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Family Plot

Universal // PG // March 6, 2001
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted February 18, 2001 | E-mail the Author
A little while ago I reviewed one of Alfred Hitchcock's earlier films, Rich and Strange, a lighter film that concerned a quartet of characters and the relationships between them. With the release of a series of the master's later works by Universal, I have the opportunity to review his final film, Family Plot (1976), which also centers on four characters. Like Rich and Strange, Family Plot has a whimsical side that separates it from heavier, more emotionally complex works like Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt. It falls in with Hitch's more playful works like To Catch a Thief and North by Nothwest. The script for Family Plot, in fact, was written by Ernest Lehmann who also wrote North by Northwest.

It is tempting to be too easy on a film from such an esteemed director even if it isn't up to par, but Family Plot does have its own set of charms. In fact, it has been underestimated by critics who have written that Hitchcock had lost his ability to make good films in his final years. It follows two stories until they converge: In one a fraudulent psychic, Blanche played by Barbara Harris, accepts a job from a wealthy elderly woman tracking down her long-lost nephew and only living heir. Blanche enlists her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) for the lucrative mission. In the other story a couple, played by William Devane and Karen Black, carry out elaborate jewel heists without leaving a trace. Exactly how these paths will cross is a typically labyrinthine Hitchcock construct. The film starts off a little slow, the cast don't develop their characters as quickly as other earlier Hitchcock casts do (Dern, say, doesn't make the immediate impression of a James Stewart or a Cary Grant), and the premise feels a little creaky. Soon enough, though, the little Hitchcock flourishes start to pop out: A crystal chandelier hiding a secret, a pair of unevenly aged gravestones marked with the same date, a puff of black smoke rising over the side of a mountain. Hitchcock's genius was in imbuing a wide variety of images with an endless series of emotions. If he wanted a murder to be funny, the audience laughed; scary, they jumped. His command of the film language was total and here, even in one of his lesser films, you can see how he manipulates at every turn.

Hitchcock also filled Family Plot with humorous moments and situations, but never resorted to cheap laughs. The centerpiece of the film, a magnificent brakes-don't-work car ride down a twisty mountain road manages to be thrilling, scary, funny, and totally silly all at once. It is astonishing how well this scene works considering how many things it is accomplishing at once. The fluidity of the editing, the control and economy of the shots, and the tone struck by the actors all add up to a scene that could stand with any of Hitchcock's best.

The only major difference between Family Plot and the director's earlier masterpieces is his acceptance of more modern standards. Every time a character curses it really stands out and the sexual innuendos spoken by the cast are more blunt and less clever than in films like To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. But, if nothing else, this showed that Hitchcock could adapt to a new filmmaking era without giving up his core signature style.

The ending of Family Plot is very unusual for Hitchcock, a momentary break from the usual objectivity of the film medium. It's sweet and almost a little naive in the way it lets the audience in on the fun. But considering that he didn't know that this would be his last picture, it is an absolutely perfect finale for a lifetime of challenging, terrifying, and entertaining the world.

The video on this print is very good. Although it features a fair amount of dirt, the print used has strong colors and detail. Earlier scenes show a graininess that all but disappears later. The transfer is anamorphic.

The audio is a fairly simple Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but it is effective and appropriate. A young John Williams provides the score, trying very hard to sound like Hitchcock's then-recently estranged collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Fans of modern movies may be surprised by the wall-to-wall score of Hitchcock's films, but he knows exactly when to drop out all sounds and let the silence tell the story.

Family Plot, like all of Universal's Hitchcock releases, has a nice selection of extras. Most important is a nearly hour-long documentary on the film "Plotting Family Plot". While it starts off a little shallow, the behind the scenes look ultimately adds up to a pretty comprehensive view of an underrated film. Most of the cast and several key crew members discuss at length their experiences on the film and their working relationships with the master. Bruce Dern recalls how Al Pacino was originally set to play his role, a casting coup spoiled only by Hitchcock's refusal to pay the high price demanded by the Godfather star. One can only speculate how a collaboration between the method actor and the controlling director would have gone.

Two trailers for Family Plot are included. Usually trailers are barely worth mentioning as special features but with Hitchcock films they are always a delight. They feature the director himself selling the film in his famously deadpan style. Even though they are in rough shape they are totally indispensable.

The disc also includes a selection of still screens with production photos, storyboards of the big car scene, notes on the shoot, bios, and more.

While it certainly shouldn't be the only Hitchcock movie anyone sees Family Plot is a surprisingly spry and loose film from the final period of the filmmaker's career. After an astonishing run that started in silents and ended in the post-code era of foul language, a span that consisted of over 60 films, many of them landmarks of cinema, Family Plot is in many ways the perfect final act for this extraordinary career.

Other Hitchcock reviews:
Jamaica Inn / Rich and Strange
The Trouble with Harry
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 2
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 3
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 4

Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.

E-mail Gil at [email protected]
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