she tumbles into a job that will pay her $10,000 if she can locate the woman’s heir.
This sets the couple off on an investigation of sorts. It also sets them into the path of Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black), two serious criminals. This couple kidnaps dignitaries and holds them for ransom, collecting jewels along the way. The paths of the two couples cross inevitably when one of the quirky quartet is not who he or she seems.
There’s a lot of juice in Family Plot and Hitchcock directs with aplomb. It’s a fun movie for the most part, even if some scenes seem a little overstuffed for their own good. It’s an incredibly detailed piece of work, right down to the costuming. Hitch apparently had Edith Head design four “levels” of costuming for the various “classes” of character in his picture.
That’s where Family Plot gets a lot of its humour. Arthur and Fran are fashionable and suave, as exemplified in an early scene where the woman silently picks up the ransom and drops off a victim. Her coolness under fire excites her. Blanche and George are the opposite in terms of economics, but their criminality excites them as well.
Hitchcock pulls a lot of sexual details into this fray, of course. Blanche is a sex-starved fake medium and George sometimes has trouble keeping her satisfied. A line about being “too pooped to pop” is hilarious, as is his earlier bravado about giving her standing ovation for her performance. Once again, Family Plot juxtaposes the sexual energies of the two couples.
In a similar circumstance, Arthur is much more romantic in his approach to his lady. And that’s what stands at the core of this picture. When the audience sees Blanche and George enjoying hamburgers – with Blanche asking for one more before they have to go meet someone important – they get a sense for their characters. They get a sense for what sets them apart.
That leads into the climax neatly, as Hitchcock is really having viewers root for one set of criminals over another. Who is worse from a moral standpoint? That should be clear, but it’s interesting how the morality tilts in varying directions. As “bad” as some people may be, there’s always the possibility of someone worse lurking just up the road.
In keeping with Hitchcock’s sense of fun, the car chase scene runs nearly as satire. Notice the positioning of the cameras and the manic shooting style brought about by cinematographer Leonard J. South, for one. Things are frenetic and out of control, to be sure, but there’s never any doubt that the protagonists are going to pull through.
Family Plot is also notable for its John Williams score. The Jaws composer adds a neat element of entertainment to the film and seems a good fit with Hitchcock. It’s not the same relationship as the one the director cultivated with Bernard Herrmann, of course, but one imagines that more could’ve come out of it had Hitch been able to continue with other projects.
It’s fitting that Family Plot ends with a wink, as that’s the exact sort of gesture Hitchcock would’ve loved to have left the world with. When he passed in April of 1980, one imagines that he might’ve offered a final wink. For those fans of the great celluloid art form, this will have to suffice.