"FAMILY PLOT has earned a place in cinematic history simply because it turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock's last production. While the film was a financial success, like most Hitchcock pictures, it got mixed reviews because many found it too comic in tone and not "suspenseful" enough to have been directed by the Master. It is true that FAMILY PLOT is far from being one of Hitchcock's best films, and it is not the "great" movie one might have expected from this director after the spine-chilling and sordid FRENZY, FAMILY PLOT's immediate predecessor - it is not an ambitious production. However, although the tone of the film is the lightest and funniest of any Hitchcock movie since THE LADY VANISHES in 1939, this does not mean that FAMILY PLOT is free of some disturbing undercurrents which linger in the mind and demand repeated viewings. Like all the characters in the movie, FAMILY PLOT is not what it seems to be. On the surface, we have a light, comic thriller involving a psychic (Blanche/Barbara Harris) and her cabbie/actor boyfriend, Lumley (Bruce Dern) who have been hired by a rich old woman to find her missing nephew, the heir to a huge fortune. The missing nephew turns out to be the thouroughly repellent Arthur Anderson (William Devane), a sociopath who, with the help of his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black), kidnaps important people and holds them for ransom. But Anderson is not just a thief - he is also a killer. When he realizes Blanche and Lumley are trying to find out information about him, and that they know of his hidden identity (which I won't reveal here), he assumes that they are undercover agents looking to expose him as a kidnapper. Of course, Blanche and Lumley know nothing about this, and thus put themselves in great danger without realizing it. The plot of this film is very complex and I won't say any more about it for those of you who haven't seen it. The comic tone of the film is belied by some exteremely dark moral undercurrents. The dominant characters, Blanche and Anderson, are very similar to one another although in dramatic terms one is the heroine and the other the villain, and this put us in an uneasy relationship with all the people in the film. Anderson is a liar, a thief, and a con artist. Blanche (a fake psychic who bilks lonely old women out of their money) is also a liar, a thief (she essentially steals from the women she "consults" by faking her "powers") and a con artist motivated by greed. Both heroine and villain also dominate their lovers - Blanche uses her sexual hold over the rather dumb (but loving) Lumley to get him to adopt all sorts of identities to further their plans, and Anderson does the exact same thing to Fran, forcing her to assume a false appearance in the course of furthering his kidnappings. Although one couple is labelled as "good" and the other as "bad", morally, they are not so far apart from one another. Indeed, everyone in the film has manipulated and lied to others to achieve none-too-pleasant ends. Even old Julia Rainbird, whose guilt over ostracizing her dead sister and the girl's illegitimate child sets the story in motion, has used and deceived others for her own selfish goals. The vision of humanity in this film is essentially dark - people are monsters of greed and deceit, willing to use anyone and everyone, and even risking the lives of those they love in the process. This makes the film's undeniable humor even more disturbing - what are we really laughing at when we laugh at these sad and confused people? The performances by the four principals are top-notch, especially by Harris as the ditzy "psychic" who isn't the dumb blonde she appears to be, and by Devane as the evil killer who presents himself as a respectable businessman. Although there are no spectacular Hitchcockian "set-pieces", a scene where Blanche and Lumley are trapped in a speeding car is scary and funny at the same time, and the movie is filled with little Hitchcock touches that are simultaneously amusing and fetishistic (as when Karen Black idly throws the blonde wig she uses to disguise herself into a bin in the refrigerator - I don't know why, but this struck me as uproariously funny in context). This is a greatly underrated film which may not be the "masterpiece" people were hoping for from Hitch, but I think that reviewers have done this movie a disservice by comparing it to earlier films and not judging it on its own, considerable, merits. Hitchcock always gave us what we didn't expect, and FAMILY PLOT is no exception."
The Master Teases Us One Last Time
William Hare | Seattle, Washington | 07/18/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Alfred Hitchcock was a grand tease and the more he teased the more his audiences loved it. The operative word was suspense and The Master had a genius for milking the action to maximum effect, keeping his faithful audience on the edge of its collective seat.
Hitchcock bowed out on an interesting note by concluding his brilliant career with "Family Plot" in 1976. He was mightily assisted in his efforts by one of Hollywood's most skilled screenplay authors, Ernest Lehman. It was the second time they had teamed up, the earlier effort being one of Hitchcock's most successful films, the 1958 classic "North by Northwest" starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.
In "Family Plot" Hitchcock's grand tease was built around a variation of the theme that helped make "Vertigo" perhaps the director's finest effort. That impressive 1957 release was structured around a bogus effort on the part of mastermind criminal Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore, to convince retired policeman James Stewart that his putative wife, played by Kim Novak, was under the possessive influence of prominent nineteenth century San Franciscan Carlotta Valdes. Stewart is led on a bogus chase around San Francisco that includes a phony suicide attempt as Novak jumps into San Francisco Bay.
Hitchcock, a film genius who knew how to make the most of a good theme, used this basic concept from "Vertigo" in the basic plot of "Family Plot" with one essential difference - this time the con artist was not seeking a foolproof way to kill his real wife by having a fall guy reduced to useful fodder in a criminal enterprise. On this occasion Barbara Harris played the role of a fake psychic who, upon receiving valuable information during a "reading" concerning a relative that a wealthy older woman, played by Cathleen Nesbitt, would like to leave with her large inheritance.
