Family Plot (1976)

family1This is from the Shelf of Shame, right? Yep, this is one of those titles that I’ve had sitting un-watched on the shelf for years- in this case, its included in a Hitchcock Blu-ray boxset that I bought back in Sept 2013, which is, gasp, almost seven years ago, now. Family Plot was Hitchcock’s final film and is generally regarded as one of his lesser films so I never had much incentive to watch it (there’s still two other films in that box I haven’t seen yet, so as Darth once said “The shame is strong with this box!” (or something like that). 

So why now? Well, funnily enough it was watching A Severed Head the night before that got me thinking about Family Plot. Now, this is something about going into films utterly blind, in particular. With A Severed Head I expected a horror film or a murder mystery and got neither, and for some reason I also thought Family Plot was a murder mystery, maybe something like Knives Out, and as its from the same era as A Severed Head I just thought it might be timely or fitting… Films of a certain period, whether it be 1960s, 1970s or 1980s etc, they all seem to share a certain commonality in fashions and casting, even if they are wildly different in subject. I think you can get into a certain mood or frame of mind- witness in my case how I’ll have a spell watching Film Noir or Hammer films, sometimes. 

So whats it about? Well,  Family Plot is a comedy thriller, a far cry from the suspenseful nail-biting thriller’s of Hitchcock’s heyday, which is possibly why it has been so ill-regarded. In a way this is really an indication of him being a victim of his own success, as what could really measure up to North By Northwest or Rear Window or Psycho or Vertigo (my personal favourite of his films)? What likely really damns Family Plot is how much it looks like a TV movie, really. There’s no sense of scale or real ambition; its a relatively simple story albeit with the usual Hitchcock twists, but I think this possibly works in the films favour, as it enables some of the characters to actually shine. Blanche (Barbara Harris, who is lovely in this) is a phoney psychic who cons gullible old people out of money, assisted by her cab-driver boyfriend Frank (Bruce Dern, brilliant as always). They hit paydirt with a $10,000 reward (well, this was 1976, remember) if they can track down a rich old woman’s illegitimate nephew who was hidden away to avoid family shame four decades ago. This nephew stands to inherit the Rainbird  family estate worth millions, and while Blanche tells the old woman she will use spirit-world contacts to help her track the nephew down, in reality it will be her boyfriend cab-driver posing as a lawyer doing the decidedly amateur detective work between his cab-driving shifts.

Hey, that sounds pretty fun. Yes it does, doesn’t it, especially when its Bruce Dern doing the sleuthing, that guy is so great in everything. It actually gets better, because the nephew they are after has changed his name to Arthur Adamson (William Devane in fine form) who is a reputable city jeweller by day and a devious kidnapper by night, or something like that. With his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) he kidnaps wealthy people who he ransoms for diamonds. Adamson actually killed his foster-parents decades ago in a house fire (thus having to change his identity) so when he gets wind of Frank asking questions about him and tracking him down, he thinks its someone chasing down that old murder and decides that Frank and Blanche need to be done away with, especially as he has one last big kidnap in progress involving a Bishop (no, really).

Hmm, not bad. I know, right? Its really quite fun, and while it sits uncomfortably close to ‘TV-movie of the week’ territory in execution its really saved by the great cast. The supporting cast is pretty cool too, lots of familiar faces from TV cop shows of the period (which okay, only exacerbates the TV-movie feel of it, really, but you know, its certainly something of a nostalgic factor to it all). The film is quite witty too, and features a great sequence of Frank and Blanche’s car hurtling down a winding mountain road with no brakes and a stuck accelerator (the car having been tampered by one of Adamson’s goons). Going back to that ‘going into films blind’ I mentioned before, I think I’ll actually enjoy this one much more on second viewing, when I’m in the proper mindset of what to expect. Its a far better film than the frankly interminable Torn Curtain, another film from this Hitchcock box that I caught up with a while ago. 

2 thoughts on “Family Plot (1976)

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Interesting coincidence: the other day I watched ‘The Trouble With Harry’ off my ‘Pile of Disinclination’.

    That’s the big pile of movies that I’ve had building up in a cupboard, ones that are probably good and possibly keepers but never cry out to be watched and always get forgotten. I swore I’d get through them this year, and COVID-19 has certainly made the time available to get on with that.

    I didn’t like ‘…Harry’. I won’t be watching ‘Family Plot’.

  2. Pingback: The 2020 List: August – the ghost of 82

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