Bruce Dern, a cab driver who hopes to eventually catch a break in his acting career, has nothing but scorn for Harris's séance performances, but is enticed along on a journey to find the prospective heir when it is revealed that the wealthy older woman Nesbitt will provide them with $10,000 for a successful effort. The story then spins into a two-part focus in which William Devane, who has changed his name and gained his freedom by killing his adopted parents, has embraced a life as a jeweler moonlighting as a kidnapper, and who receives expensive jewels as payment from his victims. He also has a girlfriend, Karen Black, who is a reluctantly partner like Dern. She goes along with the kidnappings but hates to even consider the idea of killing anyone, an element that Devane as a pragmatic and ruthless opportunist is willing to resort to in fulfilling his objective to become a wealthy man.
The ingenious story spins into dual efforts where Devane knows that the persistent pair of Harris and Dern is pursuing him, but he is in the dark as to the reason. He believes that they are aware of his criminal activities.
Hitchcock teases viewers into wondering with increasing anticipation what will happen when the two parties ultimately meet. He places plenty of the familiar Hitchcock obstacles and dodges in the road during the interim.
"Family Plot" is the polished effort of one of Hollywood's most imaginative directors pooling forces with one of the industry's most skilled scriptwriters. Hitchcock and Lehman prepare a delicious stew for audiences to savor as the last feast of a master of film."
A fun finale
duggalolly | beyond the waterfall | 05/21/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This was Alfred Hitchcock's final film, and he was already in his late seventies when he made it. I think that at this point in his career, after fifty years of movie-making, he KNEW he no longer had to prove himself; his place was already set in history. Therefore, instead of making a film along the lines of Psycho, Vertigo, or Rear Window, he made a fun, lighter film along the lines of To Catch A Theif or The Lady Vanishes. The script of Family Plot was written by the same guy who wrote North By Northwest, which means there is a lot of clever, witty dialogue. The California locations are also a typical Hitchcock touch, and the fun car chase scene in the California hills is a classic. People expecting a SUSPENSE film will be disappointed, but I always felt that the "Master of Suspense" was a misleading title for Hitchcock, because his films are about much more than just suspense. Even so, Family Plot is not a masterpiece, but a treat for Hitchcock buffs. Hitchcock didn't go out with a bang, he went out with a wink, and this a great final "slice of cake" from a director who never took himself as seriously as we take him now."
It Takes Its Time
R. Schultz | Chicago | 05/11/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This isn't a scary Hitchcock. Perhaps it suffers a little from being undecided about exactly what its tone should be. Is it a serious drama, or is it a comedy? Is the action in earnest, or is it satiric, with that knowing wink of the eye at the end?
But even though it doesn't fit Hitchcock's or any usual mold, it is engaging. That might be because it was made a few decades ago, when movies still took their time. You see process here. It isn't just cut to the chase. You actually hear kidnappers Karen Black and William Devane arguing about which of them should empty their victim's chemical toilet. When two people walk down a staircase together, it happens in real time. And this doesn't slow down the story, the dread bugaboo of modern directors. To the contrary. It gives you time to be with the characters - to walk with them, get to know them, and identify with them. And these characters are worth getting to know.
The bonus materials on the DVD version of this film are also especially good. You get to see Hitchcock at work on this, his last, movie. "
A Final Bow from the Master
McGillicutty | The Sooner Nation | 05/02/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This was not suppose to be the final film of Alfred Hitchcock. He was in the planning stages of his next film when his poor health finally caught up with him and he gracefully retired.
But while "Family Plot" is not up to the level of his greatest works, it is a very entertaining and enjoyable romp that I have watched around a dozen times. And it is just as fun to watch the first time as the 12th time.
The plot is typical Hitchcock, two sets of couples who's lives are about to cross. Yet the tone of the film is more wry comedy, rather than pure suspense. I will not give away all the details, suffice to say that this film has the feel of an old hand in charge. Scenes flow with an ease that young directors can only dream of accomplishing.
For this DVD the print has been remastered and it looks great. A vast improvement over the grainy prints we've been delt with over the years which made this film look more like a tv movie of the week.
Also included is a wonderful documentary detailing the experiences of this film complete with new interviews of Bruce Dern, William Devane, Composer John Williams, & Karen Black (who's career has mirrored Barbara Harris in some ways). All three actors tell delightful stories about the making of the film and it comes as no shock that the best Hitchcock impression comes from Karen Black. Sadly, Barbara Harris is missing along with Katherine Helmond (of "Soap" & "Who's the Boss" fame), she has only one scene where she speaks, but she does deliver the most memorable visual of the film, the kicking over of the tombstone.
Other DVD extras include storyboards for the car/mountain scene, production photos, & trailers that promoted the film.
This is a very neat, very complete package for the DVD presentation of this film and I hope that the others in this series of "Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece" Collection live up to the standard set with "Family Plot".
Tidbits: - Hitchcock "appears" much later in the film (about 45 minutes in) that was typical for him. After "Notorious", Hitch usually appeared quite early in films (like during the opening credits for "North by Northwest") because he found out that audiences sometimes missed plot points while waiting for him to appear.
- The movie "Dazed and Confused", which is set in Texas in 1976, has "Family Plot" on the drive-in movie marquee seen early in the film.
- The kidnap victim seen early in the film (and the subject of an extended interview by the FBI) is none other than Nicholas Colasanto, who later played "Coach" in the NBC comedy series "Cheers".
- One nice side product of the improved print of the film is that it's quite clear that in the first "kitchen" scene with Karen Black (after they leave Mr. Colosanto at the golf course) that she is wearing nothing underneath her quite tight sweater. "